Two unidentified men vandalized a Catholic church Wednesday in Vietnam’s Nghe An province that has been targeted several times after members of its congregation criticized the government’s handling of a devastating toxic waste spill off the country’s coast last year, sources said.
According to a resident of Son Hai commune, in Nghe An’s Quynh Luu district, and video footage obtained by RFA’s Vietnamese Service, the two men approached the gate outside of Van Thai church before dawn on Wednesday and began hurling stones at the building.
One of the men then proceeded to urinate on the gate and entryway to the church, which belongs to the Van Thai sub-parish of Song Ngoc parish, whose priests have led protests against Hanoi’s settlement with the Taiwan-owned Formosa steel plant over its toxic waste spill in April 2016.
“Everyone was sleeping at the time, but a camera had been set up to monitor the area,” the resident told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“In the morning, parishioners checked the camera and saw what had happened, so they posted it on Facebook.”
An accompanying video of the church in daylight on Wednesday shows rocks scattered throughout the church’s courtyard, as well as broken panes of glass above the building’s front doors.
The resident said that some parishioners had told him their houses were pelted with stones on the evening prior to when the church was vandalized, “but they didn’t dare go out to see, for fear of being hit.”
Other sources said that on Tuesday night a group of young men wearing T-shirts and carrying banners depicting the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam drove motorcycles to Van Thai church, where they began “screaming and creating public disorder.”
Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc told RFA that a group of nuns told him about the pre-dawn vandalism when he visited Van Thai church to pray on Wednesday afternoon.
“The nuns told me that they heard people throwing stones at the church and said they could see them through the camera system, but were too scared to go out,” he said.
Thuc said that after previous incidents at the church—including one last week, in which “hundreds of people” carrying bricks and pipes threatened the priest and his congregation, before bombarding them with projectiles—police had been ordered to patrol the area every night “to guard people against riots.”
“The authorities knew about these incidents,” he said, questioning why the police failed to take action against the vandals on Wednesday night.
“They even talked to the bishops and priests and promised that they wouldn’t happen again.”
The chairman and police chief of Son Hai commune refused to comment about Wednesday’s incident when contacted by RFA, as did a former police officer who had previously overseen Quynh Luu district.
In June last year, the Formosa Plastics Group acknowledged it was responsible for the release of toxic chemicals from its massive steel plant located at the deep-water port in neighboring Ha Tinh province’s Ky Anh district.
The spill killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen and tourism industry workers jobless in four central provinces. Vietnam's government said in a report to the National Assembly in July that the disaster had harmed the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people, including 41,000 fishermen, and the labor ministry said this week that 18,000 idled fisherman have had to seek work abroad.
The company pledged U.S. $500 million to clean up and compensate people affected by the spill, but the government has faced protests over the amount and terms of the settlement, as well as the slow pace of payouts.
Van Thai sub-parishioners, and other members of the coastal Song Ngoc parish, claim they were directly impacted by the Formosa spill and have complained that the government failed to include them in the compensation package.
Vietnam’s one-party communist state closely controls and monitors the Catholic community, the second largest religious group in the country after Buddhists. Vietnamese Catholics have also been at the forefront of Formosa protests.
In August, more than 200 policemen blocked and assaulted some 4,000 Catholic parishioners who tried to march to Ky Anh township’s administrative offices to protest government inaction over their loss of livelihood following the massive pollution-linked fish kill.
Before that, the marchers tried several times to demand relief from provincial authorities, but the police always stopped them, according to protesters.
Formosa Plastics’ U.S. $10.6 billion steel complex in Ha Tinh includes a steel plant, a power plant and a deep sea port, and is one of the largest foreign investments in Vietnam.
Last week, an explosion occurred at the steel mill, one day after the facility came online for the first time since causing the catastrophic toxic waste spill in 2016.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.