By Mark Greaves
26 September 2008
Catholics protest outside the former Vatican Embassy building in Hanoi (Photo: CNS)
A row between Vietnamese Catholics and their government escalated wildly last week after the authorities reneged on a promise to return a former apostolic nunciature to the Church.
Thousands of Catholics and hundreds of priests protested outside the building after the government announced that it would be turned into a flower garden and library.
The construction site was guarded by heavily armed police officers and surrounded by barbed wire and an iron fence in order to stop disruption from protestors. Signs were put up that said: "Construction site, taking photos banned."
An Associated Press reporter was beaten by police after being arrested for taking photos of the building work and his camera was confiscated.
Church officials said the move caught them by surprise because the government announced in February that it would return the nunciature to the Church.
The Church officials rang bells in the cathedral and in other churches in the city so that Catholics would gather to protest. Thousands of people marched through the city and set up an altar and a statue of Our Lady in the street outside the barricades.
Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi, meanwhile, urged the government to stop damaging the site and return it to Church use.
According to local sources, anti-riot police surrounded his residence and jammed phone lines so that protestors could not contact him.
Fr Joseph Nguyen, who took part in the protest, said: "We could not even talk to the archbishop or his staff by phone. Police vehicles with technology to block mobile signals prevented us from making or receiving calls."
State-run media also quoted his comments out of context to make him seem unpatriotic, according to Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Saigon.
The cardinal issued a statement clarifying the archbishop's comments and accusing the state-run media of distortion.
Some newspapers have even made up quotes from Catholics who were supposedly critical of the protests.
Local sources also say that some Catholic protestors have been attacked. During a night vigil men forced their way to the outdoor altar and poured oil on a statue of Mary. A Redemptorist spokesman said: "The attackers were shouting slogans, calling for the murder of the archbishops and Thai Ha superior, Fr Matthew Vu Khoi Phung."
On Saturday the chairman of Hanoi's People's Committee Nguyen The Thao threatened to "severely punish" Archbishop Kiet and all those like him for "stirring up the population, launching false accusations against the government, mocking the law and dividing the nation".
Ben Stocking, the Associated Press reporter attacked by police, was released from custody after about two and a half hours and required four stitches to the back of his head.
"They told me I was taking pictures in a place that I was not allowed to be taking pictures. But it was news, and I went in," Mr Stocking said.
The building in Hanoi, north Vietnam, was confiscated by communist authorities in 1959 at the start of the country's civil war. It has since been used by the government and recently housed a restaurant and gym.
The Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with Vietnam since 1975 when the communists took over the south of the country.
In January last year the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made a historic visit to Benedict XVI in Rome. A Vatican-Vietnam working party was set up in June to improve relations.