BANGKOK—A top Catholic Church leader in Vietnam has defended peaceful protests by hundreds of Vietnamese Catholics for the return of Church lands seized by the Communist government in the 1950s, following the arrest of several demonstrators.
“I don’t see anything illegal in this matter, because the lot of land right beside their church belongs to them,” Hanoi Archbiship Ngo Quang Kiet said in an interview, referring to protests by several hundred Vietnamese Catholics from Hanoi's Thai Ha parish for the return of parish property.
Some protesters have been beaten, and in recent days several were arrested, according to witnesses.
The official New Hanoi newspaper on Aug. 21 urged the archbishop to call on protesters to stop demonstrating, but Kiet said he hasn’t done so.
"We don’t have any tools or weapons in our hands, so we only know to say our prayers."
Hanoi Archbiship Ngo Quang Kiet
“I have not appealed to them [the protesters] to stop their prayers. I’ve asked them to say their prayers constantly, and especially to say them in peace and without violence, to pray in safety,” Kiet said.
“There is nothing that violates the law, and there is no disruption of social order and security at all and there is no interference in the lives of others, either," he said.
No access to media
Kiet also criticized the Vietnamese government’s monopoly of the country’s mass media
“The reason why you don’t see or hear the opinions of the Office of the Archbishop in the mass media is that such means of communication belongs to the government, and that we don’t have any right to use it to express our viewpoints,” Kiet said.“Of course I’ve appealed the government to listen to others. People have their needs and aspirations, so the government should listen to their voices,” he said.
“I don’t see anything illegal in this matter, because the lot of land right beside their church belongs to them, so there is nothing that violates the law, and there is no disruption of social order and security at all, and there is no interference in the lives of others, either. So I think that nothing in this matter is illegal.”
“We don’t have any tools or weapons in our hands, so we only know to say our prayers. And we always pray that the Catholics will be in safety and that justice will appear,” Kiet said.
The land at issue was part of the capital's Thai Ha parish until the mid-1950s when communists took power from the French in North Vietnam and seized most church land.
The government has used most of the six-hectare (15-acre) property to build a hospital, a now-demolished textile factory, and other structures. Government official say the church gave them the land decades ago, but Catholics dispute that claim.
The state-run Vietnam News Agency (VNA) has reported that police have initiated “legal proceedings” against people involved in the dispute after Christians broke part of a wall and entered the property on Aug. 15.
After the Philippines, Vietnam has Southeast Asia's largest Catholic community, numbering about 6 million.
In its most recent report on human rights around the world, the U.S. State Department noted that while the Vietnamese constitution and government provide for freedom of worship, “the government persisted in placing restrictions on the organized, political activities of religious groups,” although overall respect for religious freedom improved during 2007.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom last week criticized Vietnam’s record on religious freedom, citing abuses against the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, indigenous sects such as Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, and discrimination against Christians.
The commission urged the State Department to re-designate Vietnam as a "country of particular concern" under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.
Original reporting by Tra Mi for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.