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Catholic World News News Feature

Hanoi: bishops, clergy face new threats September 22, 2008

The abrupt demolition of the building that once housed the office of the apostolic nuncio in Hanoi-- a building that government officials had promised to return to the Church-- has sparked angry protests from the Vietnamese hierarchy.

At the same time, a propaganda campaign against Catholic protesting the demolition, organized by the state-controlled media, has prompted further protests. Church-state tensions continue to escalate: bishops are threatened with arrest; Redemptorist priests at a parish involved in another property dispute have even been threatened with death.

The media in Hanoi have charged that Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet is inciting riots by expressing his support for demonstrated who opposed the demolition process. The media have consistently depicted the demonstrators as threats to public safety.

In a letter to the government leaders of Vietnam, Bishop Michael Hoang Duc Oanh of Kontum, warned that this campaign of vilification could have grave consequences. “Our people are gentle and kind, easy to forget the past and forgive those who trespass against them.” However “when they find themselves being tricked, pushed to the corner, and persecuted… they can accept even death."

The bishop warned government officials that “numerous of the weak and the poor have pleaded for years for the requisition of their properties but all in vain, as the authorities do not listen but persecute them!” He pleaded the government recognizing the legitimate concerns of the protestors, and "stop using the media to silence them.”

From Thai Binh, Bishop Francis Nguyen Van Sang said his heart was broken to hear the news that the nunciature was being razed, and he “wished to be able to rush to Hanoi” to be with archbishop Joseph Ngo and his faithful in this time of ordeal-- but health problems prevented him from traveling. And Bishop Joseph Dang Duc Ngan mourned the loss of "a souvenir of faith, a land stamped with the seal of the communion and love of the Catholic Church."

The New Hanoi newspaper took a very different view. For the paper, the nunciature building is a symbol of Vatican, and its demolition is “a victory.” On Saturday, the paper could not hide its delight that a protest by Archbishop Ngo was in vain, saying that the prelate was acting "in desperate hope of finding a possible way to stop the demolition." The resistance against demoliton, New Hanoi said, "goes against the will of the people."

At the nunciature, construction workers worked throughout the night to demolish the building. Thousands of Catholics have protested around the clock.

Sunday morning saw the largest demonstration in the history of Vietnam since the Communist takeover, with hundreds of priests leading more than 10,000 Catholic protestors in a prayerful vigil outside the gate of the nunciature. Bishop Joseph Dang Duc Ngan of Lang Son lead the prayers, as police accompanied by attack dogs patrolled the fence lined with barbed wire that had been installed at the site.

The Federation of Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media issued a statement of "deep concerns about religious and human-rights violations against Catholics." Citing the property disputes at the nunciature and at a Redemptorist monastery in Thai Ha parish, the group confessed: "We are at our wit's end as the injustice being done to our brothers and sisters in Christ-- to the unarmed, religious people whose only weapon to protect themselves and property has always been praying with an unshaken belief in God."

Still the government's anti-Catholic campaign continued. The Hanoi People's Committee accused Hanoi's Archbishop Ngo of "smearing the state," and said that his statements "have angered the people of the capital." Such behavior, the group said, "must be punished severely."

As if on cue, a large crowd appeared at the Thai Ha parish on Sunday, throwing stones, smashing statues, and shouting threats against the Redemptorist priests. One of the priests observed that "everything happened clearly in front of a large number of officials-- police, security personnel, anti-riot police… but they did nothing to protect us.”