Following a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph Ngô Quang Kiệt on Saturday, approximately 3,000 Catholics joined parishioners from Our Mother of Perpetual Help to peacefully protest the seizure of 14 acres of their land by the Vietnamese government. Ten thousand Catholics in Saigon expressed their solidarity by holding a vigil at the same time.
The mass demonstration began with the Redemptorists leading a procession to the property that they have been asking be restored for the last 10 years. The demonstrators chanted and sang for hours in front of dozens of crosses and icons of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, which are hanging on the fence that surrounds the confiscated property.
Support for the disenfranchised Catholics has spread at the grassroots level, with word of the protests reaching locals through bulletin board postings at parishes and news reports on the internet.
Throughout the day on Saturday, hundreds of vehicles were busy ferrying people back and forth from the dioceses of Bắc Ninh, Hải Phòng, Nam Định, Hà Tây, Vĩnh Yên to the protest site. Some supporters even traveled up to 250 miles to show their solidarity with the parishioners.
Foreseeing Saturday’s outpouring of support, security forces responsible for the land involved in the dispute were called to the site to setup barriers. Local sources informed CNA that the authorities hoped to prevent the Catholics maintaining vigil from gaining entrance to the grounds and camping out as they did at the former nunciature. The source added that the barriers were later removed out of fear that they might “add fuel to the fire”.
In addition to the barriers and normal security presence, large numbers of security police, in uniform and in plain-clothes, mingled in the demonstrators’ ranks, taking photos and filming with video cameras.
The state-controlled media has also been enlisted in the government’s efforts to try and discredit the Church, singling out Archbishop Joseph Ngô for blame.
According to the Redemptorists who run the parish, they originally purchased 15 acres of land in 1928. In 1954, the Communist government took control of northern Vietnam and jailed or deported most of Redemptorists. This left Fr. Joseph Vu Ngoc Bich to run the church by himself. Despite Fr. Vu’s persistent protests, local authorities gradually seized the parish’s land one section at a time. Consequently, the plot of land was reduced from 15 acres to its present-day size of little more than half an acre.
The government upped the ante at the beginning of 2008 by allowing construction on the Chiến Thắng sewing company to commence. The confiscated church property soon was surrounded by a fence and the presence of security officials.
Protestors have been gathering at the work site since January 7 to prevent any further construction by the state-run company.
In a message sent last January 7 to all the Redemptorists in the country, the provincial superior Fr. Joseph Cao Dinh Tri says the local government has illegally confiscated land belonging to their monastery at Thai Ha, Hanoi and is supporting a construction project there. The Redemptorists in Hanoi, Fr. Cao continues, "have responded by gathering people to pray at the construction site, asking the government to respect fairness and put justice into practice. I would earnestly implore all of you, the whole province of Vietnam, to be in solidarity with our brother Redemptorists in Hanoi, in order to pray for our common apostolate".
In that spirit, ten thousand Catholics gathered for a Mass at the Redemptorists’ church in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The celebration was held at the same time as the Mass presided over by Archbishop Ngô in Hanoi to show solidarity with their brothers and sisters through special prayers and hymns.