As many as 150 Vietnamese Catholics held a rare protest in the country’s capital Friday calling on authorities to return land they say belongs to their church.
Parishioners marched around the city’s central Hoan Kiem lake displaying signs which read “What was borrowed must be returned to the people” while making their way to a local government office, where they delivered a petition spelling out their demands.
The protest marks one of the first times in recent memory that Hanoi’s Catholic community has taken to the streets en masse. Religious activity is closely monitored in the communist Vietnamese state.
Before the march, Father Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong said the parishioners were motivated to action after authorities began construction of a sewage reservoir on land belonging to the Thai Ha Redemptorist parish church early on Thursday morning Hanoi time.
“We believe that we are in the right as the monastery land [where the reservoir is being built] belongs to the church,” Phong said.
“The government’s planned reservoir is illegal and the Catholic priests and parishioners feel that we must raise our voices in protest to protect our rights.”
As the march got underway at around 9:00 a.m. Hanoi time, a participant told RFA that “worshippers from many different parishes have joined us” and that dozens of police were monitoring the situation, but had not intervened.
After marching around the lake and through the city, the parishioners arrived at the Hanoi People’s Committee where they presented officials with a petition asking for the return of church land, but were instructed to bring their demands to the petition office.
At the petition office, parishioners met with officials and again reiterated their claim that the land marked for construction of the sewage reservoir belonged to the church and that it should be returned along with any other land on which the government had built structures in the past.
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.
Parishioners also requested that authorities end "unfavorable" state-run television and newspaper coverage of the recent events surrounding the church, which they said was leading to conflict between the country’s Catholic and non-Catholic communities.
Lastly, they demanded that authorities put an end to construction on church land under the cover of night.
Under cover of night
On Thursday morning at around 1:00 a.m. Hanoi time, Vietnamese authorities began work on the sewage reservoir even as negotiations were under way with the Thai Ha parishioners, deploying workers and equipment a day after up to 400 church members launched vigil prayers in protest against the project.
At the time, Father Phong said authorities had never officially informed the church that work on the project was to go ahead.
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. They 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 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 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 Khanh Nguyen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.