Fox News - Fair & Balanced

Search Site

Hanoi: Church must end vigils or face legal action

Monday, September 22, 2008

HANOI, Vietnam —  Communist authorities in Hanoi have threatened to take legal action against the city's archbishop unless he immediately disbands illegal prayer vigils to demand the return of former church lands, state media reported Monday.

The government campaign against Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet escalated over the weekend, with state television calling into question his patriotism in an apparent attempt to turn public opinion against him.

State-controlled newspapers on Monday quoted a letter to Kiet from Hanoi Mayor Nguyen The Thao, accusing the cleric of instigating unrest.

"Stop your illegal acts immediately or you will be dealt with according to the law," Thao was quoted as writing. "You have a responsibility to persuade priests and parishioners to abide by the law."

Prayer is only allowed at church under Vietnamese law. The reports did not specify what form the legal action might take.

Catholics have been holding sporadic prayer vigils this year to demand the return of two plots of land once owned by the church but seized decades ago by communist authorities. One is near Thai Ha Church, not far from the center of Hanoi, while the other is the site of the former Vatican Embassy, next to St. Joseph's Cathedral, the city's biggest church.

Later Monday, Hanoi officials warned four Thai Ha priests that they could also face legal action if they do not stop prayer vigils a that site, state-run television reported.

The Catholic land disputes are among many land issues that arose after Vietnam's communist government took power in 1954. The government seized many properties from private landowners, including the Catholic Church, to redistribute to those who fought in the communist revolution.

The vigils have put great pressure on Hanoi officials, who are eager to project an image of religious tolerance but determined to maintain political control.

On Friday, the city began bulldozing the grounds of the former Vatican Embassy to clear the land for a public park and library.

Over the weekend, the crowds near the site grew as hundred of Catholics attended weekend masses at St. Joseph's. They were closely watched by riot police and other security officers.

City officials say the land belongs to Hanoi and will not be returned to the church. Church officials say they have old documents proving the land belongs to them.

During a weekend discussion of the dispute, city officials repeated an offer to give the church three parcels of land elsewhere in the city. But church leaders declined, saying the former Vatican land is sacred to Catholics.

State media called the archbishop's patriotism into question when he made a clumsy statement during the meeting that was later broadcast on television.

Talking about the need to strengthen Vietnam's economy, Kiet said Vietnamese who travel abroad "feel ashamed" when they show their passports.

Vietnamese television described Kiet's remark as "serious insult to the nation and all patriotic Vietnamese," but Catholics said his remarks had been taken out of context.

The city announced last week that it would use the St. Joseph's site for a library and park. Catholics have long said they believed the city planned to sell the valuable land to private developers. Monday's report on state TV said city officials also plan to transform the 20,000 square-yard (17,000-square-meter) Thai Ha site into a public park.

Religion is a sensitive subject in Vietnam, where the government closely monitors religious organizations.

Catholicism _ with about 6 million adherents _ is the country's second largest faith after Buddhism.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



most active