Hanoi, Sep. 19, 2008 (CWNews.com) - Eight months after promising to restore Church ownership of a building that once housed the office of the apostolic nuncio in Hanoi, Vietnamese authorities have suddenly begun demolishing the building, provoking the outrage of Catholic protestors and drawing a heated protest from the city's archbishop.

Very early on Friday morning, September 19, hundreds of police assembled in front of the archbishop's residence in Hanoi, blocking access to the residence, the cathedral, and all roads leading to the nearby nunciature. Dozens of bulldozers moved into the area and began digging out the lawn of the nunciature. At 6 am, after police and demolition workers were in place, state-controlled television and radio broadcasts announced that the government had decided to demolish the building, to convert the land into a public playground.

Priests at St. Joseph's cathedral rang the steeple bells, summoning local Catholics to the site to join in a public protest. But those who managed to find a way through police lines were arrested on the site.

An American reporter, Ben Stocking, the Hanoi bureau chief for Associated Press, was beaten by police when he tried to take photos of the confrontations at the nunciature. He was arrested and released, but his camera was confiscated. The US embassy lodged a formal protest of the incident.

In a strong letter of protest delivered to Vietnamese authorities, Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi said that the sudden demolition of the building "smears the legitimate aspirations of the Hanoi Catholic community." He charged that the government's decision to renege on the earlier commitment to restore the building was an act "mocking society's conscience."

"This development is going against the policy of dialogue that the government and the archbishop's office are conducting," the archbishop pointed out. In February the government had agreed to restore Church control of the property, which had been seized by the Communist government 45 years ago.

The government made that concession after thousands of local Catholics engaged in daily prayer vigils at the site, pleading for the return of the building. As the demonstrators began to clash with police, the Vatican intervened to broker a diplomatic deal, in which the protests were ended in exchange for the government's promise that the building would be restored.

The government's reversal of that promise came as tensions between Catholics and local officials rose in Hanoi-- both at the nunciature and at the Thai Ha parish, where a similar protest has been taking place involving the confiscated property of a Redemptorist monastery.

In a separate incident in the early-morning hours of September 19, a gang broke into the Thai Ha parish church and ransacked the sanctuary, spraying oil on statues.

Yesterday the Redemptorist priests at Thai Ha confirmed reports that they had been "invited" to speak with local officials about their property dispute. The officials showed the priests documents purporting to confirm a legal sale of the property in 1961. But the sales document was written in a computer format that did not exist at that time.