Vietnam may return church land, Vatican wants rallies to stop: priest

Hanoi, Vietnam - The Vatican has asked Vietnamese Catholics to end mass prayer vigils for the return of seized church land, with the communist government signalling it would return the property, a priest said Friday.

Catholic followers have held daily vigils since mid-December demanding back the property that was the Vatican's embassy until the 1950s near Hanoi's St Joseph's Cathedral, with thousands taking part in a rally last week.

The Vatican -- which received Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung a year ago for a landmark meeting with Pope Benedict XVI -- has urged local church leaders to settle the dispute through talks, priests said.

"The Vatican asked (the Catholics) to leave the land," one priest said, asking not to be named. "The Vatican doesn't want any tension, any quarrel."

He also told AFP that "during a meeting with the deputy minister of public security (Nguyen Van Huong), they have promised to give us back the land. But when and how is the problem. We have nothing written."

Vietnamese government and Hanoi People's Committee officials have met several times this week with Hanoi Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, while small groups of Catholics have continued their prayer vigils.

"Both sides are trying to find a compromise," said another priest, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to a Vietnamese Catholic news website, Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone on January 30 wrote to Kiet, voicing admiration for the "earnest devotion" of the followers who took part in the vigils.

But Bertone also warned, in the letter published on the website, that there was "a real danger that the situation can get out of control and that it can degenerate into demonstrations of verbal or even physical violence."

Speaking on behalf of the pope, the cardinal reportedly wrote: "I kindly request you to intervene, so that acts which could disrupt the public order be avoided, and that the situation comes back to normality."

He urged dialogue with Vietnam's authorities in a "more serene climate" and pledged that the Holy See "will not fail to explain to the government of your country the legitimate aspirations of Vietnamese Catholics."

The dispute has centred on a one-hectare (2.5-acre) property, the former apostolic delegate's seat in Hanoi, which the communist government seized after Vietnam won independence from France in 1954.

Over 100 Catholics, some from remote provinces, ignored a Sunday deadline to leave, instead huddling around fires against the winter chill, singing and praying at the steps of the French colonial-style villa.

On Friday, however, both sides took apparent goodwill measures.

Catholics took down a large cross and tents they had erected at the site, while Hanoi city officials had shut down a restaurant encroaching on the site and were seen closing down an office inside the disputed building.

Vietnam has Southeast Asia's largest Catholic community after the Philippines -- about six million out of a population of 86 million.

Like other religions in Vietnam, the church remains under tight control by the authorities.

Its situation in the communist country has however improved noticeably over the past few years.