01/17/2008, 00.00
VIETNAM
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Praying as victims is how Hanoi bishop responds to government’s veiled threats

by J.B. An Dang
Tensions mount as the issue of illegally-seized Church properties is not solved. City authorities accuse bishop of using freedom of religion to provoke protests against the government. Mgr Joseph Ngô describes the former’s abuses and demands justice.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – Catholics pray “because they are victims of a partisan spirit” and are “irritated” by the behaviour of the authorities who ignore their just demands and back “wrong” deeds. This is how the archbishop of Hanoi explained in a letter to Ms Ngô Thi Thanh Hang, deputy chairman of the capital’s People’s Committee, the “deep reasons” for the peaceful demonstrations that for weeks have seen Catholics gather for “protest” prayers.

Dated 14 January the letter is but the latest episode in a confrontation in which the authorities seem bent on escalating and which stem from demands for the return of properties that belonged to parish churches, seminaries and the old apostolic delegation illegally seized in the past.

The letter comes after many bishops expressed last Friday their solidarity with Joseph Ngô Quang Kiêt, archbishop of Hanoi, on the same day when Hanoi city authorities released a statement accusing the prelate of “using freedom of religion to provoke protests against the government” thus “damaging relations between Vietnam and the Vatican.”

Threatening words like these referring to abuses of religious freedom have been used in the past as a warning about possible repression.

Against this background the archbishop has responded by setting the record straight. “For many years,” his letter said, the archbishop and the bishops’ conference “have called for the return of the land that belongs to the apostolic delegation. It is disputed property and neither side has the right to build on it or change its status before a final legal decision. This year the apostolic delegation compound was constantly violated when the agency that is momentarily managing it built a two-storey Tonkinese restaurant. If some bureau authorised the construction, it made a mistake. If there was no authorisation the deed is even worse.”

The letter goes on to reiterate that despite a request made by the archbishop on 4 December 2007 to maintain the status quo, the roof and floor of the main building were removed. And despite further protests, the courtyard was turned into a parking lot

This “provocative and cavalier” attitude by local government agencies “has greatly irritated the population. This is why many believers came to pray.”

“The mistake lies in the partisan silence by the concerned agencies which have not upheld the rights of the people and given instead a free rein to those who violated them.”

“The same thing happened to Thai Hà parish.” For more than ten years the Redemptorist Fathers have been demanding the return of a piece of land that belongs to them.

“But then at the start of the year fences went up and security officials were called in to protect the Chiên Thang Company which had begun to build. Irritated, some parishioners began to protest. In the afternoon of 7 January the authorities came to allay the concerns of the crowd, promising that construction work would end. Instead the next day the Hanoi People’s Committee issued an official order authorising the company in question to continue its work. Angered by the turn of event, people realised that government institutions have made a mockery of their own words and of people’s sentiments in order to protect those who break the law. This is why, not knowing to whom they should turn to, they turned to prayer.”

“To remain silent in front of the violations by the agency charged with managing the apostolic delegation, to brazenly protect the Chiên Thang Company and blame the Catholics is proof of an extremely partisan spirit.”

The letter concluded saying that the “basic problem is one of justice. All we are demanding is for the government to be impartial so that the population can go back to a quite life and live happily in peace.”

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