HANOI (AFP) – Hundreds of Vietnamese Catholic Christians held prayer vigils in the capital at the weekend, the latest in a series asking for the return of church land seized by the communists half a century ago.
Priests and Catholic followers lit candles, placed flowers and sang at the iron fence around a property near‘s central St Joseph’s Cathedral after Saturday prayers and Sunday masses.
They say the large French-colonial villa and the 1.1 hectares (2.7 acre) it sits on are the former office of the‘s delegate to Hanoi, confiscated by the state when he was expelled in the late 1950s.
Hanoi authorities have kept the building intact but used it as a sometime discotheque while local officials have also used the garden area, shaded by an enormous banyan tree, as a motorcycle carpark, the Christians say.
“It’s the land and the property of the church. We have the certificate of ownership of the property since 1933,” one priest from the Hanoi archdiocese told AFP, speaking on condition he not be named.
Catholics are now hopeful the dispute will be resolved after Prime Ministermet Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet during a prayer meeting with thousands of followers in late December, pledging to consider the issue.
, a former French colony and a unified, communist country since the war ended in 1975, has Southeast Asia’s largest Catholic community after the — about six million out of a population of 84 million.
Its officially atheist communist rulers have long worried that religious groups, both Christian and Buddhist, could undermine their authority, but conditions have improved, especially for Catholics, in recent years.
While all religious activity remains under state control, the government started a dialogue with Catholics in the 1990s which led to a milestone visit to the Vatican almost a year ago by Prime Minister Dung.
Hanoi had tense relations with, deemed a contributor to the defeat of Soviet communism, but congratulated his successor soon after he became pontiff in 2005, saying it wanted closer relations.
Christian festivals such ashave become popular, with thousands of followers and curious now crowding Vietnam’s cathedrals and churches.
Still, religious issues remain sensitive, and the state-controlled media has refrained from covering the mass prayer meetings.
Undercover police have milled in the crowds, taking video and photographs, the priest said.
“Some Catholic followers were questioned by security officials, and some say they were pressured not to attend the prayers,” said the priest, who stressed he was not speaking on behalf of the.
Asked how he rated religious freedom in Vietnam, the priest said Catholics still cannot study to become diplomats or police officers, and that the church remains barred from operating its own newspapers, schools and hospitals.