Cablegate: Catholic Church Challenges Gvn Over Land Dispute

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1. (SBU) Summary: A long simmering land dispute between Vietnam's
Catholic Church and the GVN has heated up in recent weeks. Church
leaders and their followers gather daily to pray in front of the old
Vatican Embassy in Hanoi, one of many church properties taken over
by the government after 1954 when former colonial power France
relinquished control. While the Prime Minister's unannounced visit
in December 2007 to the disputed site raised hope that the Church's
long pending request for the property might be resolved, the
official reaction from the Hanoi People's Committee in January
called on the Church to cease the prayer vigils, calling them
illegal. Recent escalations, including a scuffle between police and
parishioners over the weekend, reflect the Church's determination to
continue the pressure on the GVN. The Embassy has sent a diplomatic
note expressing concern over the possibility of force being used
against peaceful demonstrators and urging a dialogue to seek a
mutually agreeable resolution to church property disputes. End


2. (U) The 2.5 acre property sits next to the offices of the Hanoi
Archbishop and St. Joseph's Cathedral. The main building on the
property, a French-style villa, was the residence of the Vatican
envoy until he was deported in 1959. The Church maintains that the
land and the building were returned to the Church until 1962, when
the GVN forcibly took over the land and the building. The GVN
disputes this, claiming that on 24 November 1961, Father Nguyen Tung
Cuong, then the Financial Administrator and Property Manager of the
Archdiocese, donated the property to the government.

3. (U) The Archbishop's Office confirmed that each Hanoi Archbishop
has requested the return of the property, but the Church has never
received a response. Press reports quoted Duong Ngoc Tan, head of
the Catholics Department under the Government Committee for
Religious Affairs (CRA), as saying that the government will consider
any housing or land demand in accordance with the law. He cited the
Land Law, which stipulates that the State does not accept any claim
for land given to other users during the implementation of land
policies of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1945-1975), the
Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South
Vietnam (1969-1976) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

4. (U) Per Decision 23 issued by the 11th National Assembly on Nov.
26, 2003, the property was put under the management and use of the
Hoan Kiem People's Committee (a local level authority under the
Hanoi People's Committee) and it is under State possession. The
Hanoi People's Committee stated that the property has been
continuously managed and used by the Hoan Kiem District Sport Center
and the Hoan Kiem District Cultural House for 40 years and that the
community still requires these services for local cultural and
sports activities.

5. (U) In 2005, the Vietnamese Episcopal Council agreed to open an
office in Hanoi. The Church, short on adequate facilities, began
raising this issue with the GVN regularly, culminating in an open
letter in December 2007 from Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet and regular
candlelight prayer vigils outside the property.

Recent Events

6. (U) In his open letter of December 15, 2007, Archbishop Kiet
called on Catholic parishioners to pray for the GVN to return the
property to the Church. The Archbishop criticized the central
government and Hanoi authorities for not paying due attention and
respect to the Church's legitimate need for land.

7. (U) On December 18, 2007, at the end of a Christmas performance,
Catholic parishioners attending the performance formed a parade
heading to the site of the former Vatican Embassy building. For
just under an hour, hundreds stood outside in prayer. Candles were
lit, and a statue of the Virgin Mary was brought onto the property
and erected in front of the building. Parishioners conducted
similar prayer vigils over the following weeks and parishioners from
different parishes attended evening services at the Cathedral, and
joined the vigils afterward.

8. (U) On December 30, 2007, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made an
unannounced visit to the offices of the Archbishop, had a private
meeting with him, and then walked to the site of the disputed
property. While GVN-controlled newspapers and media did not report
the visit, Viet Catholic News Agency, run by overseas Vietnamese,
posted pictures on their website of PM Dung in conversation with the
Archbishop, while looking at the former Vatican building over the
fence. Other pictures showed parishioners signing a book calling
for the State to return the property to the Church. While the

HANOI 00000097 002.2 OF 003

Archbishop's Office stated that the content of the discussions
between the Prime Minister and the Archbishop were regarding a
private matter, press reports indicate the PM promised to look into
the matter of the disputed land.

9. (U) In a rare press interview shortly after PM Dung's visit,
Nguyen The Doanh, Chairman of the Government Committee on Religious
Affairs, said the Church technically must not ask the State to
"return" the piece of property. He hinted that a different wording
should have been used, and that the State is willing to consider the
Church's request for land to use for religious activities according
to the law.

10. (SBU) Catholic insiders claim the Church has all of the records
proving the land belongs to the Church, but the GVN has not asked
for the documents. Father Le Trong Cung, Chief of Chancery of Hanoi
Archbishop's Office, told Poloff that the GVN knows the land belongs
to the Church, but can't just give it back as the GVN would lose
respect. The GVN has asked the Church to apply for the land, but
the Church does not feel it should have to apply for something that
already belongs to it. While Fr. Cung was hopeful for a resolution
in the Church's favor, he did not express any optimism that it would
come any time soon.

11. (U) On January 14, the Hanoi People's Committee issued an
official letter calling for Archbishop Kiet and the parishioners
gathered for prayer vigils to cease all illegal activities, stop all
violations of the laws and regulations for religious practice and
remove the Virgin Mary statue from the property. The January 14
statement accused the Archbishop of "using freedom of religion to
provoke protests against the government" and thus "damaging
relations between Vietnam and the Vatican". (Note: The GVN and the
Vatican established a Joint Working Group in late 2007 to explore
conditions for the establishment of official relations. End note.)
The Archbishop's Office responded in the press, blaming the Hanoi
authorities for its unfair treatment, and reaffirming the right of
Catholic parishioners to gather for prayer vigils.

12. (SBU) On Friday, January 25, following the morning anniversary
Mass commemorating the 90th birthday, 60 years as a priest, and 45
years as Bishop of Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung, between 1,500 and 2,000
parishioners and approximately 100 priests gathered at the site to
pray. Poloff observed parishioners climbing over the gate at the
site of the former Vatican embassy building and tearing down signs
put on the building by city authorities. Reports indicate that a
woman was kicked and slapped by security officers after the she
climbed over the gate into the courtyard to light candles and lay
flowers at the statue of the Virgin Mary. A male parishioner,
well-known democracy activist Le Quoc Quan attempted to come to her
aid, but was also beaten and dragged away with blood pouring from
his ear. The chief priest of Ham Long parish church, also chief
priest in charge of Hanoi city portion of the archdiocese, then
shouted through a portable loudspeaker, calling on the police to
release the woman. The angry crowd of parishioners then broke
through the gate in an attempt to prevent further actions by the
security officers.

13. (U) On Saturday, January 26, the Hanoi People's Committee sent a
second official letter, stating that the Archbishop's Office has
allowed the situation to deteriorate, resulting in parishioners and
clergy assaulting security officers, damaging government property,
erecting tents on government property, and disrupting public
traffic. The letter issued an ultimatum, calling for the Church to
remove the Virgin Mary statue and all banners, tents, and
parishioners by 5 pm, Sunday, January 27. POL staff visited the
site at 4:45 pm on Sunday, January 27, and saw crowds of people
singing and praying, as well as a number of onlookers waiting to see
what might happen. By 5:40 pm, the crowd had grown, but no
government action was taken.

14. (SBU) On January 28, the embassy sent a diplomatic note to the
MFA and the Hanoi People's Committee asking for clarification of
reports that Vietnamese officials have called the current
demonstrations illegal. We noted that the threat or use of force
against peaceful demonstrators would be of grave concern, and called
for the Hanoi People's Committee to engage in a dialogue with church
leaders to reach a mutually agreeable resolution regarding Church
properties confiscated over the years.


15. (SBU) This long simmering land dispute is one of many lingering
land issues left over from the communist takeover in the 1950's,
many involving the Catholic Church. With six million faithful
representing about seven percent of the population, the Catholic
community in Vietnam is significant. Issues of religious freedom

HANOI 00000097 003.2 OF 003

remain in Vietnam, but this particular dispute is less about
ideology than it is about valuable land. The property in question
is in the center of the city, close to tourist sites and businesses,
and would be extremely valuable to developers in Hanoi's booming
real estate market.

16. (SBU) While the incident on January 25 and the letters from the
Hanoi People's Committee are unsettling, the muted response from the
GVN is remarkable. The fact that close to 2000 people were able to
gather and call for a change in government policy related to the
Catholic Church without significant police action or GVN reprisal in
part reflects a sufficient feeling of comfort on both sides that the
Church can air its grievances publicly and the state feels it can
tolerate them. The GVN also recognizes that its improved position
internationally with respect to religious freedom has been hard won
and is still on shaky ground. Contacts tell us that the Vatican is
watching events closely, particularly with regard to the ultimatum
issued by the Hanoi People's Committee. With international
observers watching closely and the Catholic Church determined to
continue the prayer vigils, the ball is now in the GVN's court. End

© Scoop Media

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