10/03/2008, 00.00
VIETNAM
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Now Hanoi trying to pit Buddhists against Catholics

by Nguyen Hung
Deputy public security minister tries to sow divisions among religious groups by raising an old claim about the land where the cathedral, seminary and ex- apostolic delegation now stand, claiming that it was once home to a pagoda. However, a government publication said that the pagoda was once located five kilometres to the north of the disputed land and that it was destroyed in the 1400s.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – After the prime minister now it is turn of the deputy public security minister to accuse the archbishop of Hanoi of violating the law by taking advantage of religious freedom and damaging Church-state relations. In addition, he makes a (false) claim with regards to the land on which the Catholic cathedral (see photo), seminary and former apostolic delegation now stand, namely that it belonged to the Buddhist community until the French gave it to the Catholics in 1883.

In an interview with state news agency VNS, Nguyễn Văn Hương repeated for the first time what Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng said the day before, namely that Hanoi Archbishop Mgr. Joseph Ngô Quang Kiêt violated the “constitution and the law” as well as “challenged the state, damaged the nation, and shown disdain toward the position and status of Vietnamese citizens in their relations with the world”. Moreover, “Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiêt [. . .] has triggered difficulties in relations between the Vatican and Vietnam.”

So far this is nothing new with respect to what the prime minister had said. But Mr Hương added a new element by rehashing an old dispute.

“In the last century when the country was under the colonial regime, the French-occupied land was maybe originally owned by Buddhists,” Hương said.

Except for the ‘maybe’, this claim too is nothing new. In a letter sent to Vietnam Prime Minister last February, the Venerable Thích Trưng Hậu, leader of the Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC) said the land belonged to the Buddhist community.

The VBC was created in 1982 by the Communist government to replace the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which had refused to submit to the authorities but represents about 80 per cent of the country’s Buddhists.

Hậu claimed that on the land in dispute there once stood the Thiên Bảo Pagoda, built in 1054, a claim first raised by former Religious Affairs Chief Lê Quảng Vịnh.

In reality, there is no evidence the pagoda ever existed in that place, nor are they any remains of the ancient building. On the contrary, official documents place the Thiên Bảo Pagoda far away. In 2001 a government publication identified a site five kilometres north of the disputed property and said that it was destroyed in 1426, more than four centuries before the Catholic Church was given the land.

The purpose of the government claims is transparent as indicated by UBCV spokesman Venerable Thích Khong Tanh, a 15-year veteran of Vietnam’s jails.

“It is clear that the government is reluctant to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of Catholics,” the Buddhist leader told the BBC. “Now they want to use Buddhists to confront the Catholics for them.”

Still for Hương argued “once the country gained independence, Vietnam’s law states clearly that all land belongs to the people, under the unified management of the State.”

Conversely for Fr Joseph Nguyễn the government’s argument is a falsification of the truth and is meant to spread doubts.

The Thai Ha is a case in point. Under the law citizens can appeal government decisions up to three times, failing this they can go to court.

“Why did the local government announce the decision to convert it [Thai Ha parish land] into a park and immediately carry out its plan when we have only been rejected a first time, and are still protesting lawfully?” he said.

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