Catholics in Vietnam pray for return of church land

Vietnamese Catholics are holding a weekend of prayer vigils, part of their efforts for more than a month to press the Communist government for the return of church land in Hanoi seized 50 years ago.

Hundreds of people, warmed by an open wood fire, prayed and sang by candlelight in the cold on Friday and Saturday nights on a one hectare (2.5-acre) piece of mostly vacant land about a block from St Joseph's Cathedral.

Catholics have also gathered in two other places in the capital, demanding return of a presbytery and land that has been used for a textile factory they say also belonged to the church before the Communists ended French colonial rule in 1954.

The vigils began on December 18 and have maintained momentum, attracting more than 1,000 people at times, despite authorities in Hanoi telling church leaders the activities were illegal and should be stopped. Parishioners are cautious, mindful of times when religious activities were restricted.

Life-long Catholic Dao Trong Khanh, 50, said, "maybe you can imagine what will happen. It is not easy to speak out about what will happen in the near future. The prayers and non-violent demonstration will continue."

In a procession during the day on Friday, witnesses said there was a scuffle with police and one woman was slightly injured near the site, which once housed the Vatican Embassy during French rule.

Religion remains under state supervision in the mostly Buddhist country and there are about six million Catholics among its 85 million people.

LAND USE RIGHTS

A government spokesman said the claim would be resolved under Vietnamese land laws, which do not allow private ownership, only land use rights.

"Regarding the request the claim of the Hanoi bishopric, the People's Committee of Hanoi will consider it carefully and implement it in compliance with the law," Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Le Dung said.

Public displays of criticism or disagreement with the ruling Communist Party are rare, but over the past decade, peasant farmers have also challenged the government over land use.

The government seems to be taking notice of the Catholics, apparently because it is working toward establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Pope at the Vatican a year ago.

Observers of Catholic relations have said the Communist Party wants Vietnam to benefit from services that the Roman Catholic Church can provide for the poor. Living standards have improved in Vietnam under 20-year-old economic reforms but average per-capita income is just $835 a year.

On December 31, nearly two weeks after the prayer vigils began, the prime minister visited the diocese and the disputed site, said parishioners, some of whom live in squalid rooms near the cathedral in the city centre.

They said there had been an exchange of letters between the Hanoi People's Committee and Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet over the use of the land and a French-colonial era villa as a motorbike parking lot, eatery and sports centre.

The Archbishop could not be reached for comment.

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