Property Disputes and Tensions between the Vietnamese Catholic Church, the Vietnamese Buddhist Church and the State

 

This essay will analyze various perspectives surrounding the Vietnamese government’s land seizures in 2008 that Catholics claim the rights to. Using case studies of two specific land disputes, I will examine the statements made by the Vietnamese state, Vietnamese Catholics, and Vietnamese Buddhists about the issue, with emphasis given to the two primary actors: the Vietnamese government and Vietnamese Catholics. Each perspective will be given its own individual section to be examined independently of one another. In this way, I will illustrate how the government and Catholics, and later Buddhists, use history in order to make their case. Furthermore, the objective history of the relationship between these two entities will help to contextualize these land disputes and allow us to see what part history has to play in these issues. I will begin with relevant broad historical background of the Church in Vietnam and a brief overview of the relationship between Catholics and Buddhists. Then the history of the two case studies will be given, followed by a short account of the events of 2008. Analysis of the perspectives of each involved party will comprise the remainder of the essay.

Sources include newspaper articles and statements made by each side. News organizations such as the Union of Catholic Asian News, Radio Free Asia, the BBC, the Vietnam News, official Vietnamese government statements, and other sources are used to illustrate the viewpoints of each of the actors. Secondary sources include Lan Chu’s article “Catholicism vs. Communism, Continued: The Catholic Church in Vietnam” and Piero Gheddo’s book, The Cross and the Bo-Tree.

 

Before delving into the specific incidents of 2008, it is useful to understand some of the historical relationships between the state, Catholics in Vietnam, and Buddhists.

Vietnamese Catholics belong to a minority group that happens to also be an historically poor one. During the colonial era those who were Christians were almost exclusively poor people from rural areas and tribal peoples. The upper classes rejected Christianity, which resulted in Catholics being closed off from much of Vietnamese society.

Many Catholics were persecuted because they were perceived as foreign agents in support of the French and against a unified Vietnamese state. The Church had, in fact, gained freedom of worship because of French armed forces intervention. This explains accusations by other Vietnamese of Vietnamese Catholics belonging to a “foreign religion” and of being “serfs to the French.” To counter these perceptions, Catholics joined anti-French movements hoping to gain the approval of Communists and to appear nationalistic. When Vietnam declared independence in 1945, Catholics saw this as an opportunity to show their patriotism and dispel the belief that they were not nationalists.

However, as the Communists grew in strength, they began purging people they thought would hinder their cause. In 1946, the Viet Minh began attacking non-Communist patriotic groups and occupied the territories they held. When war broke out between the Viet Minh and the French in the 1940s Catholics were in a precarious situation. They wanted independence, but not under a Communist system, which seemed inherently anti-religious.

The constant battle to prove their nationalist sentiments continues for the Catholics today, as will be discussed further. The Catholics want to be a part of Vietnamese society, but the communist nature of the state does not coincide peaceably with some of the Catholic’s desires.

Turning to the Buddhist condition, the tensions arising in 1963, during Diem’s regime, are of relevance to the topics covered in this essay. Diem was explicitly Catholic and showed favoritism toward Catholics to the point that Buddhist felt they were being persecuted for their religion. Catholics and the Church were in a difficult situation. They defended the religious freedom of the Buddhists, but disagreed with the Buddhist claim that they were being religiously persecuted. They thought the issue was only a political conflict.

After the proclamation of martial law in August 1963, the government occupied pagodas and arrested bonzes. Catholics did not get so very involved in the conflict; They did not take part in demonstrations against the government nor did they go against the Buddhists. What they did do was hold demonstrations sympathizing for victims of police repression and called for religious freedom.

All of these historical conflicts manifest themselves in the events of 2008, which we now turn to.

 

Since communism was introduced into the country, a new dynamic was added to the existing religious tensions. After the power shift from the French to the Vietnamese Communists in the North in 1954, the government began confiscating land from both of these religious groups. The issue of land seizure has been a major point of conflict between Catholics, Buddhists and the state for decades and has continued into the twenty-first century. In 2008 tensions soared with renewed land disputes between the three parties. These fresh conflicts are a manifestation of the historical tensions between the Vietnamese Catholic minority, the Communist government and Vietnamese Buddhists.

From the context of the broader history of the relationship between Catholics and the state, we can explore the histories of the two properties in dispute that will be used as case studies in this essay. I will start with the land claimed by the Redemptorists at the Thai Ha parish.

The Redemptorist congregation came to Vietnam in 1925 and in 1928 purchased a six-hectare plot of land at Thai Ha and the subsequently built church was inaugurated in 1935. In 1954 most of the Redemptorists moved south with the expulsion of the French from the North and the installation of the Vietnamese Communists. The government started its land reforms, to the benefit of some and to the detriment of others. The land used by the Redemptorists was reduced to its current 2,700-square-meters from 60,000-square-meters over the course of many decades and had a hospital, textile factory and other buildings constructed on it. The clergy have demanded the return of the land ever since.

In 2008 a government project would build a road and public facilities on the land used by parishioners, prompting the Redemptorist priest Pierre Nguyen Van Khai to file a petition on August 2 of that year. Finally, at August 15, 2008 Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother Mary, when hundreds of Catholics put crosses and Marian statues on the site.

The former nunciature in the Ha Dong district of Hanoi has a different story, although it, too, ends in land seizure. In 1951, Archbishop John Jarlath Dooley was appointed as the Apostolic Delegate to Indochina and he moved the office’s location from Hue to Hanoi shortly after his arrival. In 1959, he left Vietnam for medical treatment and the Irish priest, Father Terence O’Driscoll temporarily held the office, while waiting for word from the Holy See. Shortly after the Archbishop’s departure, the Vietnamese government had Father O’Driscoll and the entire Apostolic Delegation deported, allowing the government to occupy the empty nunciature and construct a wall to separate it from the Archbishopric complex. The Vatican soon after had the delegate office moved to Saigon in what was South Vietnam.

In response to an announced government project on land claimed by the Thai Ha parish in Hanoi city, hundreds of Catholics occupied the site on August 15, 2008. Parishioners broke through a brick wall surrounding the Chien Thang Garment Company complex and erected crosses and Marian statues. These protests were a climax of a continuum of demands from the Thai Ha parish for the government to return confiscated land. In response to an apparent government selling of this land to private entities and the beginning of construction on the plot, parishioners gathered to protest on January 5, 2008. A large police force met to remove the crowd on January 7, while the government issued a statement promising the end of construction. On January 8 the Hanoi People’s Committee officially authorized construction on the property under dispute.

The second dispute to be scrutinized began in the middle of December 2007. Catholics in the Dong Da district of Hanoi protested for the return of a former Nunciature seized in 1959. Since then, the building has been repeatedly requested returned. A state-run company began building houses on a 14,000-square-meter plot next to the church. Protesting continued into January and on January 26, the Hanoi People’s Committee ordered the crowd to leave by 5:00 P.M. the following day and to remove a crucifix and Marian statue. Catholics did not cease their protest. Almost eight months later on 19 September the government positioned security officials, erected barriers and began constructing a park and library at the former nunciature, causing Church leaders to write authorities in protest. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone promised to put pressure on the government to vacate the property and to return the nunciature to use. On February 1, the government agreed to return the land, avoiding an international escalation of the problem.

To complicate these already complex issues, a Buddhist leader of the Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC, an organization created by the government in 1981) wrote a letter stating that the former nunciature needed to be approved by the VBC and claimed that their church is the original owner of the land. There had been a pagoda, named Bao Thien, built in 1054 and seized by the French colonists in 1883. It was donated by the French to Bishop Puginier. The letter was sent soon after the former Vietnamese religious-affairs chief, Le Quang Vinh, made the argument that the land was seized by colonial France from Buddhists and given to the Catholic Church. However, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh disputed this claim, stating that that the pagoda was built at a different location was destroyed in 1426.

From here I will examine the perspectives of the Vietnamese state, the Catholic community, Buddhists, and by international figures and the press.

 

The Vietnamese government asserts that the statements and actions of Catholic leaders and parishioners with regards to the land disputes are illegitimate. The state makes several arguments to back up their position as being the correct one. First, the government uses history to say that the disputed land, and indeed all land in the country of Vietnam, belongs to the Vietnamese State and that organizations and individuals cannot own any land, but can apply for the rights to use land. Second, state officials make the case that Catholic protesters are aiming to undermine the state. Third, the government argues that officials and police responded to these issues in accordance to the law, whereby parishioners and Catholic leaders are breaking land and other laws.

In the same way that Catholics have used history to back up their side of the story, the Vietnamese government takes elements from history that put the state in the right. The Communist Party of Vietnam issued two statements about one month after the events of August 2008 condemning the parishioners’ actions. In it, the Party references an interview with the Voice of Vietnam (a state-run radio broadcaster) in which the interviewee, who is said to be a Vietnamese Catholic living in the United States, “affirmed that France handed over sovereignty to the Vietnamese State after its defeat in 1954.” The statement uses this as proof that the two properties under dispute belong to the Vietnamese State.

The government makes the argument that after the Communists took control of the country from the French, the new Vietnamese state owned all of the land. Not only this, but the government implies that transactions between the French and Vietnamese citizens, including Catholics, are illegitimate and are not recognized by the Vietnamese state. In the statements issued by the Communist Party of Vietnam, the state says the Hanoi diocese ignored “historical fact” and “denied and distorted the legality of the State’s documents on land management.” Here the state is defending its own legitimacy as a government and the legislature that it passes. It suggests that the state thinks Catholics do not recognize the change of power from the French to the Vietnamese.

By challenging the government’s authority over land, the state says Catholics are trying to undermine the state. In reference to one Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet, the state writes, “He has done harm to the national great unity and gone against the motto of ‘doing good for both the religion and the nation’ of religious people in Vietnam.” The term “national great unity” or “great national unity” appears over and over again in articles published by state news agencies in reference to the Catholic Church and the land disputes. The case can be made that the government still sees the Catholic Church as a sort of foreign presence in the country, or at least that it sees Catholicism as a “foreign religion.” This is what is threatening to the Communist Party. In a country where the people have had centuries of foreign intervention, the government does not sit well with external entities, such as the Catholic Church, making noise about social or legal issues.

The state paints a picture of Catholics as undermining the state’s authority and disrupting the united fabric of the country in order to curb any sympathy away from them. Thai Ha parishioners, for instance, have been labeled as “agitators” and “saboteurs” seeking to dismantle the state.

However, the government is careful not to exacerbate any religious issues, and instead points to specific people as stirrers of public disobedience. Targeting Archbishop Kiet, one statement criticizes his role as a public servant, saying “Kiet’s systematic acts… reflect his disregard of the law and the fact that he has failed to correctly perform his duty in his capacity as Archbishop of the Hanoi archdiocese as well as the duty of a citizen to the country and the nation.” He is later misquoted to effectively say he is ashamed to be a Vietnamese citizen.

In these statements the government is, first, removing him from his Catholic role by saying he is not performing adequately as archbishop and, second, painting him as a distorter of the truth and one who disregards the law in order to question the authority of the state. This is significant because it does not put the government in a position where it is directly criticizing the Catholic Church itself for undermining the Vietnamese state, even if it actually feels this is the case. If it had, there would have been severe repercussions not only domestically, but also from abroad. Vietnam’s international image would have been damaged.

What the government does do it criticize specific church leaders and protesters. The state makes protesting parishioners out to be violent, law-breaking citizens who are being lied to and misled by these anti-state church leaders. According to a government statement, “clergy and parishioners of the Hanoi’s archdiocese conducted illegal religious activities, pushing down a gate, beating and injuring security guards and installing statues and crosses….” These acts were all “personally incited and encouraged” by Archbishop Kiet. This puts the blame for this particular incident on the Archbishop. By framing the issue in this light, the Vietnamese government hopes to limit damages to the state’s image and to prevent further escalation of the problem.

Finally, the government is very explicit about the Church leaders and parishioners breaking the law and emphasizes that officials and police were lawful in their response to protests. In an article in the Vietnam News, it is reported that in regards to a specific incident “authorities carried out the work themselves in accordance to procedures and ruling stipulated by Viet Nam’s legal system.” The emphasis on lawfulness serves to further distance these protesters from the rest of their community. That is to say, these few people are violating the law and will be dealt with according to the law. Church leaders have been reported to have gone against the Ordinance on Religion and Belief and these protesters are violating land laws.

By keeping the issue one of legality and not religion, in conjunction with a selective window of history, the government saves face and hopes to end the land disputes quickly. News agencies always end their segments with an iteration of Vietnam’s commitment to “respecting the religious beliefs of Vietnamese citizens and being determined to ensure the law is properly enforced.” By phrasing the issue in these terms, the government isolates the issues without them bubbling over into nation-wide crises and does not draw too much criticism from overseas governments and the press.

 

The Vietnamese Catholic Church’s perspective on land ownership and the government’s perspective are not congruent. While the government makes the claim that the state is the owner of all land in the country and that individuals only purchase the rights to use it, Vietnamese Catholics assert rights to the land at Thai Ha parish, Hanoi nunciature and others based on historical ownership. Also, Catholics try to broaden the issue to include a greater demographic. The Church seems to realize the strength of the government’s hold on lands it has seized and Catholic Bishops have been calling for reforms of the land laws.

To support the argument that the land historically belongs to the Catholic Church, Bishops and other Catholic leaders cite papers that document ownership back to 1928. Catholics are using a particular piece of history and taking advantage of vague government land laws to say that the Vietnamese Catholic Church owns the land. Catholics feel that the transaction between the Church and the French was legitimate and that the Vietnamese government must respect their entitlement to properties purchased or given to the Church before the Vietnamese Communist Party came to power.

Catholics argue that this type of land seizure is not a problem exclusive to Vietnamese Catholics. Land reforms following the Communist Party’s coming into power saw the taking of land from farmers, Buddhists, and other groups of people. Bishop Michael Hoang Duc Oanh in a letter to the president and prime minister of Vietnam wrote “In this country many farmers and poor people have for years pleaded for the return of their properties but all in vain, as the authorities chose to persecute them rather than take care of them!” The Catholic’s call for policy reforms to satisfy victims of land seizure extends beyond the Catholic condition to many Vietnamese around the country, many of them being poor. Parishioners feel unfairly victimized by the government, as many other Vietnamese do. Catholic leaders use these incidents to further their argument that the land laws are unfair and need to be reformed. In this way, they try to put the problem in a broader context to make the issue seem bigger. If the government helps these other groups, they will also help the Catholic Church and the issue goes from one of a small group of people, to one that is more widespread.

Not only are Vietnamese Catholics calling for the return of the seized properties, but Bishops have called for an amending of property laws so that people will gain the right to have private property and have called for the liberalization of news media and restrictions to limit bribery and corruption and other items. In September bishops gathered at a conference to organize their viewpoints on the issues surrounding the 2008 land disputes. Regarding land laws, the bishops state, “the land laws that have been amended many times are still outdated, unable to catch up with the speed of social transformation. Especially, people’s private ownership has not been taken into consideration.” It is clear that the Catholic community sees a change in the social atmosphere towards greater individual freedoms.

After reading the bishops’ statement it is clear that Catholic leaders are taking the current fomenting of land disputes and using them to press for a broader agenda that includes a liberalizing of many sectors of society. They see the news media as being very advanced and powerful, but wrought with deceit. On the second of the two-page statement, they say “professional ethics requires communications workers to respect the truth.” They extend communications to include the educational environment. It is easy to conceive that Catholics’ disapproval of the Communist style of governance might last until today. Perhaps Catholics acknowledge the difficultly in completely changing the government and petition for more and more political space and individual freedom when opportunity arises. It is a difficult line to walk. On the one hand, Catholics are pleased to see an independent Vietnam, but on the other hand, they never wanted to see corruption, the seizure of property, or the loss of other freedoms and rights.

One final dimension of these events is the Catholic leaders’ expressing a desire to have a stronger connection to the Vatican. Bishops have written to the Holy See asking for their intervention in the 2008 land disputes. The Vatican’s intervention would signify an international aspect to the Vietnamese Catholic Church, which is threatening to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s authority, which sanctions religious activities in the state. Father Huynh Cong Minh of Saigon said to the BBC News, “like it or not, the Catholics in the world are organised and that is what the communist government fears the most.” Not only would an acknowledging of this broader Catholic organization outside of Vietnam affect the Communist’s grip on Catholicism in the country, but it would invite unwelcome foreign influence into Vietnam that has potential to become a major leveraging force. Both the Vatican and Catholics in Vietnam are having to tread carefully, as neither wants a government backlash or a destabilization of the country as a result of their actions.

On a basic level, the government is taking more and more land that the Catholic Church needs in order to operate. One Father Khai said, “We do not have enough room to increase our religious activies.” Some churches are having difficulty seating enough parishioners. However, a closer look at statements made by Catholic leaders suggests that these land issues are a manifestation of issues that have roots in history. This greater perceived context allows us to see that the land disputes of 2008 are a continuation of discrimination against Catholics in Vietnam by the government and are also an example of Catholic leaders expressing dissatisfaction with the Communist government and a desire for more freedom. The Catholic community feels restricted in what it can do as a religious organization with the government’s limiting policies and is using current events to create for itself more space in which to breathe.

 

In the midst of the Catholic protests, Thich Trung Hau wrote his letter to the government stating that the land originally belonged to the Vietnam Buddhist Church. At one level, this would appear to be a resurfacing of old issues between the Catholics and the Buddhists. On another level, this could be a government scheme to change the nature of the problem in the state’s favor.

It is easy to conceive that Buddhists might be bitter about the confiscations of land by Diem’s regime in the 1960s. With such little support from Catholics during this period, Buddhists felt abandoned by another religious group pushing for religious freedom. Their laying claim to these lands today might seem as a way for them to express their disapproval of the Catholics disregard for Buddhists.

More likely, the Vietnam Buddhist Church was encouraged by the state to claim ownership of the land. After the letter was sent, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV, outlawed by the government in 1981) stated, “It is clear that the government is reluctant to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of Catholics…. Now they want to use Buddhists to confront the Catholics for them.” He called the rival Buddhist group a “tool of the Communist Party.” The UBCV, just as the Catholic Church, wants to see greater religious freedom and getting Buddhists involved takes away from the Catholics’ cause. With the Buddhists involved, the religious aspect of the problem is alleviated and it becomes more of a land issue.

 

By separating out each perspective and analyzing them individually, it becomes clear how each party constructs an argument out of the same history. The Vietnamese state and Catholics have both selected parts of history that support their claim to the disputed land and ignore those parts that are contradictory. Out of the dialogue between the multitudes of representatives for each player, we can dissect and interpret motivations for a given argument or discern why a particular piece of history was used, or why one was not used. We have uncovered the many aspects of the land disputes in Vietnam and explored the deep-running tensions underneath the surface of the property issues. The issues of land ownership at the Thai Ha parish and at the Nunciature in Hanoi are eruptions of long-standing problems between Catholics, the Vietnamese state and the Buddhist Church. These disputes represents an intersection of interests and desires these three groups of people. When we give each voice its own space, we can deconstruct these desires and see clearly where they are grounded.

 

 

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