Police are checking the residence registration cards of Catholics in central Vietnam in a bid to intimidate parishioners who fled the area after a land dispute with police, relatives said.
Residents of Hoa Xuan commune, near Da Nang city’s Cam Le district, said families of the Con Dau parishioners were subjected to visits and intimidation by authorities on Aug. 30.
Nearly 40 of the parishioners fled to Thailand in May following a clash with police over a land dispute.
One former resident, who asked to remain anonymous but said he is currently living in Ho Chi Minh City, said family members informed him of the visits.
“I heard that police went to their homes, asked for their residence registrations, and asked where [the missing] had gone,” the former resident said.
“My relatives, who are still in Con Dau, told me not to contact anybody there for the moment. When I tried to call them, all the phones had been turned off,” he said.
“[My relatives] have been searched for three days. [The police] said the reason is only to check people’s registrations. But they want to know where other people have gone and what they have been doing.”
Nguyen Thi Hai, a Catholic from Con Dau parish, said that after news about the Catholics seeking refuge in Thailand spread, authorities searching for her son also began to harass her family.
“The police came to our house five times one night. They knocked on the door. But only the women were at home and we were so scared—we dared not open the door,” Nguyen said.
“They kept coming to tell us to go to police station. They wanted to ask us where my son went, but I told them I didn’t know,” she said.
Nguyen said that at the time, the family had no idea that Le Quang Loi had escaped to Thailand.
“He didn’t take any belongings with him. We don’t know who he went with. We just know he is in Thailand after reading the news on the Internet.”
Nguyen said her other son, Le Thanh Lam, 31, had been arrested following the clash on May 4 along with five others for “disturbing public order” and “attacking state security officials.”
She said she is allowed to bring him food in prison once a week.
“He cried all the time,” Nguyen said, describing her first visit with him since his incarceration.
“When he saw me, he just shook his head and cried. He couldn’t say anything. I could only see him for five minutes. He looked very ill.”
Nguyen said authorities had also been warning families to remain quiet about the events that led the parishioners to flee if foreign delegations attempt to investigate the clash.
“Le Thanh Nam’s wife is so scared. Police came to her house and told her not to say anything. I heard there was an American delegation coming here, but police told everybody not to say anything, no matter what they ask,” she said.
“I don’t know if his wife said anything or not. We are all so scared that we dare not venture out of the house.”
The clash, which occurred last May, left dozens of Catholics injured and dozens more detained as they tried to bury the remains of an elderly woman at a cemetery the government planned to turn into a tourist spot, according to witnesses.
Sixty-six people were beaten by a large group of local police along with what appeared to be hired thugs, witnesses said.
They also said in interviews that police had confiscated the coffin containing the woman’s remains.
Authorities had posted a sign barring burials at the cemetery on April 20, because the land was to be transferred to make way for an eco-tourism resort project.
Shortly after the clash, members of the parish began traveling the nearly 800 miles overland to Thailand via Laos.
Nearly 40 Vietnamese Catholics are currently seeking asylum in the Thai capital Bangkok and say they fear repatriation and persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese government.
Members of the group also said they do not feel safe while they await the United Nations refugee agency’s decision on whether to grant them refugee status and facilitate their resettlement to a third country.
Meanwhile, Vietnam's Foreign Ministry said Sept. 1 it would object to any decision by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to grant political refugee status to the parishioners.
Authorities maintain that the Con Dau clash was “totally unrelated to religion,” according to a report by the German press agency Deutsche Presse Argentur (DPA) quoting Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga.
“There is no religious or political repression in Vietnam, so any decisions to recognize Vietnamese citizens as political refugees are unfounded and inappropriate,” the spokeswoman said.
Nguyen Ba Thanh, Da Nang Communist Party secretary, said simply that “[those arrested] will be tried according to Vietnam law.”
But Tran Lam, a former judge of the Vietnamese Supreme Court said that it was illegal to have arrested the parishioners without an official order.
“In Vietnam, on paper, police can’t do that without an order from the court or from the prosecution office. But in fact, police everywhere in this country act without the permission of those offices. The party gives them that right,” Tran Lam said.
“The police are very powerful—even more than the court system and the prosecution office. By right, [the victims] can ask the prosecution office to interfere, but that office won’t want to do what they are supposed to do,” he said.
“If they interfere, they can get into trouble too. It might go against the will of someone higher up.”
Land disputes between churches and the state in Vietnam have become more common in recent years as the country industrializes.
There have also been demonstrations by Catholics seeking the return of Church property seized, along with many other buildings and farms, more than 50 years ago when communists took power in what was then North Vietnam.
Vietnam is home to nearly 6 million Catholics, the second-largest community in Asia after the Philippines.
Original reporting by Mac Lam and Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Khanh Nguyen and Hanh Seide. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.