BANGKOK—Catholics in Vietnam are stepping up pressure on authorities to return church land that was confiscated decades ago, amid protests by hundreds of Hanoi residents and increasingly stern warnings from the authorities.
Next to St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi, de facto seat of the Vietnamese Catholic Church until the Communists came to power in 1954, parishioners have held daily prayer vigils despite official demands to disperse.
On Jan. 26, the municipal governing body, the Hanoi People's Committee, ordered all protesters to disperse by 5 p.m. Jan. 27, and to remove a crucifix and statue of the Virgin Mary they had erected on the site.
The protesters ignored the order, prompting the official Voice of Vietnam to announce on Jan. 28 that the protest was "the wrong thing to do and affects the lives of people living nearby. This is a serious violation of the State Law Ordinance on Religion and Belief. These people should be strictly dealt with."
The central government spokesman, Le Dung, has also defended the government's position, saying that under Vietnamese law, the state owns all land, and citizens and organizations can only purchase land usage rights.
Hanoi police have meanwhile opened a criminal probe related to the protests.
Parishioners have removed the iron gates to the 2.5-acre property, planted a giant cross at the building's entrance, and set up tents on the grounds.
An official newspaper said their actions violated Vietnamese law, and Hoan Kiem district police have opened an investigation into alleged crimes of damaging property, causing disorder, and obstructing officials from carrying out their duties.
On Jan. 28, the Archbishop of Hanoi took angry aim at official media reports with a letter to the director of Hanoi Television, the editor in chief of New Hanoi newspaper, and the editor in chief of Capital Security newspaper:
As a lawyer, I decided to go in to explain to them and ask them not to behave like that, but they beat me too.
"You have distorted the true facts regarding the land parcel belonging to the Hanoi Archdiocese, and especially the lot of the old Catholic Embassy," the Archbishop wrote in a letter dated Jan. 28, signed and sealed by Rev. Le Trong Cung, and seen by RFA's Vietnamese service.
"The Hanoi Archdiocese has full legal evidence regarding the true ownership of the land parcel and property therein."
Le Quoc Quan, a dissident lawyer in Hanoi and former fellow with the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, joined a procession of thousands of Catholics behind a group of priests on Jan. 26.
Guards stopped and beat a woman who broke through the gate to offer flowers at a statue of the Virgin Mary, Quan said. "As a lawyer, I decided to go in to explain to them and ask them not to behave like that, but they beat me too," Quan said.
"At that time, there were about 2,500 or 3,000 people standing to pray, and all of them witnessed what happened to the lady and me," Quan added. "But later, those guards ran away when they saw too many people were approaching."
One protester who identified himself by the name John Baptist quoted Hanoi Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet as saying Jan. 26 that "the Church of Hanoi called upon its parishioners to come to the premises to pray, and if anyone was put in jail because of praying, I'm pleased to go to prison on behalf of him or her."
"Many people were there to pray even though it's very cold while others continue coming to join them," he said.
The return of land confiscated by the Communists is a major demand of the Vietnamese Catholic Church, which—along with other religions—remains under strict control by the Vietnamese authorities. Some 6 million people in Vietnam are believed to be practicing Catholics, or about 7 percent of the population.
Experts say the authorities have loosened their grip on religion somewhat, mainly in cities, but restrictions remain in force.
Although the constitution and government decrees provide for freedom of worship, the government restricted religious freedom to a significant degree, according to the State Department human rights report released in 2007.
"However, during the year the government continued to relax restrictions, and participation in religious activities continued to grow significantly."
Officially recognized and approved religions in Vietnam are Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Muslim organizations, and these have acquired greater latitude in recent years, the report said.
"In addition to officially recognized religious denominations, numerous non-recognized denominations operated in the country, including independent Buddhists, Baptists, Mennonites, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, the Baha'i Faith, independent Cao Dai and Hoa Hao groups, and ethnic Cham Hindus," it added.
Original reporting by Tra My and Khanh Nguyen for RFA's Vietnamese service. Edited by Khanh Nguyen. RFA-Vietnamese director: Diem Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.