~ Le ViÍt Nam, aujourd'hui. ~
The Vietnam News

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Vietnam tells Catholics to stop prayer vigils

HANOI - Authorities in the Vietnamese capital have told Catholics to stop mass prayer vigils demanding the return of church land seized in the 1950s, a Catholic news website said Wednesday.

For almost a month, thousands of faithful have held prayer vigils in and around Hanoi, representing the faith's largest challenge so far to the communist government. Vietnam, a former French colony, has Southeast Asia's largest Catholic community after the Philippines -- about six million out of 84 million people. The Hanoi People's Committee last week wrote to church leaders telling them to stop the "illegal activities" or face action by the authorities, website www.vietcatholic.net reported, publishing an image of the letter.

"Those activities have disturbed public order and negatively affected the good cooperative relations between the Vietnamese bishop's council, the archbishop and the local authorities," the letter said. The rallies had given a "pretext for wrongdoers to... spread distortions" and "affected the image of Catholics in the community and the improving relation between the State of Vietnam and the Vatican," it said.

The prayer meetings started shortly after Hanoi Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet told his congregation to pray for the return of the former Vatican's delegate house and land, which were confiscated in the late 1950s. Christians have held nightly prayer vigils since December 18 outside the property, located near Hanoi's central St Joseph's Cathedral, with the meetings at times swelling to thousands of people and blocking traffic.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung -- who a year ago became the first communist Vietnamese leader to visit the Vatican -- met Archbishop Kiet during a mass prayer meeting in late December and pledged to consider the issue. Hundreds of Catholics have also held nightly prayer vigils since January 6 in Ha Dong, on the southwestern outskirts of Hanoi, in Ha Tay province, demanding the return of a presbytery seized 30 years ago. Prayer meetings have also continued at the site of a former textile factory near Hanoi's Thai Ha Church that Catholics say was taken in the 1950s. The building has been demolished so the land can be sold.

While all religious activity remains under state control in Vietnam, the communist government started a dialogue with Catholics in the 1990s which led to the milestone Vatican visit last year by Prime Minister Dung. Christian festivals such as Christmas have become popular, with thousands of followers now crowding churches, but religious issues remain sensitive, and hundreds of police have been deployed to the Thai Ha and Ha Dong vigils.

Agence France Presse - January 16, 2007.