The head priest of a Catholic monastery in central Vietnam’s Thua Thien-Hue province has sent a petition to national and foreign officials in the country protesting what it says is the local government’s illegal appropriation of its land, RFA’s Vietnamese Service has learned.
Antoine Nguyen Van Duc, head of Vietnam’s Thien An Catholic monastery sent the petition dated June 27 to the provincial People’s Committee, the Roman Catholic archdiocese in Hue, the European Union commission in Vietnam, and the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, complaining about the illegal seizure of land and the disrespect authorities had shown to a cross.
Hoang Ngoc Khanh, the director of Thua Thien-Hue People’s Committee office, told RFA that authorities there received the petition on the day it was written and sent an official request to central-level authorities for a meeting to discuss this issue.
“We will arrange a time to invite representatives from the monastery to meet with us to discuss the issue and address it in accordance with the law and the constitution,” he said.
Founded by French missionaries in June 1940, Thien An monastery is home to a community of priests, nuns, and seminarians who carry out pastoral activities in three different churches, according to a May 2015 article on the AsiaNews website.
Hue Archdiocese, which covers both Thua Thien-Hue province and Quang Tri Province, included nearly 70,000 Catholics in 78 parishes as of December 2010, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam.
No right to appropriate land
Cao Duc Loi, a priest who lives at the monastery, said local authorities have acted wrongly if the appropriation is measured against the constitution.
“According to the law, the prime minister has no right to appropriate our land,” he told RFA. “Their order to take our land was signed by Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Cong Tan in 1998. It is the wrong thing to do because the prime minister has no authority to order the appropriation of our land.”
The priest, who requested anonymity, also pointed out that the government cannot issue two orders at the same time—one to appropriate the land and the other to evict those who live on it, as it has done.
The relevant law specifies that the decision to appropriate land must be made first, and an eviction notice can only be issued if the legal procedures fail, he said.
“Those two wrongdoings have not been addressed fully, but now they have committed another wrongdoing by issuing another order from the state’s inspection office,” Loi said.
Furthermore, the prime minister’s order was to appropriate land not in use, but the order that officials read at the monastery included land in use, he said.
“We will be the winner if this is done according to the law, but we will lose if they ignore the law,” he said.
Marking their territory
Cao Duc Loi told RFA that the issue began on Jan. 1, 2015 when authorities prevented the priests from placing a roof over an outdoor shrine honoring the Virgin Mary on the pretext of violating the pine forest. Forest rangers set up a tent next to the shrine to monitor it.
The local government administration had planned to seize 100 acres of the monastery’s land and an adjacent structure for the construction of a leisure center and amusement park, AsiaNews reported at the time.
Government administrators hired thugs to try to frighten the Catholics to convince them to leave the area, and police later raided the facility and threatened to occupy it, the report said.
“After that we tried to redesign our garden where there is a cross on Calvary Hill,” Loi said, in a reference to an area the monastery named for the site outside Jerusalem’s walls where Jesus Christ was crucified.
“Authorities claimed we erected the cross on their land, and they took it down [while] we all knelt down to pray,” he said, adding that the priests took two photos of the incident—one showing them praying and the other showing authorities stepping on the cross. The priest included the photos with the petition they recently sent.
Then authorities placed a pole on the monastery’s grounds to let people know that the land had been appropriated.
Whenever there is a land conflict, the government erects a pole on the disputed land to avoid any further disputes, Loi said.
“But we have never had any disputes with anyone [over land], so the decision to put a pole on our land is illegal,” he said.
Road to the garden
On June 26, police stopped the priests from building a road leading to the monastery’s garden, Loi said.
But Hoang Ngoc Khanh denied this, saying, “That is what they said, but it did not happen.”
Cao Duc Loi, who accused Khanh of lying, said authorities brought many local women to the monastery when they met with the priests on June 26.
“We asked those women to go outside because they did not have anything to do with our meeting with the government,” he said. “They used women to humiliate us.”
Authorities in the one-party state have long repressed the Catholic church in Vietnam and subjected it to forced evictions, land grabs, and attacks on priests and their followers.
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.