Police in Vietnam’s capital arrested some 20 Catholics and their parish priest Friday as they marched to demand the return of what they say is land belonging to their church, according to a parishioner.
The protest marks the second time Hanoi’s Thai Ha parishioners have taken to the streets to voice their concerns after officials built a sewage reservoir near the church last month.
A parishioner who joined the protest said worshippers gathered in the morning and marched around Hoan Kiem lake to the capital’s municipal office.
The group requested that authorities return all of the six-hectare (15-acre) property they say was illegally acquired by the government several years after taking power from the French in 1954.
“The government has said they were simply carrying out renovations, but in fact they are trying to eliminate the parish,” the parishioner, who asked to remain anonymous, told RFA as he left the protest.
“This morning we took to the street peacefully and the government sent police and security guards.”
The parishioner said the group of at least 150 parishioners submitted a petition to officials detailing their claims to the government but were confronted by the authorities on their return.
“Father Nguyen Van Phuong was arrested as well as a number of other parishioners, put in a bus, and sent off. We don’t know where they are,” he said.
“I was also nearly arrested, but we fought back and I escaped. Now I am on my way home.”
The parishioner said that Nguyen Van Phuong suffers from high blood pressure and has not been well recently.
On Nov. 18, as many as 150 Thai Ha parishioners held a similar protest in Hanoi one day after authorities constructed the sewage reservoir under the cover of night.
They marched around Hoan Kiem lake displaying signs which read “What was borrowed must be returned to the people” while making their way to the municipal office to file a complaint with local authorities.
Police eventually dispersed the rally.
That protest represented one of the first times in recent memory that Hanoi’s Catholic community had publicly marched en masse. Religious activity is closely monitored in the communist Vietnamese state.
Since taking control of the land, authorities have built a hospital and several other structures, and the property is now worth millions of dollars. The sewage reservoir was built to service the hospital on the grounds which had previously been home to a monastery.
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 handed seven parishioners 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 in Vietnam
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 RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.