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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

Hanoi Catholics protest on despite ultimatum

HANOI, Vietnam -- As many as 3,000 Catholics defied local government orders to disperse and continued a protest outside the compound of the Vatican’s embassy, which was confiscated by the communist government in 1959. Catholics began the protests in mid-December after they learned of plans to build a restaurant and nightclub on the site.

Archbishop of Hanoi Joseph Ngô Quang Kiêt has asked the government to return the property to the church. The garden on the site holds a cross and some statues, including one of Mary.

The building and its grounds, called the Apostolic Nunciature, are next to St Joseph’s Cathedral in the tourist heart of Hanoi. Since Dec. 23, hundreds of Catholics have maintained a vigil just outside the nunicature’s garden, with crowds swelling into the thousands at times. The protesters frequently sing religious songs and chant prayers as well as block traffic in front of the site.

Hanoi and the Holy See do not have diplomatic relations, although the strained relationship has been easing in recent years. A year ago, the Vietnamese prime minister made a milestone visit to the Vatican.

Shortly after the protests began, Prime Minister Tan Nguyen Dung held a rare meeting with Archbishop Ngô. Tan’s promise to look into the case, however, was not enough to reassure the protesters.

The archdiocese released a statement Jan. 28 criticizing state media for not presenting the facts surrounding recent events in a “correct” manner. The statement disputed state media accounts of scuffles between protesting Catholics and security forces and dismissed reports that the church donated the property to the government.

In the statement, Ngô reiterated that the site is church property and that worship services on church-owned land are protected by law and cannot be interpreted as “gathering and praying illegally in public areas.”

Meanwhile, Hanoi’s Peoples Committee has accused Ngô of “using religious freedom to provoke protest against the government” and in so doing “damaging relations between Vietnam and the Vatican.”

-- AsiaNews

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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