By Voice of America (VOA) Correspondent Marianne Brown reporting from Hanoi, Vietnam, special to BosNewsLife.
HANOI, VIETNAM (BosNewsLife)– A tense calm has returned to the streets of Vietnam’s capital Hanoi after hundreds of people marched through the center in an ongoing dispute between the state and the Catholic Church over the use of land.
Friday’s protesters, shouting slogans and waving banners, walked along the banks of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake to submit a request to the city’s People’s Committee asking the state to return land claimed by the church.
The tussle has been going on for decades, but this week the dispute reached a new level when authorities built a sewage treatment center near Thai Ha church in central Hanoi.
The water treatment area is meant to serve a hospital housed in a building once used as a monastery by the church. Catholic lawyer Le Quoc Quan said police started blocking off roads near the hospital without warning and construction began after dark.
“They started at 7 p.m. and [work continued] until 12 a.m. Many people wanted to protest the construction but the [parish priest] told people to stay inside the church and pray,” he explained.
While the construction work was going on, around 300 parishioners stayed inside the church to pray, and to avoid provoking violence, the lawyer said.
The dispute over land has raged since the Communist Party took power and seized control of many properties owned by the church. Priest Nguyen Van Phuong says that for parishioners at Thai Ha church, the protest is about the monastery.
“They first took the monastery from us in 1959 and they built a school in it,” he said.
“In 1972, the school was transformed into a hospital. All of that without our consent.”Lawyer Quan says that according to Vietnamese law, authorities have to inform residents if there is a development plan in the area. However, he claims, Thai Ha parishioners were not notified. It is this issue of consent that is the crux of the argument, said Father Phuong.
“We are not against the project of water treatment in itself but we are against the fact that they proceeded to build it without our consent. We say that when they have so much land and money to make a golf course and luxurious hotels and so many residential projects they can make a hospital for the people.”
The parishioners first sent a petition protesting the planned sewage treatment center to district officials at the beginning of November. Having received no response, they decided to appeal to a higher administrative level – the city’s People’s Committee. If their request is ignored again, Quan says, they will petition the
Earlier protests were not always so sedate. In 2008, supporters staged sit-ins on land adjacent to the church that the state planned to turn into a public park. The protests lasted several months and ended with eight arrests.
Despite the difficulties, Phuong said his congregation is growing in size at a fast pace. However, this is adding to the problem, as state development projects “eat away at land” designated for worship, he added.
Now space is becoming more limited for activities like Sunday school, training for monks and pro-life groups.
“Before the revolution we had over 61,000 square meters. Now they have taken all that from us and we have just 2,000 square meters. In the meanwhile, the number of Christians has grown immensely,” the priest said. “Now every weekend we have from 15,000 to 20,000 parishioners, so we asked for the hospital to be removed…to somewhere more convenient for a hospital.”
The dispute is even attracting non-Catholics. Among them is Internet writer Bui Thanh Hieu, who took part in the protest on Friday, November 20. Hieu said he wants “to tell people what is happening at the church because the media in Vietnam is guided by the state,” so “access to free information is very limited.”
As yet there has been no official comment on the protests. However, in response to a demonstration by thousands of Catholics in Vinh City in August, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said issues with Catholics are related to land, not religion. “Respect for human rights is written in the constitution,” she said, and “is observed in reality. (Parts of this news story also airs via the Voice of America (VOA) network).