Vietnam Catholics seek return of disputed land

HANOI — A Catholic religious order in southern Vietnam has asked communist authorities to halt construction of a city park they say is church property, the latest in a line of church-state land disputes.

The request came shortly before Vietnam's President Nguyen Minh Triet and Pope Benedict XVI held a rare meeting last Friday at the Vatican. Both sides hailed the talks as a prelude to improved ties.

Vietnam and the Vatican do not have diplomatic relations but in recent years have begun a reconciliation, although an outstanding issue remains the confiscation of Roman Catholic land.

In the latest case, Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres asked the chairman of the Vinh Long provincial People's Committee, or local government, to return land which the sisters said had been developed in 1871 as a nunnery and orphanage.

The request came in a letter dated December 6 and subsequently posted on the website of the Vietnam Episcopal Council.

In 1977, two years after communist authorities reunified Vietnam, the nuns of Saint-Paul de Chartres were arrested and in 2003 their church buildings were destroyed, said the letter signed by sister Huynh Thi Bich Ngoc.

She asked authorities to make amends for the 1977 "mistakes" and "return the legitimate property of the order of Saint-Paul."

A spokesman for the People's Committee could not be immediately reached.

Officials began seizing church property, along with many other buildings and farms, more than 50 years ago when communists took power in what was then North Vietnam.

In December 2007, Catholics began a series of demonstrations over seized land that led to occasional clashes with the police.

Vietnam has Southeast Asia's second largest Catholic community after the Philippines, with at least six million followers.

Religious activity remains under state control in Vietnam but the government says it always respects the freedom of belief and religion.