April 26, 2009
HANOI (AFP) — About 1,000 Vietnamese Catholics held a candlelight prayer vigil Saturday night to protest a bauxite mining project and against government plans for construction on land claimed by the church.
The vigil lasted nearly 30 minutes and took place on church property in a courtyard after evening mass.
"We are not in agreement with the actions of the government," Nguyen Van Phuong, a priest at the vigil in Tai Ha Redemptorist parish, told AFP.
He said the faithful gathered to "pray for the government" and oppose its plans for bauxite mining in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
By criticising the bauxite plan, the Catholics join a diverse collection of scientists, intellectuals, former soldiers, and opponents of the communist regime.
They say the environmental and social damage of the mine will far outweigh any economic benefit, and point out security concerns because a Chinese company has been granted a contract to build one of the mines.
After their vigil, parishioners signed a petition against the mine.
Phuong said they also object to plans by local authorities in Hanoi to build on nearby land the parish says it has owned since 1928.
Another priest, Nguyen Van Khai, told AFP on Friday that a school was already erected on the land, and work recently began on another building. A construction hoarding has gone up that indicates that a residential block will be built there.
Officials did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment on the property dispute, the latest between Tai Ha and the authorities.
About 1,000 Catholics protested in March outside a Hanoi court that upheld the conviction of eight fellow believers for property damage and disturbing public order.
All had admitted taking part in rallies that peaked last August calling for the return of church property seized — along with many other buildings and farms — more than 50 years earlier when communists took power in what was then North Vietnam.
Vietnam has Southeast Asia’s second largest Catholic community after the Philippines, with at least six million followers.
Religious activity remains under state control, but Hanoi’s relations with the Catholic Church had improved before the wave of property protests.