Vietnamese authorities have declared their intention to tear down a Buddhist temple and two Christian churches in southern Ho Chi Minh City to make way for a lucrative development scheme, drawing protests from religious leaders and local congregants, sources said.
In response to the government warning, an Interfaith Council representing five Vietnamese Christian and Buddhist groups issued an online public appeal this week for support in blocking the confiscation of the buildings and the land in the Thu Thiem area in the country’s largest city.
Addressed to governments, international human rights groups, news outlets, and “all Vietnamese Compatriots,” the Sept. 15 petition, which gained almost 600 signatures in the first 30 hours of its posting, notes the government’s threat to close the Lien Tri Pagoda by the end of September.
“Many other religious institutions are under the same threat,” the petition adds, “including the Thu Thiem Catholic Church, the Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross; not to mention already shuttered facilities owned by the Vietnam Evangelical Church and Mennonite Church.”
“The Interfaith Council of Vietnam urgently appeal[s] for your support and cooperation in protecting all religious institutions in Thu Thiem by cosigning the Council’s Statement Regarding Religious Institutions in the New Thu Thiem City Development.”
The notice to close the Lien Tri Pagoda was issued Aug. 18 by officials from Ho Chi Minh City’s An Khanh Ward, District 2, the petition noted, adding that the decision could be implemented at any time between the dates of Sept. 8 to Sept. 30.
Land clearance 'an excuse'
Authorities have offered payment of VND 5.4 billion (about U.S. $274,000) in compensation for the pagoda and its land, resident abbot Thich Khong Tanh told RFA’s Vietnamese Service this week in an interview.
“I don’t want to accept the offer,” Tanh said. “But they said they will go ahead with their work according to the law, regardless of what I want.”
“We know that the government hasn’t liked Lien Tri for quite some time because we don’t belong to the government’s Buddhist church. We belong to the [outlawed] Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Church, so we have been isolated and cracked down on for many years.”
“Now, they are using this land clearance to eliminate us,” he said.
"The government will do whatever it wants."
'Land of gold'
The Thu Thiem area of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is now targeted for development as a “new urban area,” with zones set aside for commercial, residential, administrative, entertainment, and educational purposes.
No plans have been made however for the establishment of temples, churches, or even offices for charity services in Thu Thiem, which has long been seen by developers as a “land of gold,” the Interfaith Council of Vietnam noted in a statement.
“How can people’s religious and spiritual needs be met when long term development gives no consideration for religious institutions?,” the Council asked. “How can freedom of religion as prescribed by the Constitution be accomplished?”
“The government wants us to move so they can build their new city here,” a nurse at the Convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Whenever we have a meeting with the government, we say that this is a decision to be made by all 600 members of our church.”
“We have already given the government 360,000 square meters (3.8 million square feet) of our land for the people to use,” the nurse said, adding, “We have only about 10,800 square meters (1.1 million square feet) left, and now they want us to move.”
“This is not fair to our convent. We want the government to reconsider,” she said.
Attacks on religion
Heiner Bielefeldt, a special U.N. envoy, accused Vietnam’s authoritarian government in July of “serious violations” of religious freedom and said that police had harassed and intimidated people he had wanted to meet in the course of his investigations.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion said during his 11-day visit that the violations affected independent groups of Buddhists, including Hoa Hao-Buddhists, and of the Cao Dai religion, some Protestant communities, and activists within the Catholic Church.
In an annual report on international religious freedoms released in July, the U.S. State Department said that Vietnam showed signs of improvement in 2013, but highlighted a number of continuing concerns.
The State Department included Vietnam on its list of Countries of Particular Concern for abuses of religious freedom in 2004 but removed it from the blacklist two years later.
It has since ignored repeated calls by rights groups and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) to reinstate the country’s designation.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.