Hanoi’s Catholics continue protests defying the government’s ultimatum
by J.B. An Dang
The local government threatens “extreme action” if demonstrations do not cease. Media accuse the church of violence against public officials and of spreading public disorder. The diocese responds accusing media of manipulation and reaffirms its ownership of the Nunciature.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – Over 3 thousand Catholics gathered in the gardens of the Apostolic Nunciature to pray in open defiance of the city government ultimatum to free the area and disperse demonstrations by 5 pm yesterday evening.  Some Catholics even camped out in the residence gardens, part of the complex sequestered by the government in 1959 and which the Vietnamese Church has asked be returned now that there are plans to build a restaurant and nightclub there.  Meanwhile the Archbishop of Hanoi Msgr. Joseph Ngô Quang Kiệt, today issued a statement reaffirming the Catholics right to protest in an area which has been unjustly taken from its rightful owners, the Catholic Church by the government.

On January 26th last the Peoples Committee of Hanoi released a statement, threatening “extreme action” if demonstrations and the sit-in – ongoing since December 23rd last – were not called off by 5pm yesterday evening.

Signed by Ngo Thi Thanh Hang, the deputy chairwoman of the People's Committee in Hanoi, the statement “ordered” the Hanoi Archbishop to remove the cross and all statues of the Virgin Mary out of the site, and “to submit a report” to her “before 6pm of Sunday 27”.

Meanwhile government media have begun a campaign of misinformation regarding scuffles which took place January 25th, in which some Catholics entered the residence gardens to aid a women being beaten by police because she had entered the area to bring flowers to the statue of the Virgin present in the garden.

Press accuse Hanoi’s Catholics of having forcibly attacked security forces and ask the government to restore order taking severe measures if necessary.

Fr. Joseph Nguyen, who witnessed the January 25th episode, decried the press coverage as a “shameful distortion of the facts”.  He tells AsiaNews: the protest prayer was held at 11:30, after the mss.  During the demonstration a Hmong woman jumped over the Nunciature fence and placed some flowers at the feet of the statue which is in the grounds of the building”.

 “Security personnel found her there and tried to grab hold of her.  Without paying any6 attention to her explanation they began to beat her and kick her.  There were at least 2 thousand Catholics there as witnesses.  A commander of the security guards even shouted orders to his men to beat her to death”.

 “Lawyer Lê Quoc Quan, present at the scene came to the woman’s rescue accusing the guards of breaking the law.  So then they turned on him dragging him of to an office inside”.

 “Seeing all of this happen, demonstrators had no other choice but to force the gate and clash with the security personnel.  It is a massive lie however to say that they openly attacked the guards”.

Yesterday in churches throughout the capital Catholics were informed of the ultimatum.  Yet despite this they decided to demonstrate once again in front of the Nunciature, with song and prayer.

Today the office of the Archdiocese of Hanoi released a communiqué criticizing state media for not presenting the facts surrounding recent events in a “correct” manner.   

State-controlled radio, television and news papers reported that the archdiocese in no way can challenge the ownership of the building because “on 24 November 1961, Fr. Nguyễn Tùng Cương,….. donated the property to the government”.

The archbishop has responded, setting the record straight; ‘.. the competent authority is the diocesan bishop with the consent of the finance council, the college of consulters and those concerned. The diocesan bishop himself also needs their consent to alienate the goods of the diocese”. The communiqué moreover clarifies “we know for sure he [fr. Nguyễn Tùng Cương] never made any donation, as he had no authority to do so”.  It also recalls that the Vietnamese constitution safeguards religious freedom and places of worship, as underlined in ordinance 21/2004/PL-UBTVQH11, which specifies that the legal property of places of religious belief and of religious organizations is protected by law; any violation of this right is forbidden.

State media accuses Hanoi Catholics of attacking security personnel, disturbing public order, erecting illegally the cross in the garden of the site, and spreading distortions about the government on Internet.

The diocesan communiqué clarifies that the property in question does not belong to the state.  “The government does not have any evidence that the Church in Vietnam did donate it, nor a decree saying that it was confiscated. Hence, it is still a property of the archdiocese”. From this point of view worshipping on the site belonging to the Church is protected by law and cannot be interpreted as “gathering and praying illegally in public areas”. Also, “the cross and statues of the Virgin Mary were there originally. The faithful just moved them back to where they were”.

Regarding the accusations of spreading distorted information about the government on the Internet, the prelate points out that these articles “have been posted by many people, the Hanoi Archdiocese cannot be held responsible”. But he continues, “most of them are accurate and it is the right of citizens protected by the Constitution” to spread in formation. On the contrary, concludes the communiqué, “It is the radio and the television of Hanoi, the New Hanoi newspaper, and the Capital Security newspaper who intentionally distorted the truths in order to humiliate our clergies and faithful”.

In a declaration dated January 14th last the Hanoi’s Peoples Committee accused the Capital’s Archbishop of “using religious freedom to provoke protest against the government” and in so doing “damaging relations between Vietnam and the Vatican”.