Vietnamese Catholics protest against Don Da reclamation project

(Photo: REUTERS / Kham)Catholics hold candles and posters with the image of lawyer Le Quoc Quan during a mass prayer for Quan at Thai Ha church in Hanoi February 16, 2014. Participants in the mass prayer also called for justice for Quan, a political dissident and democracy activist, ahead of his appeal trial which will be happened on February 18, his brother Le Quoc Quyet said. The Hanoi's People Court sentenced Quan, a political dissident and pro-democracy activist, to 30 months in jail for tax evasion after a half-day trial on October 2, 2013.

A number of Catholics in Vietnam have picketed against local officials in Hanoi, seeking to stop the government from reclaiming a lake on property that the protesters say belong to their parish.

Members of the Thai Ha Redemptorist Church in Dong Da district of Hanoi gathered outside the local People's Committee office on October 23.

They raised their placards and banners to protest the decision of authorities to fill the Ba Giang Lake with landfill to reclaim it.

The church members said the initiative to reclaim the 18,200 square-meter lake was illegal, a report by Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.

Some church members told the RFA's Vietnamese service that guards at the committee office dispersed the protesters and tore down banners, and no government official faced the crowd.

The group earlier appealed to authorities to stop their plans to fill the lake, an act that, according to the complainants, infringed the rights of the church on the property.

They wrote to Hanoi People's Committee chairman Nguyễn Thế Thảo, but the letter went unanswered.

Father Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong, a priest from the parish, noted that the church has seen an increasing trend in its membership from the local community.

The church in turn, asked for the government to return the six-hectare (14 acre) lot, which the religious order said it has owned since 1928.

"Right now we only have 2,700 square meters (29,000 square feet) of the total six hectares, while our demand is growing," Phong said.

"Every Sunday we have about 15,000 people coming to attend service, but we don't have anywhere to hold classes and the premises are not big enough to meet the demand."

"We have asked the government to return our Ba Giang lake, which is now [being filled], or give us new land," the priest said. "That land legally belongs to us and the government's documents also confirm that."

He lamented the government's decision not to return the property to the church, saying the authorities in the district merely adhered to the State policy on religion

"If they can't destroy a religion from the inside, they attack it from the outside and repress the development of the religion. This policy makes land disputes difficult to resolve," he explained.

The Holy See and Vietnam have had frosty diplomatic relations since the communist government took power in 1975. But both parties have engaged in dialogue since 2007.

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