Vietnam police detain 18 Catholics after clashes

Hanoi, Vietnam - Clashes broke out after Catholics erected a makeshift place of worship in central Vietnam on a site where American bombs destroyed a church during the Vietnam War. Communist authorities detained 18 people.

The confrontation started Monday when about 150 Catholics built the structure intended for religious services on the site of the Tam Toa church, which was destroyed by U.S. planes in 1968, Father Pham Dinh Phung said Wednesday by telephone from Quang Binh province.

"The police beat the Catholics, and some of them were bleeding," Phung said, adding that officers dismantled the makeshift church and took away the cross.

Police released two 15-year-old girls but the 18 others remained jailed, he said. "We strongly protest the beating and arrests of the Catholics and demand their immediate release," Phung said.

Tran Cong Thuat, deputy governor of Quang Binh, denied police beat anyone. "There were clashes between the Catholics and the local residents," he told The Associated Press by phone. "Police were there just to keep order."

People on both sides suffered minor injuries including several police officers, Thuat said.

The provincial government turned the Tam Toa church site into a Vietnam War memorial in 1991, Thuat said.

Catholics have since been forced to hold religious services at a house nearby but have pushed for a new church, Phung said.

"Church leaders met with provincial government officials about a year ago and they promised to give us land, but so far they haven't kept their words," he said.

Thuat said the local government has recommended five places for the site of the new church, but Catholic leaders have not agreed on any.

The communist government confiscated much of the Church's property after taking power from the French in 1954 in what was then North Vietnam.

Monday's dispute was the latest between Vietnamese authorities and the Catholic Church since disagreements of over land in the capital Hanoi last year. Several Catholics were arrested after knocking down a section of a wall surrounding one piece of property and setting up an altar and a statue of Virgin Mary.

Vietnam has more than 6 million Catholics, the second-largest number in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.

The communist country has often come under international criticism for its record on religious freedom and human rights. Hanoi does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Quang Binh province is about 315 miles (500 kilometers) south of Hanoi.