Vietnamese authorities have moved in to begin work on a sewage reservoir in Hanoi even as negotiations were under way with Catholic parishioners who have opposed the project intruding into church grounds.
The communist government deployed workers and equipment for the project on Thursday morning Hanoi time, a day after up to 400 parishioners launched vigil prayers at the Thai Ha Redemptorist parish church in protest against the project.
Father Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong of the Thai Ha parish in central Hanoi said the church group was still in the midst of negotiations with authorities over the planned sewage reservoir when security personnel and workers moved equipment into the area under the cover of night.
“We received information on Wednesday that the authorities were going to move in and begin to construct the sewage reservoir,” Phong said in a phone interview early in the morning on Thursday Hanoi time.
Phong said the local government had mobilized a large group of people from nearby communes at the June 1 Park to provide security for the construction site, although he was unsure of an exact number.
“Now they are bringing in the equipment and personnel. We are worried that they will create disorder,” he said. “To me, doing this under the cover of night shows the lack of justice. If this action was just, they could carry it out during the daytime.”
Riot police were seen stationed on a road leading to the church as construction equipment was moved to the site.
Phong said the church would not relent in its opposition to the project but would tread carefully.
“This fight will be a long fight—we know from past experience. The government can easily find a reason to start an unnecessary conflict and we must avoid that at all costs,” he said.
“For now, we will wait and pray.”
Thai Ha parishioners say the church is part of a six-hectare (15-acre) property that was illegally acquired by the Hanoi government several years after taking power from the French in 1954.
Authorities have since built a hospital and several other structures on the land, which is now worth millions of dollars. The sewage reservoir is being built to service the hospital on the grounds which had previously been home to a monastery.
Phong said contacts within the local government warned him to proceed cautiously in protest against the authorities’ planned project.
“They said that they agree the action is wrong, but they warned that if our church members try to protest, they could be killed,” he said.
“I can’t confirm this, but it sounds believable.”
Authorities could not be reached for comment on the ongoing land dispute.
Phong said authorities had never officially informed the church that work on the project was to go ahead.
“We only heard about the project through a public service announcement—never an official letter sent to the church. We want to continue dialogue to solve this problem and we want to avoid any unnecessary clashes,” he said.
Phong said the large number of police and volunteer security personnel brought in to defend the sewage reservoir construction had led the parishioners to grow suspicious of the government’s motives.
“Some are questioning if this is just a move to eliminate our ownership of the church.”
Parishioners say the reservoir is just the latest example of a government plan to reclaim the land.
In 2008, Thai Ha parishioners held a series of rallies calling for the return of other church property seized by the state.
At the time, a court in Hanoi convicted seven parishioners to suspended sentences of 12 to 15 months in prison for disturbing public order and damaging property, while another was given a warning. All received two years of probation.
As many as 20,000 followers cram into the modest church for worship every weekend.
Catholicism claims more than 6 million followers in Vietnam, making it the second largest religion after Buddhism among Vietnam's 86 million people.
The Vatican and Vietnam do not have diplomatic relations but in recent years have begun a reconciliation, although the land issue remains a point of contention.
Vietnam's communist government says it respects the freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity remains under state control.
Reported by Khanh An for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.