HANOI, Vietnam: Police used stun guns and beat parishioners protesting the arrest of fellow church members who have demanded the return of land they say was taken by Vietnam's communist government in the early 1960s, a Catholic priest said Thursday.

About 300 people gathered in front of the police station to pray for the release of those arrested. Some five hours after the crowd arrived, several hundred police officers used force to break up the crowd, witnesses said.

"We came to pray peacefully," said Nguyen Thi Phuc, a church member who had blood on her face and shirt. "Why did they have to beat us?"

State-run television report did not mention the confrontation. Vietnamese officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday night.

Earlier in the day, police had arrested two church members, accusing them of knocking down a fence that surrounds land parishioners want returned to the church, according to state-owned television.

Nguyen Van Khai, a priest at the Thai Ha church in Hanoi, said four church members were arrested.

The parishioners have been holding round-the-clock prayer vigils for nearly two weeks to demand the return of the land that they say was taken by Vietnam's communist government in the early 1960s.

On Aug. 15, the day the vigils began, church members knocked down a section of a fence surrounding the property and placed several statues of the Virgin Mary inside.

Police arrested seven demonstrators, and several people suffered minor injuries during Thursday's confrontation, said Khai, whose congregation totals several thousand.

"We will continue to pray peacefully, demanding that the government give us justice," Khai said, vowing that the church members would continue their vigil Friday.

Although religious freedom has been growing in Vietnam recently, the state closely monitors religious organizations and only recognizes a half-dozen officially sanctioned faiths, including Catholicism.

Catholicism is Vietnam's second-largest faith — after Buddhism — with more than 6 million adherents.

In the years after Vietnam's communist government took power in 1954, many church properties and other private lands were taken over by the government.

Although demonstrations of any kind are rare in Vietnam, church members have been asserting themselves more boldly in recent months.

Earlier this year, Catholic leaders organized prayer vigils at a parcel of land near Hanoi's main cathedral, demanding the return of that site, which once housed the Vatican's embassy in Vietnam.

(Source: International Herald Tribune)