Cablegate: Unexpected Progress On Catholic Church Land Issues

DE RUEHHI #0448/01 1090407
R 180407Z APR 08 ZDK




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Unexpected Progress on Catholic Church Land Issues

REFS: A. HANOI 0278; B. HANOI 0442

HANOI 00000448 001.2 OF 002

1. (SBU) Summary: In an unexpected move, central Quang Tri
Provincial authorities announced a Government of Vietnam (GVN)
decision to return the La Vang property to the Catholic Church
following meetings in late March and early April between GVN
authorities and the Catholic Episcopal Council of Vietnam. The La
Vang church and pilgrimage center is one of three "priority
properties" the Catholic Church has formally requested the GVN
return and a significant Catholic pilgrimage site in Vietnam. The
two sides also discussed a resolution to the ongoing property
dispute over the former Vatican residence in Hanoi (Ref. A). With
the return of the La Vang property and an ongoing dialogue with the
GVN on the former Vatican residence, the Catholic Church continues
to inch closer to solving its major property disputes with the GVN.
Nevertheless, other Catholic property disputes, including an ongoing
demonstration at Thai Ha parish in Hanoi (Ref. B), remain
unresolved. End summary.

La Vang Church, Quang Tri Province

2. (SBU) According to Father Thomas Thuy, an administrator in the
Hanoi Archbishop's Office, the GVN made the decision to return the
long-disputed land in central Quang Tri province following a meeting
on March 20, between Vice Minister of Public Security Nguyen Van
Huong and the President of the Episcopal Council of Vietnam, Dalat
Bishop Nguyen Van Nhon, at which they reportedly discussed the
return of the land in Quang Tri, as well as developments regarding
the Papal nuncio land issue in Hanoi. (Note. The La Vang property is
one of three "priority properties" the Catholic Church has formally
requested the GVN return to the Episcopal Council; the other two are
the former Papal Nuncio in Hanoi and the Pius X Pontifical Institute
in Dalat. End Note.)

3. (SBU) On April 10, provincial authorities met with leaders of the
Hue Archdiocese (which covers Quang Tri) and announced that they
would return 20 hectares of land (out of a total of approximately 23
hectares) to the Archdiocese. Previously belonging to a parish
church dedicated to "Our Mary of La Vang" before 1975, the land was
confiscated by the GVN after 1975. While a church was built to
replace the one destroyed during the war and several private
residences have been built on the site, most of the property has
remained largely unused ever since. At a March 20 meeting, Bishop
Nhon told MPS Vice Minister Huong that the Church would be willing
to help with compensation for households on the 20 hectares that
would need to be resettled as part of the handover. Catholic
sources confirm that the GVN and the Catholic Church also agreed
that the remaining 2-3 hectares, now housing several local
Government buildings, would eventually be returned to the Catholic
Church at a later date.

4. (SBU) The process of actually handing over the land is still
subject to detailed discussions between the Catholic Church and the
Quang Tri provincial authorities. Bishop Nhon reported that the
Church plans to upgrade the site and build additional facilities,
turning the current "Our Mary of La Vang" Pilgrimage Center into a
national Catholic pilgrimage complex. Separately, Church officials
expressed some concern to POL staff that discussions with provincial
authorities on compensation rates and other technical aspects may be
lengthy and complicated, delaying the date of an actual turnover.

Former Vatican Residence, Hanoi

5. (SBU) The ongoing issue of the former Vatican residence was also
discussed during the March 20 meeting (Ref A.). Bishop Nhon
reportedly refused Vice Minister Huong's proposal that the GVN
provide the Church with a new plot of land in exchange for the land
currently occupied by the former Vatican residence. "Vietnamese
bishops will not compromise when it comes to the Papal Nuncio issue.
They are willing to compensate for the construction that has been
built on the site through the years, and that's about it," Father
Thuy of the Hanoi Archbishop's office asserted. (Note: There are
several buildings on the site, including a restaurant, now closed,
and a community center with a swimming pool and dance hall. End

6. (SBU) Father Thuy went on to say that the Church leadership
believes that the GVN decision to return the land in Quang Tri was
designed to ease the flow of numerous formal requests to reclaim
Catholic properties in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and elsewhere. The
GVN decision would also send a message to the Holy See about the
GVN's willingness to address pending issues of interest to the
Catholic Church in Vietnam, in advance of a Vatican delegation that
is expected to visit Vietnam in June 2008 to conduct regular
bilateral meetings with the GVN. However, Father Thuy acknowledged
that the Vatican delegation would likely not formally raise the

HANOI 00000448 002.2 OF 002

Vietnamese Catholic Church's request to claim back its major
properties with the GVN during the talks.

7. (SBU) Father Thuy went on to note that in recent years the
Catholic Church has not made its disagreements with the GVN public,
understanding that the GVN prefers to keep these issues out of the
spotlight. However, it appears that the Church's patience with the
GVN's lack of responsiveness has begun to run out. Father Thuy
asserted that by making the pending requests publicly known, the
Catholic hierarchy believes it is now putting justified pressure on
the GVN to take action on claims, instead of just ignoring them.

Comment: Progress on Property Issue, More to Come
--------------------------------------------- ----

8. (SBU) With the pending return of the La Vang property and an
ongoing dialogue with the GVN on the former Vatican residence, the
Catholic Church continues to inch closer to solving its major
property disputes with the GVN. The GVN is likely betting that
approval of the return of the La Vang property will stem the flow of
Church property claim requests. However, as the Church gains
success in getting property returned, and brings more of its
concerns into public, more parishes are now jumping on the bandwagon
and pushing the GVN for the return of disputed property. Whether
the GVN could now backtrack remains to be seen. The decision to
return the La Vang property may buy the GVN some breathing room, but
the issue of disputed Church property is now one that will not be
ignored for long.


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