Cablegate: Catholic Church Protests: Different Location, Same Issues

DE RUEHHI #0160/01 0450523
R 140523Z FEB 08





E.O. 12958: N/A



HANOI 00000160 001.2 OF 002

1. (U) Summary: While there has been apparent progress in defusing
the dispute over the former Vatican residence in Hanoi, another
dispute has arisen at Thai Ha parish in Hanoi where the GVN's
approval of construction of a state-owned sewing factory on the
disputed property triggered a wave of protests. Parish leaders told
poloff that, while several online religious news services reported
demonstrations at the site with numbers up to 10,000 people, it was
actually a special Mass that drew close to 10,000 people, including
many from dioceses outside of Hanoi. The church officials also said
that parishioners are reporting indirect harassment from security
officials, but there have been no arrests or injuries. The Hanoi
People's Committee has temporarily halted construction at the site,
while an investigation into the church's claims continue. The case
highlights the growing need for some mechanism to handle other
long-standing land disputes between religious congregations and the
GVN. End summary.

Background: Church Property Taken By GVN
2. (U) The Redemptorists (a Roman Catholic missionary order) bought
a piece of land of more than six hectares at Thai Ha, in central
Hanoi, to build a convent and a church in 1928. The convent was
inaugurated in 1929 and the church was inaugurated six years later,
in 1935. The communist government took over a large portion of the
property in 1959, converted the convent into Dong Da hospital, and
distributed or sold off large parts of the land over the objections
of the church, reducing the original 61,455 square meters to the
2,700 square meters the Church controls today.
3. (U) The church submitted its first request to government
authorities for the disputed land in 1993, and submitted repeated
requests asking for return of the land without receiving any
official response or resolution. Parish leaders told poloff that
various offices of the GVN have told them either they have no
foundation to their claim or that they should wait and the dispute
will be resolved according to the law. While the church claims the
GVN never officially took control of the disputed site as the GVN
has never made an official decision in writing, the GVN has control
of the property and permitted a formerly state-owned company, Chien
Thang company, to construct a factory and to sell off parts of the
land the company does not need to other businesses.
Construction of Factory on Site Triggers Protests
--------------------------------------------- ----

4. (SBU) Church officials told poloff that on January 6,
approximately 3000 people, encouraged by the crowds gathered at the
disputed site of the former Vatican residence (reftel) and angered
at the decision of the local authorities to approve the start of
construction of Chien Thang sewing company, gathered at the
construction site in protest. Approximately 100 police and security
officials were present, some in riot control gear. Security police,
some in uniform and some in plain-clothes, took photos and filmed
with video cameras, attempting to catch agitators in the act. While
no one was arrested, detained, or injured, church officials said the
local police were verbally abusive and roughly manhandled some of
the crowd. By the evening, most of the parishioners dispersed,
leaving approximately 100 people who spent the night on the street
alongside the property.

5. (U) Over the next several days, parishioners, with help from the
church, erected two tents for those who wished to stay overnight at
the site. Poloff observed these tents still in place, along with a
growing number of crosses and candles attached to the wall
separating the street from the construction site. Twenty to thirty
people continue to spend the night at the site.

6. (U) In the weeks following the initial protest, the church
exchanged a number of official letters and met with local
authorities, who orally promised the construction work would cease
while the Hanoi People's Committee conducted an investigation into
the dispute. However, during this time the Hanoi People's
Committee issued both an official order authorizing the sewing
company to resume some work and an official order stopping
construction altogether. Church officials seemed bemused by the
contradictory orders, but confirmed that construction had indeed
stopped and no construction activity, supplies or machinery was
observed by poloff during the visit to the site. According to the
church, the Hanoi People's Committee is conducting an investigation
and they expected to be visited and questioned as part of that
process, but did not expect anything to come of it.

7. (U) Small groups of parishioners continued to gather at the site
throughout January and into February, usually prior to or following
Mass services. While several online religious news services
reported demonstrations at the site with numbers up to 10,000
people, church officials clarified that it was a special Mass, held

HANOI 00000160 002.2 OF 002

on Saturday, February 9, that drew close to 10,000 people, including
many from dioceses outside of Hanoi. The church, the church
courtyard, and many of the surrounding streets, including the street
alongside the construction site, were packed with people coming to
worship. The head priest said that the main purpose of the
gathering was to celebrate Mass, although many of those gathered for
Mass did stop at the site and pray.

8. (SBU) The church officials also said that parishioners are
reporting indirect harassment from security officials. Police and
security officials are reportedly contacting mass organizations,
schools, and government offices telling those in charge to
discourage their members, students, and employees who might be
Catholic, from participating in the gatherings at the disputed site.
While some civil servants have understandably bowed to the
intimidation, the priests noted that many others continue to stop at
the site to pray.

Comment: One Case Among Many to Resolve

9. (SBU) Parish leaders were frank and open in discussing the matter
with poloff and provided a three page written report (in Vietnamese)
detailing the events and the Church's claim to the land. They
expressed hope that if the GVN is willing to seek an amicable
solution to the disputed site adjacent to the Archbishop's office,
there might be a way to get a positive result in this case as well
with continued prayer vigils raising the visibility of the issue.
The Thai Ha parish has increased the pressure on the GVN to
reconsider their case, but has also highlighted the growing need for
some kind of mechanism to handle other long-standing land disputes
between religious congregations and the GVN. Without it, the GVN is
likely to continue to face repeated protests and continued unwanted
publicity and international attention over disputed land,
particularly as property values continue to climb and churches face
an increasing need for facilities to attend to growing


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