Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Keeping Vigil with Vietnam

Recent peaceful demonstrations by Vietnamese Catholics seeking the restoration of church property seized by the state have entered unsettling terrain, with participants placed under police investigation...
Parishioners and priests have been holding daily vigils for over a month near Hanoi's main St. Joseph's Cathedral, demanding the return of a house and a block of church land seized by the communist government in the late 1950s.

Tuesday evening more than 100 faithful again defied authorities, praying and singing hymns on the disputed property, where they have erected a large white cross and placed candles and flowers on the building's steps and walls.

They put up rain shelters and lit fires against the winter chill on the 1.1 hectare (2.7 acre) property, which the Hanoi People's Committee has used as a community centre and for parking motorcycles.

After Friday's rallies, when the protestors placed the cross on the site, police launched an investigation into the alleged crimes of property damage, causing social disorder and obstructing officials, the An Ninh Thu Do daily reported.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nguyen Manh Hung, from the capital's central Hoan Kiem district investigative unit, signed a decision Saturday to launch the criminal investigation and sent it to prosecutors, said the police-run newspaper.

A police officer contacted at the investigative unit only told AFP: "I can confirm the signature on this decision but I do not want to exchange views or comments about this matter with you on the telephone."

The state-controlled Hanoi Moi (New Hanoi) newspaper accused leaders of the Hanoi archdiocese of "abusing the belief and trust of followers to turn them into their instruments for their own goals."

Vietnam's government last week stressed that there is no private property in the communist nation, only land-use rights granted by the state.
...more from AsiaNews:
On January 26th last the Peoples Committee of Hanoi released a statement, threatening “extreme action” if demonstrations and the sit-in – ongoing since December 23rd last – were not called off by 5pm yesterday evening.

Signed by Ngo Thi Thanh Hang, the deputy chairwoman of the People's Committee in Hanoi, the statement “ordered” the Hanoi Archbishop to remove the cross and all statues of the Virgin Mary out of the site, and “to submit a report” to her “before 6pm of Sunday 27”.

Meanwhile government media have begun a campaign of misinformation regarding scuffles which took place January 25th, in which some Catholics entered the residence gardens to aid a women being beaten by police because she had entered the area to bring flowers to the statue of the Virgin present in the garden.

Press accuse Hanoi’s Catholics of having forcibly attacked security forces and ask the government to restore order taking severe measures if necessary.

Fr. Joseph Nguyen, who witnessed the January 25th episode, decried the press coverage as a “shameful distortion of the facts”. He tells AsiaNews: the protest prayer was held at 11:30, after the mss. During the demonstration a Hmong woman jumped over the Nunciature fence and placed some flowers at the feet of the statue which is in the grounds of the building”.

“Security personnel found her there and tried to grab hold of her. Without paying any6 attention to her explanation they began to beat her and kick her. There were at least 2 thousand Catholics there as witnesses. A commander of the security guards even shouted orders to his men to beat her to death”.

“Lawyer Lê Quoc Quan, present at the scene came to the woman’s rescue accusing the guards of breaking the law. So then they turned on him dragging him off to an office inside”....

Yesterday in churches throughout the capital Catholics were informed of the ultimatum. Yet despite this they decided to demonstrate once again in front of the Nunciature, with song and prayer.

Today the office of the Archdiocese of Hanoi released a communiqué criticizing state media for not presenting the facts surrounding recent events in a “correct” manner.

State-controlled radio, television and news papers reported that the archdiocese in no way can challenge the ownership of the building because “on 24 November 1961, Fr. Nguyễn Tùng Cương,….. donated the property to the government”.

The archbishop has responded, setting the record straight; ‘.. the competent authority is the diocesan bishop with the consent of the finance council, the college of consulters and those concerned. The diocesan bishop himself also needs their consent to alienate the goods of the diocese”. The communiqué moreover clarifies “we know for sure he [Fr. Nguyễn Tùng Cương] never made any donation, as he had no authority to do so”. ...

State media accuses Hanoi Catholics of attacking security personnel, disturbing public order, erecting illegally the cross in the garden of the site, and spreading distortions about the government on Internet.
Vietnam's 6 million faithful form Southeast Asia's largest Catholic population after the Philippines; on a 2005 trip there, Rome's then-Missions Czar ordained 57 new priests in one fell swoop. The energy and commitment of its diaspora in the States has led to the group's christening as the US church's "New Irish."

PHOTO: AFP/Frank Zeller