Vietnam criticizes US Congress hearings on Catholic protests

Hanoi, Vietnam - Government-controlled media on Friday attacked a US congressional hearing on alleged human rights abuses during protests at a Vietnamese Catholic cemetery.

On Wednesday, the US Congress's Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission heard testimony from relatives of villagers who clashed with police at a Catholic cemetery in the coastal village of Con Dau on May 4.

Members of the commission called for a UN investigation into charges that police had beaten one villager to death, and caused another to have a miscarriage.

The official Viet Nam News said congressmen on the commission had made "totally fabricated" statements about the conflict that "aim to smear Viet Nam and to deceive US public opinion."

The clashes at Con Dau took place after villagers attempted to bury an 82-year-old Catholic woman in the parish cemetery. Authorities had closed the cemetery, which they planned to relocate to make way for a tourist resort.

Police trying to stop the funeral procession allegedly beat villagers, and arrested dozens of them.

Among those testifying before the commission was Tai Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American living in Houston, who said his brother Nguyen Nam had died in police custody two days after helping lead the funeral procession. He said his brother's body showed signs of beating.

Members of the commission called on the US State Department to put Vietnam back on its list of "countries of particular concern" for religious freedom issues.

The Vietnamese press echoed earlier government statements that the clashes involved a land dispute and had nothing to do with religious freedom.

The commission had "inflated a local dispute at Con Dau parish to distort Vietnam's policies regarding the practice of religious freedom," an editorial by the Vietnam News Agency said.

There have been a number of clashes between regional Vietnamese authorities and Catholic clergy and parishioners in recent years, almost all of them over land disputes.

Vietnam's Catholic community of some 6 million is the second-largest in Asia after that of the Philippines.