Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – Communist authorities and a local religious institution are once again in open conflict in Vietnam over land ownership. The local administration wants to expropriate three schools which have been run by the Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross in Thu Thiem, a district of Ho Chi Minh City since the 1960’s.
According to Fr. Vincent Pham Trung Thanh, former provincial superior of the Redemptorists "the crux of the problem is that the authorities of the city and, in particular, those of District 2 must be honest and transparent when deciding on new urban areas".
The nuns have been in Vietnam since their foundation in 1840. After the fall of the former Saigon, with the unification of the country and the seizure of power by the Communists in the North, the sisters have given – in a signed accord dating to December 5 1975 - the use of primary schools for the benefit of the Department of Education of Ho Chi Minh City.
The document clearly states that the archdiocese of Saigon grants the government the use of the premises for the 1975-76 school year for educational purposes only, while the property remains in the hands of the Catholic Church. When being used for purposes other than this, the agreement also states, "both sides must make clear their consent."
Since September 5, 2011 the schools have been closed and in one of these (the elementary school Thu Thiem in District 2) local authorities have allocated government offices and a local police station. In October this year the district communist leaders have started the paperwork for the transfer of ownership which amounts to expropriation of structures from the religious. However, the reaction of the sisters and of the Church leaders and the Catholic community has blocked the operation.
This is confirmed by Sister Maria Nguyen Thi Ngoan, superior of the Congregation, who says that "the local government has halted demolition operations of the buildings", which once were school complexes. The nun says that they have launched legal action in defense of property and the situation is "temporarily stabilized", although it is only the "first step" in an intricate and difficult case.
Priests and Catholic leaders say the authorities should "discuss any possible change of use with the congregation" and, if necessary, pay an "adequate compensation". In recent days, Vietnamese Church leaders have spoken out in support of the nuns, including Msgr. Michael Hoàng Duc Oanh of Kontum and the superior of the Redemptorists Fr. Pham Trung Thanh.
Sister Maria expressed their thanks for this support in a letter to the cardinal, bishops, priests, lay people and many organizations. "Since our congregation began this battle against the local government last October -she said - we have felt God's love and providence over us" as well the encouragement and prayers of all.
As reported on several occasions not only by the Vietnamese Catholic Church, but also by authoritative international financial institutions, the vexed question of land ownership in Vietnam is not only a legal and constitutional issue, but it is a drag on economic development of the country. In just three years there have been about 700 thousand disputes over land, most of which concerned compensation issues. Data from the World Bank reports that from 2001 to 2010 about one million hectares of agricultural land has been converted for different purposes; especially tourism. . Last year, the Vietnamese authorities have forcibly expropriated a Catholic neighborhood in Con Dau, including the cemetery.