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Church in Asia
Church leaders urge Vietnamese government to return shrine property

.- Local Church leaders have petitioned the government to resolve a land dispute involving the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in central Vietnam.

Church leaders say only 6.5 hectares of the more than 25 hectares of land that belong to the national shrine, located 600 km south of Ha Noi, is at their disposal. The local government has allowed people to build houses, cultivate fruit trees and raise fish and poultry on the remaining land, reported UCA News.

Church leaders argue they need the land to build accommodations and other facilities for pilgrims, whose numbers continue to increase from year to year. About 500,000 pilgrims came to the shrine in 2005.

Bishop Paul Nguyen Van Hoa, head of the Vietnam bishops' conference, and Archbishop Etienne Nguyen Nhu The of Hue signed the petition, which was sent to senior government leaders at the end of January.

A basilica, a square, and other facilities for pilgrims had existed in Hai Phu village on the site where the Blessed Mother is believed to have appeared in 1798 to console persecuted Christians. But the site was destroyed in 1972, during the Vietnam War. Only three concrete banyan trees, 20 meters in height, and the Marian statue survived. The old statue was replaced by a new one in 1998.

Since the communists took control of the country in April 1975, a new church was built along with a hostel. But the bishops said the Church has not been able to mark the boundaries of the shrine, despite having deeds for the land.

During the bishops' annual meeting in September, the bishops planned to reclaim the shrine's land and build adequate facilities for the 2008 Marian congress. Some bishops later met with President Nguyen Minh Triet and apprised him of several issues, including the shrine. The president reportedly pledged to resolve the issues gradually.

The Vatican and government of Vietnam are currently in talks aimed at reestablishing diplomatic relations.  The Communist nation has made considerable strides in the area of religious freedom in recent years.

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