Saigon, government threatens to demolish Catholic churches and Buddhist temples
A development plan for an area south of Ho Chi Minh City includes the demolition of places of worship. The Inter-religious Council has launched a petition to stop the project. According to the urban development plan the area is zoned for housing and shopping malls, but not places of worship. A nun: "The government wants to drive us out."

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) - The Vietnamese authorities intend to demolish a Buddhist temple and two Christian churches, which are located in an area south of Ho Chi Minh City, to start an urban development plan of significant economic value. However, the city administration project has encountered fierce resistance from religious leaders and the local community of believers; in response to the mafia style warnings launched by the government, an Inter-religious Council made ​​up of Christians and Buddhists issued a public appeal, calling for support to stop the confiscation of buildings and land in the area of Thu Thiem.

On September 15, a petition was launched addressed to international governments and human rights organizations, media and "Vietnamese compatriots". It received more than 600 signatures in the first 30 hours. The petition denounces the threats made by the authorities who intend to close the Tri Lein pagoda by the end of the month.

Other places of worship are at risk include "the Catholic Church of Thu Thiem" and the community of the Sisters Lovers of the Holy Cross. However, the prayer house of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam and the Mennonite Church have already been demolished.

The notification of the closure of Lien Tri pagoda dates back to August 18 last and could be carried out any time between September 8 and 30. The authorities have offered 274 thousand dollars compensation for the expropriation of the pagoda and land, but one of the resident monks stresses that this is not an economic issue. "I will not accept any offer," said Thich Khong Tanh in an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA), but the authorities are deaf to all pleas and "say they will push ahead" with their plan.

The attack on the Lien Tri community could be motivated by the fact it does not belong to the state sanctioned  Buddhist community. "We are the Unified Buddhist Church - he adds - outlawed by the Vietnamese authorities, for years we are victims of isolation and repression, and now they are using the land issue to wipe us out". "The government - he concludes - always does what it wants."

The Thu Thiem area of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is now targeted for development as a "new urban area," with zones set aside for commercial, residential, administrative, entertainment, and educational purposes. No plans have been made however for the establishment of temples, churches, or even offices for charity services in Thu Thiem, which has long been seen by developers as a "land of gold," the Interfaith Council of Vietnam noted in their statement. "How can people's religious and spiritual needs be met when long term development gives no consideration for religious institutions?," the Council asked.  "How can freedom of religion as prescribed by the Constitution be accomplished?". "The government wants us to move so they can build their new city here," a nurse at the Convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Vietnam's 87 million people include 48 per cent Buddhists, more than 7 per cent Catholics, 5.6 per cent syncretistic and 20 per cent atheist. As a small, albeit significant minority, the Christian community is particularly active in education, health and social affairs. Conversely, religious freedom has steadily eroded. Under Decree 92, more controls and restrictions have been imposed on religious practice, increasingly under the thumb of the Communist Party and the one-party state.

The authorities have targeted religious leaders, including Buddhists and Catholics, as well as entire communities, which is what happened last year in the Diocese of Vinh, where media and government carried out a smear campaign and targeted attacks against the bishop and members of the community. The crackdown also affects individuals who claim the right to religious freedom and respect for citizens' civil rights.