Hanoi, Oct 3, 2008 / 03:15 am (CNA).- A Wednesday meeting between Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Tan Dung and Vietnam’s Catholic bishops intended to discuss tensions between church and state surrounding disputed properties has reportedly ended without bearing fruit. Following the meeting, the prime minister made remarks on state television asking the Archbishop of Hanoi to correct his behavior and “overcome his shortcomings.”

PM Nguyen Tan Dung and bishops
Meeting between PM and bishops
VietCatholic News Agency described the prime minister’s remarks as a “slap in the face” of the archbishops and the Church as a whole.

The Wednesday meeting, intended to discuss disputes over properties confiscated from the Catholic Church by the government, instead featured a lecture aimed at the Archbishop of Hanoi and what was characterized as a “subtle message” to the bishops’ conference of Vietnam.

The bishops had been invited to meet with the prime minister several days after they issued a late September statement on the conflict.

Cardinal Pham Minh Man of Saigon joined Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops president Bishop Nguyen Van Nhon of Dalat and Archbishop Nguyen Nhu The of the Archdiocese of Hue at the meeting. They had arrived anticipating that the prime minister would reiterate his promise to return the nunciature to Archbishop Ngo.

In February, the prime minister had promised that the former papal nunciature would be returned to the archdiocese, its legal owner.

Vietnamese state television broadcast a detailed report of the meeting’s aftermath on Wednesday, according to VietCatholic News Agency.

In his opening statement reported in the broadcast, the prime minister said the government’s stance would remain the same. He also said local government officials’ handling of violent incidents at Thai Ha parish and the former nunciature was justified.

Pro-government gangs have recently clashed with Catholics at the sites of peaceful demonstrations seeking the return of church properties. Nearby police did not intervene to stop the attacks.

Criticizing Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi, the prime minister accused him of “actions and words that had damaged his own reputation among the Vietnamese Catholic Community and society as a whole, thus affecting the good relations between Hanoi archdiocese and the Hanoi local government, and also between the bishops’ conference and the state.”

The state television report stated that the prime minister wanted the Archbishop of Hanoi “to have a serious review of his behavior in order to make practical corrections to overcome his shortcomings.” He further asked that the bishops’ conference assist the archbishop as fellow Christians, claiming the clergyman needed help with abiding by the state law.

VietCatholic News Agency described the prime minister’s statement as a “slap in the face” of the archbishops and the Church as a whole, saying his words “blatantly contradicted with what he had solemnly promised to Hanoi diocese and to the Vatican early this year.”

“What had happened at the Thai Ha Church and at the nunciature during the recent conflicts was still raw in people's mind,” said Father Joseph Nguyen. “It was a classic example of what a persecution look likes, and it was recorded by camera and witnessed by thousands of parishioners and others. Yet the prime minister of the government which calls itself ‘servant of the people’ still has the nerve to deny it, and shamelessly puts the blame on the honest archbishop whose statement was altered and used as a basis for widespread propaganda.”

It should be noted that in their September 25 statement, the bishops’ conference of Vietnam “frankly rejected every accusation against Hanoi archbishop,” Fr. Joseph Nguyen said. He added that the bishops also denounced the “on-going defamation” against the prelate and other Catholic leaders, in addition to denouncing the attacks at the Archbishop of Hanoi’s residence and at Thai Ha and Mac Thuong parishes.

Father Nguyen reported that the bishops blame the “murky, outdated land law which tramples the right to own private property as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The bishops also criticized both “the dishonesty of state media which have been proven to be effective in spreading doubts and mistrust instead of bridging the nation with mutual understanding and unification” and “the tendency of the government to use violence to suppress people who cry out for justice, thus creating more social injustice.”