Around 200 people marched through the center of Hanoi Friday in an ongoing dispute between the state and the Catholic Church over the use of land.
Early Friday morning protesters shouting slogans and waving banners walked along the banks of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake to submit a request to the city’s People’s Committee asking the state to return land claimed by the church.
The tussle has been going on for decades, but this week the dispute reached a new level when authorities built a sewage treatment center near Thai Ha church in the center of the city.
The water treatment area is meant to serve a hospital housed in a building once used as a monastery by the church. Catholic lawyer Le Quoc Quan says police started blocking off roads near the hospital without warning and construction began after dark.
“They started at 7 p.m. and [work continued] until 12 a.m. Many people wanted to protest the construction but the [parish priest] told people to stay inside the church and pray,” he said.
While the construction work was going on, around 300 parishioners stayed inside the church to pray. Quan said they stayed inside to avoid provoking violence.
The dispute over land has raged since the Communist Party took power and seized control of many properties owned by the church. Father Nguyen Van Phuong says that for parishioners at Thai Ha church, the protest is about the monastery.
“They first took the monastery from us in 1959 and they built a school in it," he said. "In 1972, the school was transformed into a hospital. All of that without our consent.”
Lawyer Quan says that according to Vietnamese law, authorities have to inform residents if there is a development plan in the area. However, he says Thai Ha parishioners were not notified. It is this issue of consent that is the crux of the argument, says Father Phuong.
“We are not against the project of water treatment in itself but we are against the fact that they proceeded to build it without our consent. We say that when they have so much land and money to make a golf course and luxurious hotels and so many residential projects they can make a hospital for the people.”
The parishioners first sent a petition protesting the planned sewage treatment center to district officials at the beginning of November. Having received no response, they decided to appeal to a higher administrative level - the city’s People’s Committee. If their request is ignored again, Quan says, they will petition the prime minister.
Earlier protests were not always so sedate. In 2008, supporters staged sit-ins on land adjacent to the church that the state planned to turn into a public park. The protests lasted several months and ended with eight arrests.
Growing congregation, shrinking space
Far from putting people off coming to church, Father Phuong says his congregation is growing in size at a fast pace. However, this is adding to the problem, as state development projects eat away at land designated for worship, says Father Phuong. Now space is becoming more limited for activities like Sunday school, training for monks and pro-life groups.
“Before the revolution we had over 61,000 square meters. Now they have taken all that from us and we have just 2,000 square meters. In the meanwhile, the number of Christians has grown immensely," he said. "Now every weekend we have from 15,000 to 20,000 parishioners, so we asked for the hospital to be removed [sic] to somewhere more convenient for a hospital.”
The dispute is even attracting non-Christians. Among them is blogger Bui Thanh Hieu, who took part in the protest on Friday. Hieu says he wants to tell people what is happening at the church because the media in Vietnam is guided by the state, so access to free information is very limited.
As yet there has been no official comment on the protests. However, in response to a protest by thousands of Catholics in Vinh City in August, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said issues with Catholics are related to land, not religion. Respect for human rights is written in the constitution, she said, and is observed in reality.