Police in communist Vietnam have launched an investigation into Catholic land dispute protests that swelled to about 2,000 people late last week, state media and a police officer said Tuesday January 29.
Parishioners and priests have been holding daily vigils for over a month near Hanoi’s main St. Joseph’s Cathedral, demanding the return of a house and a block of church land seized by the communist government in the late 1950s.
Tuesday evening more than 100 faithful again defied authorities, praying and singing hymns on the disputed property, where they have erected a large white cross and placed candles and flowers on the building’s steps and walls.
They put up rain shelters and lit fires against the winter chill on the 1.1 hectare (2.7 acre) property, which the Hanoi People’s Committee has used as a community centre and for parking motorcycles.
After Friday’s rallies, when the protestors placed the cross on the site, police launched an investigation into the alleged crimes of property damage, causing social disorder and obstructing officials, the An Ninh Thu Do daily reported.
Lieutenant-Colonel Nguyen Manh Hung, from the capital’s central Hoan Kiem district investigative unit, signed a decision Saturday January 26 to launch the criminal investigation and sent it to prosecutors, said the police-run newspaper.
A police officer contacted at the investigative unit only told AFP: “I can confirm the signature on this decision but I do not want to exchange views or comments about this matter with you on the telephone.”
The state-controlled Hanoi Moi (New Hanoi) newspaper accused leaders of the Hanoi archdiocese of “abusing the belief and trust of followers to turn them into their instruments for their own goals.”
Vietnam’s government last week stressed that there is no private property in the communist nation, only land-use rights granted by the state.
“Every piece of land is in the possession of the entire nation, with the state being the representative of public ownership,” said Duong Ngoc Tan, head of the Catholics Department at the Committee for Religious Affairs.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung — who last year became Vietnam’s first communist leader to visit the Vatican — met Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet during a prayer meeting in late December and pledged to consider the issue.
The party-linked Fatherland Front and the Hanoi People’s Committee have also more recently held talks with Kiet, state media reports have said.
Vietnam has Southeast Asia’s largest Catholic community after the Philippines — about six million out of a population of 86 million.