Vietnam Catholics Hold Vigil for Land
HANOI — Thousands of Catholics blocked a busy street in Vietnam's capital Friday in a rare public demonstration, chanting and praying for the Communist government to return land once owned by the church.
A priest in a white robe carrying a large cross led a procession of parishioners, accompanied by a marching band, from St. Joseph's Cathedral in downtown Hanoi to the adjacent site of the former Vatican embassy.
The embassy — one of many church properties taken over by the Communist government after French colonialists were ousted in 1954 — is one of several sites the church is asking the government to return. Church officials say they have documents showing the 2.5-acre property belongs to the diocese.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung insisted all land in Vietnam belongs to the state and no one is permitted to own private plots.
"Individuals and organizations only have land use rights," Dung said at a regular news briefing Thursday.
"The Hanoi People's Committee will consider the needs of land use by the Hanoi church and will handle it in accordance with the land laws," he said.
Church members have been holding daily prayer vigils at the site since late December, but Friday's gathering was the largest because many people from outside Hanoi had come to the capital to celebrate Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung's 90th birthday. No arrests were made and police did not break up the event.
"I haven't seen anything like this before," said parishioner Nguyen Ngoc Vinh, 70, who stood quietly in the rain as the marching band and a huge drum played. "We are not protesting, but we are just asking the government to give it back."
Church officials called on parishioners to show restraint as a number of protesters began pushing against the fence. At least two people who scaled the property's locked iron gate were beaten by guards.
"They did not respect human rights and the rights of religious freedom," said Trinh Duy Hung, a priest at the site, referring to the guards.
Protests are prohibited in Vietnam and most gatherings involving large numbers of people are broken up by police.
A police official said city officers were not involved in the clash. He declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He said police were not inside church property. Uniformed officers were seen blocking traffic and watching the demonstration from the street.
"They seized my camera and I was beaten by five or six security guards," said Le Quoc Quan, a lawyer and pro-democracy dissident who was detained for three months last year after returning from a fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. State Department pressured Hanoi for Quan's release, which came just before Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet made a trip to Washington. Foreign diplomats, including representatives from the U.S. Embassy, were present at Friday's vigil.
There are about 6 million Catholics, the second-largest faith after Buddhism, in the country of 86 million people.
By Margie Mason - The Associated Press - January 25, 2007.