Date: Tuesday 16 September 2008
Subj: Vietnam: Prayer vigils push government to breaking point.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
Vietnam's Protestant and Catholic churches have long sought the return of properties seized by the Communist authorities since they came to power. In the north the confiscations date back to the 1950's, while in the south they date back to 1975.
For years the church's petitions have been rejected and ignored. Occasionally however the government will offer minimalist appeasement in the hope of silencing Christian leaders and satisfying international observers. However, these "gifts" are then followed by more property confiscations and demolitions, leaving the church feeling frustrated and discouraged.
But things have changed and a new wind is blowing. Many Vietnamese are seeing something they have never seen before. In late December 2007, thousands of Catholics in Hanoi rallied publicly -- armed with flowers, crosses and candles -- to pray for the return of church land and property.
On 28 March 2008 the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) (ECV(S)) issued a petition not this time to the government, but to the global body of Christ seeking prayer support in their struggle with the Communist authorities over property, interference and discrimination. That petition: "A Call to Prayer -- To the Church of God Everywhere", can be found at Link 1.
A Spirit of prayer seems to have descended upon the Vietnamese Church giving the believers courage, drive and a determination never before seen -- and the government is clearly rattled.
As the Catholic prayer vigils grow and spread, Vietnam's Communist government is working overtime to discredit the churches and their leaders and justify its own intransigence and hostility through disinformation and slander disseminated through the State-run media.
But despite the slander, police violence, threats of arrest, "extreme actions" and an imminent crackdown, the protests continue day and night in all weather and with growing numbers.
The prayer vigils are pushing the government to breaking point. But will they result in a breakthrough in Church-State relations, or an escalation in violent repression?
The situation is not looking good. The government appears to be closing the door on dialogue, police are being deployed and the State-run media are describing the main prayer vigil in Thai Ha as an "organisational crime" plotted by "hostile forces" against the communist government. (Link 2)
SEEKING THE RETURN OF CONFISCATED PROPERTIES
The Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) (ECV(S)) petitioned the government three times during 2007 concerning discrimination, government interference in church affairs, and the status of the 265 ECV(S) properties the Communist authorities have seized since 1975 -- but to no avail. The government did actually return a few small properties for appeasement sake but then in November and December of 2007 demolished two more ECV(S) properties.
On 15 December 2007 the Catholic Archbishop of Hanoi, Joseph Ngo Quan Kiet, requested the government restore to the church the building that served as the Vatican ambassador's residence in Hanoi during the 1950s. The Communist authorities requisitioned the building in 1959, and it subsequently came to be used as a restaurant.
Sandro Magister describes what happened next: "Last December 15, the archbishop of Hanoi, Joseph Ngo Quan Kiet, asked for the building to be given back, and called upon the faithful to pray that justice be done.
"The faithful took him at his word. Since December 18, every evening, they have gathered in front of the fence outside the former nunciature, praying and carrying flowers and candles. On Christmas Eve, there were 5,000 of them.
"On December 30, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung came among them. Pushing through the crowd, he entered the archbishop's residence, where he spent fifteen minutes meeting with Archbishop Ngo Quan Kiet. As he left, he was applauded.
"But the protest did not die out. On the contrary, it expanded to other areas of the city.
"On January 6, the Christian feast of the Epiphany, the faithful of the parish of Thai Ha, in Hanoi, began to demonstrate to ask for the restitution of land and buildings confiscated by the regime [from the Redemptorist Order], and now occupied by various government offices and a factory . . .
"On January 12, in Ho Chi Minh City, thousands of faithful took to the streets for a vigil of solidarity with the faithful of Hanoi. The superior of the Redemptorists, Fr Joseph Cao Dinh Tri, appealed in a message to the ruling 379/TTG, which requires the authorities to give back to their owners the goods and lands confiscated over time, if these are no longer necessary to the government for critical purposes. He also recalled the ordinance PL-UBTVQH11 of 2004, which states: 'The legal ownership of sites of religious interest is protected by the law: any violation is prohibited.'
"During those same days, the faithful of the city of Ha Dong, about 25 miles south of Hanoi, also begin demonstrating peacefully for the restitution of a building confiscated from a parish.
"On January 24, a government delegation returned to meet the archbishop of Hanoi. During those same hours, groups of faithful broke through into the garden of the former nunciature, planting a cross there before they were removed by the police . . ." (Link 3)
Sandro Magister goes on to list subsequent meetings between Catholic leaders and government officials that eventually culminated in the 27 February statement by the Patriot Front Official for Religious Affairs who declared that the government can no longer ignore the legitimate request for the former nunciature to be restored to the church.
The Catholics, however, were not appeased and the prayer vigils have continued and spread. As Magister reports (May 2008): "Since March 17, in Ho Chi Minh City, hundreds of sisters and faithful have met every day to pray in front of a building taken away from the sisters of the charitable order 'Vinh Son', in the past turned into a bordello and now about to be demolished to make room for a hotel.
"On May 20, the protest extended to another city, Vinh Long, in the south of the country. A four-star hotel is supposed to be built in a former orphanage belonging to the sisters of St Paul de Chartres. The orphanage was requisitioned in 1977, and now the bishop, the sisters, and the faithful of the city are demanding to have it back."
Magister reports that on 15 April, the government announcement the restitution of another Catholic property "around the basilica of Le Vang, the main Marian Shrine in Vietnam".
However, as Magister also reported in May 2008, "These announcements have not been followed by actions." Thus the Catholic experience mirrors that of the ECV(S).
Meanwhile, it was on 28 March 2008 that the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) (ECV(S)) issued: "A Call to Prayer -- To the Church of God Everywhere" concerning (amongst other things) the status of its 265 confiscated properties. (Link 1)
But the prayer vigil by Thai Ha Redemptionist parishioners in Hanoi's Dong Da district has recently escalated. Since mid-August, the numbers keeping vigil at the Thai Ha Redemptorist property has escalated dramatically as Catholics from across the country, including numerous bishops, have travelled to Hanoi to participate in the prayer vigil in a show of solidarity, transforming the Thai Ha vigil into something far more intensive and pivotal. The Thai Ha property has come to be symbolic of all contentious Church-State land issues.
The government continues to respond to the prayer vigil/protests by slandering the Catholics in the State-run media, accusing them of "criminal behaviour" including vandalism, asserting that the Catholic Church had once signed the property over to the State and even accusing Hanoi's Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of inciting protests. (Link 4)
Father Stephen Chan Tin, who has participated in the prayer vigils, testifies as an eye witness that they have not involved riotous or criminal behaviour. He reports that the praise and prayer services he attended at the Thai Ha site were "organized in a very reverent and careful manner". He laments the blatant slander issued against the church and has issued an appeal for truth. His paper also examines the Communist ideology that motivates such abuse of and disrespect for humanity and private property. (Link 5)
On Thursday 28 August several Catholics were wounded as riot police attacked the pray-ers/protesters with electric batons. Four Catholics were arrested. Father Nguyen Van Peter Khai told AFP that police had attacked the Catholics as they sat on the street for a peaceful vigil. "'We were in the street on Thai Ha street and the police repressed the Christians using electric shocks,' said Khai. 'A lot of people were beaten by police, they were beaten very hard.' He showed AFP digital photographs showing two women bleeding from head wounds who he said were victims of the police baton-charge."
That evening around 100 Catholics protested outside the headquarters of Dong Da district police, calling for the release of those detained. Three more Catholics were then arrested. (Link 6)
On Sunday 31 August a canister of tear gas was thrown in amongst some 3,000 gathered for worship at the Thai Ha site. Police were present in large numbers, armed with cameras, taking photos of the worshippers/protesters.
On Monday 8 September, the New Hanoi and the People's Police papers published ominous words issued by Lt-General Nguyen Van Huong, Vice-Minister of Public Security and Major-General Nguyen Duc Nhanh, the Director of the Hanoi Police Agency, whereby they warned Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi, along with his priests and faithful, that a crackdown was imminent.
Bishop Francis Nguyen Van Sang of Thai Binh diocese subsequently warned the communist government "not to use the sword". "Using the sword against innocent civilians is shameful, and will be condemned by international public opinion." (Link 7)
VietCatholic News Agency (VNA) reports that after the Saturday 13 September mass at St Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi, thousands of worshippers proceeded to the former nunciature where vigils had been held through January. Police reinforcements were sent to prevent more Catholics from joining the worshippers who "virtually converted the street in front of the building into an open church for hours". (Link 8)
VNA continues: "Trembled by sudden developments at Hanoi nunciature and the influx into the capital of ten thousands of Catholics from northern provinces, hundreds of anti-riot police raided Cua Bac parish at 6 pm local time. A police intelligence unit had reported a protest in the said parish. However, it was not a protest at all. Thousands of faithful gathered at the church to celebrate Mid-Autumn festival for children."
INTERFERENCE AND PLANTED BOGUS PRIESTS
One of the complaints of the ECV(S) mentioned in the Call to Prayer is that of government interference in church affairs causing division and turmoil. Catholics have likewise reported seriously destructive and unwelcome state interference.
Further to this, AsiaNews reported on 9 September: "Some priests have appeared on Vietnamese state TV and have been interviewed by government newspapers speaking out against Thai Ha parishioners who want the restitution of parish property, except that these men of the cloth are neither priests nor Catholic. At least one of them has in fact been identified as a Communist party official. 'They were "ordained" by the government,' was the scathing comment from the diocese of Hanoi." (Link 9)
CRACKDOWN ON THOSE WHO TALK TO OR READ CHRISTIAN MEDIA
Frustrated by its inability to control all media, the government is now threatening action against anyone who talks to or reads Catholic media. JB An Dang reports for Independent Catholic News: "Police in Vietnam have begun inspecting the computers of Catholics who have taken part in the ongoing prayer vigils over confiscated church properties.
"A source in Hanoi said the authorities are closely monitoring overseas reports on the protests. 'You are in serious trouble should your browsing history include Asia-News, Catholic News Agency, Catholic World News, Independent Catholic News, VietCatholic News, Zenit and others,' he warned.
"Plain clothed police are reported to be hunting for Catholic reporters who are keeping the outside world, and those in Vietnam who access to the Internet, informed about the protest.
"One journalist said: 'I was about to send an email when police swamped in. The person next to me had his browsing history inspected. He even was forced to log into his Gmail account for a 'security inspection'." (Link 10)
PERSECUTION, ANGER AND SLANDER MEET PERSEVERANCE, JOY AND GRACE
VietCatholic News reports: "Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi and Bishop Peter Nguyen Van De of Bui Chu joined more than two thousands of protesters on Friday afternoon [12 September] when the superior of Thai Ha monastery and some other priests were being 'summoned' by police. 'I know at this time all your priests are summoned, no one stay at home. So I am here to help them doing church keeping,' Archbishop Joseph Ngo joked with protesters.
"Bishop Peter Nguyen, who travelled more than 200 km to join with protesters, also joked with them that state television had repeatedly warned to imprison anyone who dared to be here to pray, especially priests. So he wanted to be here 'out of the fear to be alone outside when all priests are jailed.'" His joke was intensely welcomed by protesters." (Link 11)
On Sunday 14 September, the Catholics of Hanoi followed instructions issued by the Archdioceses on Friday and prayed for God to forgive all those associated with the State media disinformation and slander campaign, as well as those who have issued threats against the church. (Link 11)
By Elizabeth Kendal
1) "A Call to Prayer -- To the Church of God Everywhere"
Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) (ECV(S)) 28 March 2008
2) Bishop of Thai Binh: Bye-bye my dear people, I will go to the jail.
11 Sept 2008 (great pictures)
3) The Peaceful Revolution of Vietnam's Catholics.
By Sandro Magister 28 May 2008
Holy row over land in Vietnam. By Nga Pham. 26 Feb 2007
4) Government sheds light on Thai Ha criminal behaviour. 30 Aug 2008
Hanoi Archbishop accused of inciting protests. 9 Sept 2008
5) "Communism: The End Justifies the Means."
By Father Stephen Chan Tin (8 August 2008)
6) Vietnam arrests four in Catholic land dispute, say protesters. 28 Aug 2008
Catholics rally at Vietnam police station, three detained. 29 Aug 2008
SEE ALSO: Prayers and protests in Vietnam
By Nga Pham. BBC News, Hanoi, 2 Sep 2008
7) Vietnam: Bishop warns the government "not to use the sword" (great pictures) http://www.vietcatholic.net/News/Html/58313.htm 10 Sep 2008
8) Thousand of Catholics protest at Hanoi former nunciature, police raid a Hanoi parish. 13 Sept 2008 http://www.vietcatholic.net/News/Html/58478.htm
9) False priests appear on Hanoi media to discredit Catholics
By JB An Dang, AsiaNews, 9 Sep 2008
10) Vietnamese warned not to read ICN
By JB An Dang, 12 Sep 2008
11) Hanoi Archdiocese to observe day of prayer for state media personnel
(Great pictures) 12 Sep 2008