Vietnamese Catholic demonstrators seeking the return of land confiscated by the communist government were the target of a forceful government response early Friday morning as hundreds of police surrounded the Archbishop of Hanoi’s residence, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and the former papal nunciature.
As bulldozers drove in to destroy the nunciature, several protestors were arrested and an Associated Press reporter covering the event was detained and beaten.
Meanwhile at Thai Ha Church, a Redemptorist monastery which is also the center of a longstanding property dispute, a gang of vandals attacked the altar used to celebrate open air Mass for the protestors. At about 1 am local time on Friday, the gang ransacked the altar and sprayed statues of the Virgin Mary with used motor oil.
On Thursday the Vietnamese government announced the nunciature would be demolished for a library and a park. By 3:30 am on Friday morning, two bulldozers had moved into the area and had started digging out the lawn, Father An Dang told CNA.
Priests at St. Joseph’s Cathedral rang bells continuously to ask for help from local Catholics. Hundreds of Catholics, hearing the bells, came to the nunciature to protest. At one point a woman and a priest pushed through the police cordon to try to stop the workers, but they were arrested.
Thousands of priests and Catholic faithful are presently protesting at the site.
Archbishop of Hanoi Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet strongly protested the government’s actions in a Friday letter to the Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung asking them to “immediately intervene.”
Saying a “great mass” of police and security forces, militiamen, and police dogs had “besieged” the archbishop’s residence, the archbishop charged that the action is “going against the policy of dialogue that the government and the Archbishop's office are conducting.”
He claimed that state television had reported the demolition plan with “distorted information” and severely rebuked the government action, which he said “smears the legitimate aspirations of the Hanoi Catholic community, ridicules the law, and disrespects the Catholic Church in Vietnam. It is also an act of trembling morality, and a mocking of society’s conscience.”
The archbishop called for a halt to the besieging of his residence and the demolition of the nunciature, asking the government to restore the property to the Catholic Church so it can be used for “religious and community welfare purposes.”
He added that the relevant government agencies and political authorities must accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
“We have our rights to use all of our capabilities to protect our property,” he wrote.
Ben Stocking, the Hanoi bureau chief for The Associated Press, was covering the demonstration and prayer vigil at the nunciature when he was detained and beaten by police. The 49-year-old was punched, choked, and hit over the head with a camera by police, the Associated Press reports.
"They told me I was taking pictures in a place that I was not allowed to be taking pictures. But it was news, and I went in," he told the AP.
Taken to the police station, he said when he reached for his camera a policeman “banged me on the head with the camera and another police officer punched me in the face, straight on.”
Stocking was released from police custody after about two and a half hours, requiring four stitches on the back of his head for a gash caused by the assault.
John Daniszewski, the AP's managing editor for international news, protested Stocking’s treatment, saying "It is an egregious incident of police abuse and unacceptable treatment of a journalist by any civilized government authority."
The U.S. Embassy has also reportedly filed a formal statement of protest with Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry.
The police and government have started ratcheting up their use of aggressive techniques over the past two days.
On Wednesday the Redemptorists reported that the People’s Committee of Hanoi had invited them to discuss the dispute. At the meeting, the Redemptorists stated they had received four documents from the committee purporting to prove that the disputed land at Thai Ha Church had been donated to the government by Father Vu Ngoc Bich in 1961.
However, the documents were contradictory and of questionable authenticity. Two documents said that the priest had donated the land on Oct. 24, 1961, while one reported the date as Nov. 24, 1961 and another as Jan. 30, 1961.
“Also,” Fr. An Dang told CNA, “the papers showed characters in a Unicode font that could not have been available in 1961, as computers simply did not exist at that time.”
During the meeting between the Redemptorists and the People’s Committee of Hanoi, committee vice chairman Vu Hong Khanh addressed the differences by saying “I will sort them out and among them, choose the best.”
He reportedly claimed that the clergy would have no way to challenge the ownership of the land and also told the clergy how to preach to their flock.
Finding himself being harshly ridiculed, one priest stood up and asked Khanh not to teach him how to be a priest.