Hanoi, Mar 1, 2008 / 09:30 am (CNA).- A leader of the underground Buddhist Church in Vietnam has sided with Catholics in a property dispute with the Vietnamese government, in which the state-sponsored Buddhist organization claimed original ownership of a former papal nunciature now used by the government.

Hanoi Catholics had won a government promise to restore to Church control the building that once housed the papal nunciature, a building confiscated by the government in the 1950s.

However, on February 16 Venerable Thich Trung Hau, a leader of the state-recognized Vietnamese Buddhist Church (VBC), wrote to the Vietnamese prime minister asserting a claim to the property. He argued that the land had once been the site of Bao Thien pagoda,which he claimed was built in 1054. He said French colonists had seized the property and given it to the Catholic bishop in 1883.

A state-run magazine published in 2001 stated that the Bao Thien pagoda was destroyed in 1426, saying it was located on land about five kilometers north of the former nunciature.

In a February 23 interview with the BBC, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, an official in the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), supported the Catholic claim to the land. He said the Catholic Church “had legally owned the land before the VBC was established, and even before Hau was born.”

He also questioned the motives of the VBC leaders. “It is clear that the government is reluctant to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of Catholics. Now, they want to use Buddhists to confront the Catholics for them”, he said urging Vietnam Buddhists not allow the government to do so.

The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam claims to lead eighty percent of the Buddhists in Vietnam. It has been outlawed since 1981, when the communist government set up the state-controlled VBC.

Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, 65, had spent 15 years in prison for his support of the banned church and his advocacy of human rights. He said his church “has nothing to deal with the nunciature,” and called for greater attention to two key UBCV institutions seized by the government: the Vietnam Quoc Tu Pagoda and the Quang Duc Cultural Center in Saigon.

Father Joseph Nguyen, who helped lead the Catholic effort to reclaim the former nunciature, said government officials had criticized the use of the VBC letter. The officials were concerned the action would force Catholics to cooperate with the underground UBCV.