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Page last updated at 07:18 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2008 08:18 UK

Prayers and protests in Vietnam

By Nga Pham
BBC News, Hanoi

Church leaders and parishioners praying on land they occupied in the Dong Da district, undated file pic
Catholics say they have been attacked with electric batons and tear gas

As Vietnam marks its National Day, the holiday spirit in Hanoi's Dong Da district is being marred by an ongoing land dispute between a local Catholic church and the authorities.

The area's Thai Ha parishioners have been staging a very public display of dissatisfaction over the government's land policy.

Every night since mid-August, hundreds of Catholics have been gathering to pray and protest at a site they seized from a garment factory.

The case shows signs of escalation, attracting the participation of believers from other parts of the country.

An effort by the police to disperse crowds of demonstrators last week ended in chaos and allegations of violence.

Protesters said a number of Catholics were injured after they were "attacked with electric batons and tear gas".

Hanoi police denied the charge, saying the incident was merely an "unintentional scuffle" involving officers who had reacted when provoked.

The crowds stayed and gathered force. The church claimed that up to 3,000 were attending an evening prayer last Sunday when a canister of poisonous gas was thrown in, making dozens sick. The police denied involvement.

"The authorities are unsure about what to do," said a Hanoi-based political analyst, who wished to stay anonymous.

"If the police act hard, they'd be accused of repressing religious freedom. But if they don't act, the protest is going to spread fast," he said, adding: "This seems to be a major headache for them".

Numerous petitions

The latest wave of protest began a fortnight ago, when hundreds of Catholics knocked down walls to create a make-shift prayer site on the land that, according to them, belonged to the Thai Ha Parish but was given unlawfully by the government to a state company.

The authorities have come to realise that the law needs to be changed

The company had since been privatised and the church, worried that the land was going to fall into private hands, decided to act.

Fr Peter Nguyen Van Khai said the parishioners were fed up after their numerous petitions to the government fell on deaf ears.

"We have been asking the government to give us back the land for years to no avail," he said.

"We have all the necessary documents to prove that the church holds rightful sole ownership over the land since 1928."

Earlier this year, a similar protest in Nha Chung, Hanoi, made headlines across the country and only stopped when the Vatican intervened.

But the disputed land, which is located in central Hanoi and once served as the papal nuncio's residence, has yet to be returned.

'Agitators'

The Nha Chung and Thai Ha protests are only two in thousands of cases of public grievance over land rights in Vietnam, but the religious factor has made them special, and difficult for the government to deal with.

Hanoi has been trying to play down the religious aspect of the disputes, describing them as cases of "disturbance of public order" and "damaging public properties".

Crosses on the fence surrounding land that parishioners want returned to the church, Hanoi, Vietnam, 29 August, 2008
Crosses adorn the fence surrounding the land parishioners want returned

Vietnamese state media has labelled the Thai Ha believers "agitators" and "saboteurs".

Nguyen Hong Duong, head of the state-sponsored Religious Studies Institute, said the protest had been instigated by "hostile forces".

The official approach is that all land claims need to be considered at the civil court in accordance to Vietnam's law and the church cannot lie above the government.

Yet the authorities have come to realise that the law needs to be changed.

A meeting was called by the State Inspectorate last weekend to look at land disputes and cases of public grievance.

It found that there were nearly 200 major cases yet to be resolved, some of which have been going on for years.

Van Ha Phong, a deputy chairman in Kien Giang province, was quoted in the local media as saying that the reason for this was a "problem in our land policy".

"None of our projects received full, 100% support from the public," he was quoted as saying.

The government promises to work to complete the law on land use. This process, however, will take time as land rights are considered one of the most complex and sensitive issues in Vietnam.

Meanwhile the Catholics in Thai Ha say they will continue praying and protesting until their demands are met.

With the police force maintaining their position at the disputed site, the stalemate is likely to continue.




SEE ALSO
Holy row over land in Vietnam
26 Feb 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Vietnam 'baby-smugglers' arrested
21 Feb 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Famous Vietnamese dissident dies
08 Feb 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Vietnam looks forward to UN role
31 Dec 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Testing Vietnam's religious resolve
15 Mar 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Vietnam arrests foreign activists
20 Nov 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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