Vietnam: Bishops protest in vain Collegium Pontificium’s demolition
J.B. An Dang11/26/2009

President of the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam has reported that the Church in Vietnam once again is losing another piece of its properties. This time, it is a dearest one to the heart of many bishops and priests in Vietnam.

In the interview with the Episcopal website, right after the grand opening ceremony in So Kien on Nov. 24, Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, President of the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam, disclosed that a group of Vietnamese bishops including archbishops of Hanoi, Hue, Saigon and he himself were unable to stop the demolition of the Dalat Collegium Pontificium which the local government is trying to convert into a public park.

In 1956, bishops in South Vietnam petitioned to Rome for the establishment of a Collegium Pontificium in Dalat, a town in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The Collegium Pontificium was inaugurated on Sep. 13, 1958. It had served as a central seminary for the Church in Vietnam until being seized by the communist government in 1980.

“The Collegium Pontificium is so dear to the heart of bishops and priests in Vietnam. It’s a living memoir of many,” said Bishop Peter Nguyen. “14 priests who had graduated from here were ordained as bishops. With the exception of Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nho, who passed away, others are still governing dioceses in Vietnam,” he added.

In the era of open markets, land values have increased at an impressive rate. As corruption gets more and more pervasive, local authorities get bolder and bolder in seeking illegitimate, personal gain. They have come up with unfeasible projects just to have an excuse to confiscate farmland from peasants or buy it at a very low cost. Once the owners have been kicked off their land, state officials resell it at higher values, or build hotels, restaurants, and night clubs as financial resources for government officials.

In a letter to the president and the prime minister of Vietnam in July 2008, Bishop Michael Hoang Duc Oanh of Kontum wrote: “In this country many farmers and poor people have for years pleaded for the return of their properties but all in vain, as the authorities chose prosecuting the victims rather than taking care of them!”

As authorities reassessing the values of Church properties they had seized years before, some stand out as having great economic potential which they would have to find ways to keep it, even at high cost of public opinion and adverse reactions from the owner. This is the case of Church-owned land in Thai Ha, the nunciature in Hanoi, and numerous schools and monasteries throughout South Vietnam. In that context, the huge area of 79,200m2 of the Dalat Collegium Pontificium did not escape the greed of local authorities.

A year before, on Nov. 22, 2008, part of the seminary was demolished for a privatization plan. Bishop Peter Nguyen protested. His protest along with rising tensions between Catholics and the government in other parts of the country had slowed down the plan.

Nowadays, following the same trick that has been successfully applied in Hanoi nunciature, Thai Ha and the monastery of the Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres in Vinh Long, local authorities have opted to build another “public park” while waiting for a better chance to resume their privatization scheme.

Summarizing the history of the bishops’ dialogue with the government on the seminary, the prelate said: “In 1993, the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam made a petition to Vietnam government asking for the requisition of the premise. Since then, at every annual Episcopal Conference, we have reiterated our appeal. But it’s all in vain.”

“I, myself, have repeatedly petitioned to the local authorities of Lam Dong province,” said Monsignor Peter Nguyen. “But they have asked me to donate the seminar for them!” he revealed citing the government letter No. 8860/UBND-ĐC on Dec. 4, 2008 as a typical example.

“On Nov. 2, 2009, once again, I wrote a petition to the prime minister and the chairman of Lam Dong province,” the prelate added.

After almost a month, he has not received any responses from the authorities while the construction for a park at the site keeps speeding up.

It seems to Catholics in Vietnam that their bishops have not yet been able to find out an effective and comprehensive plan to protect Church properties. Churches, monasteries, seminaries, schools, hospitals, and other social centres have taken their turn to lose for local authorities. This results in growing criticisms in Catholic circles.

“Being a bishop in Vietnam is very challenging now,” Fr. Joseph Nguyen from Hanoi remarked in an effort to defence bishops. “In the wake of robbing Church’s land, if you protest weakly, you fail to protect your Church and receive strong criticisms from your faithful,” he explained.

On the contrary, “Should you fight back with courage and persistence in order to protect your Church and your faithful then the state media insult against you for months, pro-government thugs hang around your house yelling death threats and cursive language, recruitment of seminarians is severely restricted, severe restrictions on the ordination, appointment and transfer of priests are applied, and there emerge enormous obstacles in carrying out of the Church's normal activities, involving travel, holding meetings, developing new pastoral initiatives. The pressure keeps mounting up until you, yourself, believe that you should go for the benefit of your Church,” he warned.

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