The city government has recognised the "historical and cultural value" of the Thủ Thiêm church and convent. The authorities had tried to seize them to make room for urban development. Fr Niêm was resolute and courageously held the parish community together. In 2018 he said, “I have a duty to [. . .] sacrifice my life to protect the flock.”
Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – For Catholics in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Fr Jean-Baptiste Lê Đăng Niêm was a "pastor who knew how to care for and defend his flock". The 81-year-old clergyman died Tuesday evening following a stroke.
The elderly priest passed away after his last battle against land developers with connections and was able to the Thủ Thiêm Parish Church and the Convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross.
City authorities have in fact recognised the "historical and cultural value" of the buildings, thus sparing them from the bulldozers. A long dispute with the Catholic community over the City’s urban development plan for District 2 was thus brought to a close.
For a number of years, the authorities used pressures and threats to force local residents to sell their properties at low prices, which were eventually resold with a wide profit margin, sometimes 300 times the original cost, with the money split with “rich men” (đại gia) and “interest groups”.
In May 2018, the city government advertised the sale of nine “golden plots", including the land where the church and convent are located, sparking the protest of the nuns and local Catholics.
As far back as October 2015, the authorities had planned to tear down two of the schools run by the nuns. To the effect, they brought in hundreds of people – police agents, civil protection employees and members of pro-government associations – to surround the compound.
Already forced to use a wheelchair, Fr Niêm stood with the nuns, who prayed the rosary and held their ground. “That night impressed many Vietnamese, at home and abroad."
Fr Niêm was resolute and courageously held the parish community together. Interviewed in May 2018, he told AsiaNews: "As a pastor of Thủ Thiêm, I have a duty to manage parish land and sacrifice my life to protect the flock. As the Bible says, we have a duty to defend truth and justice.”
As “leaders of God's people [. . .] we are only parish administrators. People (the faithful) are the owners of the parish land. So, we must serve the laity. Pastors must respect their flock. We must be faithful to the Holy See. Shepherds are faithful to God and protect their sheep."
The vicar of Thủ Thiêm died 12 days after the announcement that the faithful had long waited for. On 18 April, at the end of the Chrism Mass, Mgr Joseph Đổ Mạnh Hùng, auxiliary bishop and apostolic administrator of Saigon, told those present: "On 21 March, representatives of the Department of Civil Affairs (Ban Dân Vận) and of the Religious Affairs Committee of Ho Chi Minh City visited us at the Bishop's Office. The officials informed us of the new urban policy: Thủ Thiêm church and the Lovers of the Holy Cross Convent will remain in their place because they are historical, cultural and religious buildings."