Updated at 9.30 a.m. EST on 2012-07-23
Vietnamese Catholic priests have sent a letter to President Truong Tan Sang protesting against what they said were violent local government-backed attacks on a church in a northern Vietnam province which have angered Christians in the communist state.
The priests from the Vinh Diocese charged that the attacks on the church during a Mass in rural Con Coung district in Nghe An province on July 1 were perpetrated by local government officials and military personnel.
Some church members were beaten, with one severely injured and still in the hospital, and a statue of the Virgin Mary was smashed in the attack, reports have said, adding that plainclothes police and local non-Catholic residents were also behind the violence.
“We absolutely reaffirm the fact that the religious repression carried out by civil servants, military soldiers, and thugs at Con Cuong on July 1st and since then is illegal and immoral,” the priests said in the letter, made available to the RFA Vietnamese service this week.
The mob occupied the church before church members called for help from fellow Catholics in nearby parishes, who came in groups and overwhelmed the attackers.
When asked why they attacked the church, some said they had been paid by government authorities to participate, members of the church said.
“In particular, desecration of the holy space and the breaking of the Holy Mary statue were organized acts of public blasphemy that profane Catholic belief and which will result in serious consequences,” the Vinh priests said.
“We think that human endurance is limited, and the current authorities cannot go on arbitrarily using their power and conducting immoral, unruly acts like that for long.”
In response to the attacks, Catholics gathered for a protest in the provincial capital of Vinh on July 15. Catholic news agencies said thousands of supporters turned out for the demonstration despite armored vehicles and riot police dispatched to contain the protest.
Bishop Nguyen Thai Hop of the Vinh Diocese told RFA that the violence at Con Cuong called for higher-level discussion with the authorities.
“We are now re-evaluating the situation. It hasn’t been just at Con Cuong; Con Cuong is just like the last drop in an overflowing glass of water. There are some more points that maybe in time we will sit down and discuss with a higher level of the government in order to evaluate the situation,” he said.
Tensions between the Hanoi government and Vietnam’s Catholic community have led to unrest in recent months over church property seized by the communists during the Vietnam War, as well as other issues.
Religious activity is closely monitored in the communist Vietnamese state, where Catholicism claims more than six million followers, making it the second-largest religion after Buddhism among Vietnam's 86 million people.
The Vatican and Vietnam do not have diplomatic relations but in recent years have begun a reconciliation, although the land issue remains a point of contention.
Vietnam's communist government says it respects the freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity remains under state control.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
CORRECTION – RFA has corrected the name of the president in the first paragraph.