Vietnamese Police Detain Dissident Catholic Priest

Hanoi, Vietnam - Police in central Vietnam have detained an outspoken Catholic priest after a raid on his office and state-run media denounced the dissident priest Tuesday for "acts of incitement."

The detention of Father Nguyen Van Ly, 59, came less than a month after a groundbreaking meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung aimed at paving the way to normalizing relations.

It was unclear Tuesday how the detention of Father Ly, who has previously spent 14 years in prison, would affect communist Vietnam's stated goal of establishing diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Police raided Father Ly's diocese home in the central province of Hue on Sunday, the second day of the lunar new year holiday weekend, according to dissident groups and local media.

Authorities seized six laptop computers and numerous documents and placed the priest under house arrest, according to the Free News Agency, an information service linked to the country's banned pro-democracy movement.

The government-run Vietnam News Agency also reported Tuesday that police had searched Father Ly's home while "investigating acts of legal violation by Ly."

The article accused Father Ly of "acts of incitement and gathering some elements against the authority."

The priest's detention may have been part of a general crackdown on opposition leaders in Hue.

Police in Hue also arrested Nguyen Phong and Nguyen Binh Thanh, co-founders of an illegal opposition political party, over the weekend. Their whereabouts remained unknown Tuesday and government officials could not be reached for comment over the Tet holiday.

Father Ly spent 10 years in prison between 1983 and 1992. He was rearrested in 2001 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for "undermining national unity," a crime under Article 87 of Vietnam's penal code.

He was released in a general amnesty in 2005, though the Vietnam News Agency article on Tuesday said Father Ly "has shown no repentance since his release, refusing to comply with his probation sentence."

Since his release, Father Ly has resumed work with Vietnam's small and illegal pro-democracy movement.

His re-arrest comes at a sensitive time in relations between the Vatican and Hanoi, which were at an all-time high since unified Vietnam broke off diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1975.

The communist regime, which once tightly restricted religious worship, has loosened its grip on the country's six million Catholics as well as Buddhist believers.

However, the government insists on having final say over Church administration and senior leadership appointments and "abusing religious freedom" for anti-government activities is also a crime under Vietnamese law.

US President George W Bush attended an inter-faith service at a Catholic church in Hanoi late last year when he visited for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit.

The United States removed Vietnam from list of countries considered the worst religious-freedom violators just ahead of the summit.