The simmering property disputes between the Catholic Church and the Vietnamese government were again aggravated on Sunday when a Hanoi official accused the Archbishop of Hanoi of inciting riots, making false allegations against the government, ridiculing the law, and disrespecting the nation.
Meanwhile late Sunday night, a street gang made a second attack upon a chapel at Thai Ha Church with no interference from nearby police. In what one priest called a “sort of terrorism” against the Catholic faithful, the gang ransacked the building, destroying statues and books while shouting threats against the lives of clergy and religious, Catholic faithful, and the Archbishop of Hanoi.
On Sunday evening state media reported a statement by Nguyen The Thao, the chairman of People’s Committee of Hanoi City. Father J.B. An Dang told CNA that the chairman criticized Archbishop of Hanoi Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, accusing the prelate’s Friday letter to the Vietnamese president and prime minister of conveying “distortional information.”
The chairman charged that the letter contained language “challenging the state,” specifically quoting the archbishop’s words “We have our rights to use all of our capabilities to protect our property.”
The property dispute concerns church land confiscated by the Vietnamese government decades ago, including the former papal nunciature and the lands surrounding the Redemptorists’ Thai Ha Church.
Chairman Thao accused the archbishop of treason for “smearing the state” and reported that the archbishop’s actions have “angered people of the capital.”
“These behaviors of offending the law and going against the benefits of state and nation must be punished severely in order to defend our regime, to protect the rights and legitimate benefits of the state and citizens,” the chairman continued.
On Sunday morning thousands of Catholics demonstrated in Hanoi, following a protest of more than 5,000 people the previous evening. The protests were renewed in response to the government’s decision to begin demolishing the former papal nunciature, claiming the land would be used for a library and a park.
The Sunday protest was the largest since the Communist takeover in 1954.
Bishop Joseph Dang Duc Ngan of the Diocese of Lang Son and hundreds of priests led a march of more than ten thousand through the city to the nunciature where they set up an altar and statue of Our Lady in the street, according to Fr. An Dang.
The former papal nunciature site has been surrounded by rolls of barbed wire and a police cordon with dogs. Within the cordon, workers were pulling down the building. Outside the cordon, protestors sang and prayed.
On Friday the Associated Press Hanoi Bureau Chief Ben Stocking was detained by police while covering the demonstrations at the site. He left police custody with a gash in his head requiring four stitches, charging that police had choked, punched and bashed him with his own camera, the Associated Press reports.
A Vietnamese foreign ministry statement denied the reporter had been beaten while in police custody and tried to justify his detention.
"Stocking broke the Vietnamese law by deliberately taking pictures at a place where taking pictures was not allowed," the statement said, the AP says. "Officers who were on duty to keep the public order warned him, but Mr. Stocking did not follow.”
Over at Thai Ha Church, a Redemptorist monastery which is also the center of a property dispute, a street gang attacked a chapel at the church from late Sunday night through early Monday morning.
According to local Redemptorist priests, the gang “yelled out slogans calling for the head of the Archbishop of Hanoi and Father Matthew Vu Khoi Phung, the religious superior of Thai Ha monastery.”
“Protestors who slept inside the chapel were evacuated into the monastery.”
The gang reportedly dispersed after they failed to gain entry to the monastery itself.
Nonetheless, the ruffians did take their fury out on Church property. “All statues of Our Lady where protestors pray every day were completely destroyed. They left pieces of the statues inside the yard of the monastery,” the Redemptorists at the monastery added.
More details were revealed in Father Matthew Vu Khoi Phung’s letter of complaint, which was released Monday and addressed to the People’s Committee of Hanoi City and police agencies of Hanoi and Dong Da district.
According to the letter, at 11:20 pm local time “a crowd in great numbers surrounded our monastery and our church… They yelled, smashed everything on their way, threw stones into our monastery, and shattered the gate of Saint Gerardo Chapel.”
“The gang yelled out slogans threatening to kill priests, religious, faithful and even our archbishop,” the monastery’s superior clergyman wrote.
Father Matthew Vu continued, saying “everything happened clearly in front of a large number of officials, police, security personnel, anti-riot police, and mobile police – those who are in charge of keeping security and safety in the region.
“But they did nothing to protect us,” he charged.
Father Vu also reported that on Sunday evening a gang of about 200 young men wearing the blue shirts of the Youth Communist League, came to Thai Ha Church “to disturb order, smear and spit on the face of our priests, religious and faithful.”
In this case, too, police did not intervene.
“This is a sort of terrorism against Catholic faithful and clergy taking place right at the center of the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” Father Vu said.
The attack on Thai Ha Church was the second in the past week. At about 1 am local time on Friday, a gang attacked the altar used to celebrate open air Mass for the protestors near the church. The altar was ransacked and statues of the Virgin Mary were sprayed with used motor oil.
Father Joseph Nguyen of Hanoi reported that the former protest site has been surrounded by rolls of barbed wire.
“Police and their dogs attack anyone who comes to the site. This shows a clear signal from an unyielding government which has been determined to persecute rather than dialogue,” Father Nguyen said.
“Hanoi Catholics have been very upset with the assault; and they are really concerned for Thai Ha parishioners and their priests. Many pieces of the land in dispute were provided to high police officials. They were particularly enraged with Thai Ha Catholics since they were not able to sell their land, he added.