Cablegate: Thai Ha Church Land Ownership Dispute Continues

DE RUEHHI #0499/01 1200724
R 290724Z APR 08 ZDK




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Thai Ha Church Land Ownership Dispute Continues

REFS: A. Hanoi 0160 B. Hanoi 0446 C. Hanoi 0278

HANOI 00000499 001.2 OF 002

1. (SBU) Summary. Despite numerous calls from Hanoi authorities to
cease, Catholic believers continue to gather at a site adjacent to
Hanoi's Thai Ha Catholic parish church, in a dispute with the
Government of Vietnam (GVN), now in its fourth month (Refs A, B).
While the numbers of congregants gathering at the site has lessened
for the time being, the dispute is far from resolved and local Hanoi
officials appear to be at a loss on next steps. End summary.

2. (SBU) In an ongoing dispute with local government officials,
Hanoi Thai Ha parish congregants are seeking the return of property
currently controlled by the GVN and have been gathering at the
disputed site, off and on, since January 2008 (Refs. A and B). In
an April 23 meeting with Poloff, Father Nguyen Van Khai, one of the
senior priests at Thai Ha parish, clarified that the impetus for the
recent gatherings at the site was a negative media campaign by the
local state-controlled press. Press reports criticized Catholic
believers for their efforts, accused them of making the situation
increasingly tense, and called for them to obey an order from local
authorities to stop gathering and clean up the site before noon on
April 7. Local newspapers also reported that the crowd of Catholic
believers was prepared to confront law enforcement. The reports
stated that law enforcement officials did not rise to the challenge,
implying that the Catholic congregants were seeking a violent
confrontation, according to Father Khai.

3. (SBU) Instead of discouraging the gatherings, Father Khai
explained that the media campaign actually had the opposite affect.
While only small groups of congregants have been gathering at the
site at 6 am and 7:30 pm to attend 15 minute praying sessions
everyday over the last few months, several hundred Catholic
believers began showing up at the disputed site following the
offensive press reports. According to Father Khai, approximately
1,000 people who attend each Mass on Saturday and Sunday (one each
morning and one each evening) now gather at the site for 15 minutes
of prayer following the service.

4. (SBU) On April 11, the municipal People's Committee of Hanoi
summoned the parish leadership to discuss the ongoing dispute at the
offices of the Hanoi Department for Natural Resources and
Environment. Local officials accused parish priests and
parishioners of violating current laws and regulations related to
traffic, construction, and public order by illegally gathering at
the disputed site, causing noise, blocking traffic, illegally
installing two tents on public property, and destroying public
property by dismantling a wall intended to separate the disputed
land from a street. According to Father Khai, he and a group of
Thai Ha parish priests disputed each allegation, noting that the
prayer gatherings are twice a day for 15 minutes, those gathered
stay on the public sidewalk and are quiet and respectful, and the
tents are temporary and while they may be a violation of law, so is
construction of a wall and continued GVN control of the land.

5. (SBU) Regarding the land dispute, local officials stated that
they had completed their investigation into the matter and
determined that there is no legal foundation behind the Church's
claim to the land. The Thai Ha parish leadership, in turn,
presented documents to prove their ownership over the disputed land
and pointed out that the GVN never issued any formal decision to
confiscate the land (as required by law), nor had the Church ever
formally sold or returned the land to the GVN. In response, local
officials offered to turn part of disputed land into a public garden
and another part, currently housing a temporary chapel, into a
community center. Doubting that the local officials would keep
their word, Father Khai and the rest of the group refused the offer
and restated the parish's legal claim to the land. Father Khai
noted that although the local official stated their decision was
final, "we've heard that before."

6. (SBU) Father Khai noted that four police cars were present when
the group arrived for the April 11 meeting and that police, both
uniformed and plain-clothed, maintain an ongoing presence at the
disputed site. He confirmed that there has been no violence between
police and those gathered, but noted that the police frequently film
the gatherings and take pictures.

7. (SBU) Father Khai highlighted that many local officials have
visited the site, attempting to persuade Church officials to ask
people to stop gathering at the site, including representatives from
the neighborhood and city level administrations, the Vietnam
Fatherland Front, the Vietnam Women's Union, and the People's
Committee. However, given that a number of Catholic bishops have
announced their public support of Thai Ha Church's efforts, the Thai
Ha leadership and those gathered have no intention of giving in to
the pressure. Father Khai asserted that Catholic believers will not
be shaken in their confidence that they would win this battle,
claiming that Catholic believers are becoming more and more

HANOI 00000499 002.2 OF 002

determined to continue the fight. He believes local officials are
now at a loss for what to do about the ongoing gatherings - they
have tried all means at their disposal, yet the Catholic believers
continue to gather and insist on the return of the land.

8. (SBU) Comment: Although resolving the dispute over the site at
Thai Ha parish is not a stated priority for the Catholic Church
leadership in Vietnam, the disagreement with Hanoi authorities seems
to have touched a nerve with local Catholics, who refuse to be cowed
by threats or persuaded by cajoling, and has left the Hanoi People's
Committee with few remaining options. All efforts by local
authorities at intimidation and persuasion appear to have the
opposite affect on the parishioners, hardening their resolve and
increasing calls for a return of the land to the church. The Hanoi
People's Committee must now decide whether to continue its efforts
to seek a resolution or allow the construction of a planned factory
to begin at the site. The latter will likely require the detention
and possible arrest of Catholic parishioners, and almost certainly
result in public outrage of the wider Catholic community, both in
Vietnam and elsewhere. Whether the national government will become
involved should the local authorities attempt to pursue the latter
course of action, as the GVN did in the dispute over the former
Vatican residence (Ref. C), remains to be seen. End comment.

© Scoop Media

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