Cablegate: Police Detain Seven Catholics Involved in Protests Over

DE RUEHHI #1007/01 2421040
R 291040Z AUG 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) HANOI 980 B) HANOI 446 C) HANOI 160


1. (SBU) Local police on August 28 arrested four individuals in
connection with ongoing Catholic land-dispute demonstrations in
Hanoi's Thai Ha parish; another three were later taken into custody
after they protested the arrests. The state-controlled press has
continued a daily drumbeat of criticism, accusing the Catholics of
unlawful acts. Thai Ha parish priests told us that they are angry
about the arrests and, in particular, the negative press coverage.
Neither side appears willing to compromise on the issue of who owns
the land near the parish, and the church doesn't seem willing to end
its demonstrations anytime soon. End Summary.

2. (SBU) On August 28, Poloff visited Thai Ha parish to view the
site and to speak with parish priests and protestors involved in
this most recent round of demonstrations involving disputed land

Story Behind the Story

3. (SBU) The Thai Ha Church is one of the larger Catholic churches
in Hanoi and belongs to the Redemptorist religious order. According
to parish priests, the government confiscated all 15 acres of
church-owned land in 1962, except for the property where the actual
church building was located. (The priests dispute a government
claim that control of the property had been signed over in 1961,
insisting that the signed documents were simply a survey.) The
government converted some of the monastery buildings into a large
hospital, while the remaining parcels of land were given to
state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In 2007, the parish built a new
prayer chapel on an adjoining property with the tacit blessing of
the SOEs, but without direct government approval. Local authorities
have now threatened to take back the land where the new chapel and
home are located arguing that they never gave approval. The main
piece of land in dispute is separated from the rest of the church
property by the hospital and is about a block away from the main
church and the new prayer chapel.

4. (SBU) The protests began in January (Ref C) after one of the
SOEs began construction on the disputed site. The protests quieted
down during the Tet Holiday while the church awaited the decision of
municipal leaders regarding returning the land, but resumed in April
after the city government refused the Thai Ha church's claim (Ref
B). Finally, after hearing rumors that the SOEs had begun selling
it to individuals for housing development, the priests decided to
restart the demonstrations again on August 14 (Ref A). In the most
recent round of protests, the demonstrators destroyed a small brick
wall (about 2-3 feet tall) on the side of the property adjacent to
the street.

Protests Continue and Talking with Demonstrators
--------------------------------------------- ---

5. (SBU) Since the restart of the demonstrations, parish priests
have led twice-daily prayer sessions at the disputed site, which
attract on average more than 250 people, sometimes more. Upon
visiting the site, we saw an orderly group of over 100 individuals,
primarily women and ethnic minorities, praying and singing under two
awnings set up by the demonstrators to shield them from the hot sun.
In the middle of the property the church has put together a small
makeshift altar with a statue of the Virgin Mary, a cross, incense
burners, candles and other pictures of the Virgin Mary. Since the
protestors tore down the small brick wall on August 15 there is no
barrier to enter the property. On the opposite end of the property,
we saw 30 policemen sitting under an awning observing the
protestors. We spoke with several of the demonstrators who claimed
to have had family members or friends detained for questioning on
August 15. They said they had not heard from these individuals
since being detained. Some of the protestors from outside Hanoi
claimed to have heard about the protest through the news and decided
to travel to the site in order to support their Catholic brothers
and sisters in Hanoi.

Four Arrests + Three More = 7

6. (SBU) The priests informed us that they had just learned that
the government had on August 27 decided to open a criminal
investigation into the alleged destruction of property and
disturbing the peace. They said that Mr. Le Quang Kien, 63, had
been detained by police for questioning on the morning of August 28.
Mr. Le was later formally arrested and the police also sought to
question Mr. Le's wife, Mrs. Le Thi Hoi, 61, but she refused to
leave her home. She called the parish priests to ask for
assistance. The parish sent two priests and two other members of

HANOI 00001007 002 OF 002

the parish to assist Mrs. Le. During our meeting, the parish priests
received several phone calls from the Le home saying she had too
been arrested. The priests said that they knew of two other
individuals, including a member of the Hmong minority, who had been
detained for questioning that morning as well. At a press
conference later in the afternoon, the Hanoi Chief of Police and
Vice Chair of the Hanoi People's Committee announced that an
additional three individuals had been taken into custody after they
joined demonstrations outside the police station where the four were
being held.

7. (SBU) The priests expressed anger that the government had turned
a civil dispute over who owned the land into a criminal issue. The
priests also affirmed that the ten priests at the Thai Ha parish
stand ready to bear responsibility for their actions. They insisted
that parishioners alone will not be sent to jail and that in the
future they will insist on joining their parishioners in jail.

Press as Cheerleader and Provocateur

8. (SBU) One of the biggest complaints of the local priests relates
to the press and the falsehoods that they say have been printed in
the state-controlled media. Since the demonstrations began again on
August 14, daily reports in the local press (print, television and
radio) have, in fact, been strongly critical of the actions of the
Thai Ha parish and its parishioners. "Man on the street" interviews
have featured neighbors complaining about the Thai Ha parish and
Catholics complaining about the actions of the parish. The August
21 "Voice of Vietnam" went so far as to publish an editorial
claiming that the actions of the parish priests run counter to the
teachings of Jesus Christ.

Comment: It's Just Another Brick in the Wall

9. (SBU) The action taken by parishioners in tearing down the brick
wall on the disputed property seems to have given the government an
opening to criticize the church and to intimidate the parishioners
by criminalizing some of their actions. As evidenced by the
high-level participation in today's press conference, local
authorities are not backing down and may think that they now have
public opinion on their side in arresting some of the main


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