Hundreds of Catholic protestors seeking the return of a former papal nunciature confiscated by the communist government were attacked on Thursday afternoon in a confrontation with youths, military veterans, and members of other communist associations.
The pro-government gang chased protestors from the area and then gathered at the gate of the Archbishop of Hanoi’s office, yelling communist slogans and calling for the head of the archbishop, whom they accused of treason.
The incident comes just one week after a letter written by several U.S. Congressmen asked the Vietnamese government to respect peaceful protests and the rights of free speech and religious expression.
During the 4 p.m. Thursday clash, priests and the staff of the Hanoi archbishopric withdrew inside the office and closed all the doors. Fr. J.B. An Dang tells CNA that the hundreds of nearby police and government officials who were securing the demolition of the former papal nunciature did nothing to help the Catholics.
Some of the police and government officials reportedly helped the attackers destroy an iron cross protestors had erected at the site in January.
The pro-government forces also placed a statue of the Pieta in a truck to be carried away. Protesters had wheeled the statue onto the Nunciature grounds during their first vigil right before Christmas 2007. The statue had been located at the disputed property before it was seized by the communists in 1959.
Some protestors ran into the nearby St. Joseph’s Cathedral, where they continuously rang the bells to ask for help from nearby parishes.
Once the bells were rung, police urged the pro-government mob to withdraw to avoid conflict with Catholics who were rushing to the site. The truck with the Pieta statue then drove away.
“When I rushed to the site, they carried the statue away. I asked police here why they let this happen,” said Hanoi priest Fr. Joseph Nguyen, J.B. An Dang reports.
“One police man attributed the actions to the ‘fury of people,’ and told me he was instructed not to interfere with anyone who wanted to protect the state.”
The priest expressed concern about the actions of Nguyen The Thao, Chairman of the People’s Committee of Hanoi City.
“In these days, Nguyen The Thao keeps depicting Catholics as a source of perils and keeps urging people to protect the regime,” he said.
Thao has reportedly taken out of context the words of Archbishop of Hanoi, questioning the prelate’s patriotism in what Fr. An Dang calls “an obvious attempt to deceive and incite socially negative sentiments against him and the Church.”
On Wednesday Fr. Nguyen The Hien of Hanoi Redemptorist Monastery went to the People’s Committee to protest both its warning against Redemptorist priests and its plans to convert the disputed nunciature at the park.
“According to current land law, we have the chance to protest the government decisions up to three times. And after that if our petition is still rejected we still have another chance to solve the dispute at a court. Why did you announce the decision to convert it into a park when we have only been rejected for the first time, and we are still protesting lawfully?” he asked, calling on the committee to respect the law.
J.B. An Dang tells CNA that as of 7 p.m. Hanoi time on Thursday, thousands of Catholics had gathered at the nunciature to protest the attacks against the demonstrators and the archbishop’s office.