.- Several Catholic demonstrators protesting on Thursday night against the arrest of some their fellow parishioners were involved in a clash with Hanoi police outside of a police station. Demonstrators have claimed the police beat them and used stun guns on them, while the police chief claimed the demonstration was broken up peacefully.
For two weeks the parishioners of Thai Ha Church in Hanoi have been holding round-the-clock prayer vigils while demanding the return of land next to their church.
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.
On August 15, the first day of the vigils, church members knocked down a section of the fence surrounding the property and placed several statues of the Virgin Mary inside.
Police said they arrested three people for damaging the fence, while church members said four parishioners, including two elderly women, were arrested on August 15 for damaging the fence and another seven were arrested following this past Thursday’s demonstrations outside the police station.
Hanoi Police Chief Nguyen Duc Nhanh took the unusual step of holding a press conference to justify the actions of the police surrounding the crackdown on Thursday’s demonstration. The chief of police insisted that his men did not abuse the demonstrators.
"Like police in other countries, we never use any kind of tools to beat unarmed people," he said. "We just talked to them and the crowd dispersed."
The incident began with what some protestors characterized as “an attempt to lure the protestors into violence.” Police grabbed a woman praying at the site and took her away.
More than one hundred protesters, led by the Redemptorists, followed the police and the arrested woman to the police station in Hanoi’s Da Dong district. At the police station they began a peaceful protest asking for the release of all detainees.
At least 500 Catholics had gathered there by 5:45 pm when anti-riot police were dispatched to the site to disperse the protesters with batons.
Six people, including two priests, told the Associated Press that police had beaten and shocked some of the church members who had gathered outside the police station to pray.
One of the priests, Father Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong, accused police of lying.
"I was there and I saw them using stun guns to give electrical shocks to our church members," Phong said, according to the Associated Press. "I could see the guns flare. They also beat people. Their denial once again shows that they never respect the truth."
The victims of police brutality include a Redemptorist brother was severely beaten by at least six men and was in serious condition.
One parishioner spoke with the Associated Press shortly after the incident near the police station, which is about 300 yards from the church.
Her face and shirt showing blood, parishioner Thi Phuc had sought refuge in the church.
"They beat me on my face and used a stun gun to shock my daughter," Nguyen Thi Phuc said.
Church leaders filed a complaint on Friday protesting the behavior of the police while demonstrators in Hanoi continued to camp on the disputed land.
Vu Hong Khanh, vice chairman of the Hanoi People's Committee, said at a press conference that the parishioners had no legal claim to the disputed land, which is about 172,000 square feet and presently occupied by a textile factory.
“If they need more land for their religious practice they have to apply to authorities to be granted land in accordance with the law,” he said.
Also occurring on Thursday was a prayer vigil held by more than 3,000 Catholics at the Saigon Redemptorist Monastery, according to Fr. J.B. An Dang. The demonstrators asked for the restoration of confiscated monastery lands they say were illegally seized by the local government and made professions of solidarity with the demonstrators in Hanoi. The vigil was likely one of the largest protests assembled since the Communist takeover in 1975.
At the vigil, a Mass was concelebrated by priests from various religious orders in Saigon (Ho Chi Min City) and nearby provinces to pray for the Church in Vietnam and for Catholics in Hanoi.
Father Vincent Nguyen Trung Thanh, the provincial superior of the Redemptorists in Vietnam, asked the congregation to thank God for all the graces poured abundantly on them and even for the sufferings and the persecutions.
“Through events in Thai Ha, we understand the Gospel more clearly…We stand more clearly on the side of the poor, the weak, the marginal, the persecuted, and those suffering injustice…We see more clearly the true face of a world dominated by lies, trickery, and tyranny,” said Father Vincent Nguyen.
Hundreds of police were sent to the Mass to take photos and film.
There are about 6 million Catholics in Vietnam, making them the country’s second-largest group of religious adherents after Buddhists.