In sign of church-state thaw, Catholic diocese challenging Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam - Quietly, the Roman Catholic Church in Vietnam is challenging the government more boldly than it ever has since the Communists took power more than five decades ago.

For several weeks, church leaders and their followers in Hanoi have been gathering daily to pray in front of the old Vatican Embassy, one of many church properties taken over by the government after 1954.

The church wants the government to hand back the 1-hectare, or 2.5-acre, lot in central Hanoi, where such land is worth millions of dollars.

"It is a tragedy for us that our holy land was taken away," said Father Nguyen Khac Que, a member of the Hanoi Diocese who helped organize the prayer vigils.

Although the dispute could raise church-state tensions, it also offers dramatic testimony to how much church-state relations have improved in Vietnam recently. Had church leaders dared to make such a public challenge just five years ago, the police would almost certainly have jailed them.

"There is now a sufficient feeling of comfort on both sides that the church feels it can air its grievances publicly and the state feels it can tolerate them," said Peter Hansen of the Catholic Theological College in Melbourne.

The matter could come to a head Friday, when the church plans to hold its biggest vigil yet, despite requests from city officials to stop the gatherings.

Hanoi city officials, who control the property, did not respond to requests for interviews.

Church officials say they have documents showing that the land belongs to the diocese. But Hanoi officials maintain that a former priest voluntarily turned the property over to the government in 1960, said Duong Ngoc Tan of the national Committee for Religious Affairs.

After the revolution, property was confiscated not just from the church but from wealthy landowners and capitalists. It was then used by the government or turned over to others who have held it for decades.

Church leaders are careful to refer to the gatherings as prayer vigils rather than demonstrations - a loaded word in a country where public protests are generally forbidden.

They are holding vigils at three churches, but the focal point is St. Joseph's - the largest cathedral in Hanoi - which routinely draws up to 2,000 people for services that spill into the courtyard.

During the vigils, hundreds of parishioners at a time gather nearby in front of the old Vatican Embassy, a French-style villa now used as a youth sports center.

The Vietnamese Catholic Church, which counts six million members, was established by missionaries and grew during French colonial rule in Vietnam. It is the second-largest faith in Vietnam, which is predominantly Buddhist.