A group of Catholics in Vietnam held a rare protest demanding that local officials in the capital Hanoi halt the filling of a lake on property they say belongs to their parish, according to priests and church members on Friday.
Followers of the Thai Ha Redemptorist Church in Dong Da district held the protest outside of the local People’s Committee office on Thursday, carrying banners which said the decision by authorities to fill the 18,200-square-meter (195,900-square-foot) Ba Giang lake was in violation of the law.
Followers of the parish group say the longstanding land dispute stems from a “state policy” of limiting the influence of religion in communist Vietnam, where freedom of worship is tightly controlled.
No one was sent Thursday from the People’s Committee office to meet with the protesters, who dispersed after security guards tore down their banners, church members told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
The protest followed a complaint dated Oct. 16 that the group had sent to Hanoi People’s Committee chairman Nguyen The Thao, calling on the government to cease filling the lake, which it said was an infringement on the legal rights of the Thai Ha church.
The complaint was never answered, members of the group said, and calls by RFA to Dong Da’s People’s Committee office, People’s Council office, and the office of Land and Urban Management received no answer.
Priest Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong told RFA that an increasing number of people from the local community had sought to join Thai Ha parish and that the church wanted the government to return the entire six-hectare (15-acre) plot it claims to have owned since 1928.
“Right now we only have 2,700 square meters (29,000 square feet) of the total six hectares, while our demand is growing,” Phong said.
“Every Sunday we have about 15,000 people coming to attend service, but we don’t have anywhere to hold classes and the premises are not big enough to meet the demand,” he said.
“We have asked the government to return our Ba Giang lake, which is now [being filled], or give us new land. That land legally belongs to us and the government’s documents also confirm that.”
A church member who spoke on condition of anonymity said that so many area children had been coming for Bible classes on Sundays that study sessions had to be organized in the yard.
“There are many more children attending classes now—every Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. there are hundreds of them,” he said, adding that the church did not have enough room to host evening activities either.
“Many people want to know more about the Bible, but we don’t have room to hold classes … We lack a lot, but [the authorities] don’t care.”
According to parishioners, the six hectares of land in Dong Da district have belonged to Thai Ha since it was bought by Canadian priests in 1928, and usage of Ba Giang lake was never granted to any individual or organization through legal contract.
They say district officials contend that Priest Nguyen Ngoc Bich signed a document handing all six hectares of the land over to the government in 1961, but have been unable to provide evidence of the document despite repeated requests.
The church has actively pursued its claims to the land since 1996, demanding that the land be returned, but local officials continue to carry out “illegal construction” on the plot.
A second church member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the government stands to benefit from developing the land for its own purposes, its real aim is to reduce the influence of the church in Vietnam, which strictly controls religious freedom.
“Actually, they likely have something against our religion, so that is why they repress us,” he said.
“They use their power to take our assets, and we can’t claim them back.”
Thai Ha’s Phong said that the government’s refusal to return the land is in line with “state policy,” which he said is “one of limiting religions.”
“If they can’t destroy a religion from the inside, they attack it from the outside and repress the development of the religion. This policy makes land disputes difficult to resolve,” he said.
“Their policy on religion never changes, and when the policy will not be changed, nothing can be solved.”
Catholicism claims some 6 million followers in Vietnam, making it the second largest religion after Buddhism among Vietnam's 92.5 million people.
Vietnam and the Holy See—the government of the Catholic Church—have not had formal diplomatic relations since Vietnam’s communist government took over in 1975, but have been working toward closer ties since resuming dialogue in 2007 with the establishment of a Joint Working Group.
Last month, officials from Vietnam and the Vatican held talks on prospects of restoring full diplomatic ties.
Vietnam's communist government says it respects the freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity remains under state control.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.