July 21th, 2009
Tensions between Catholics and the Vietnamese government are running high in a central province of Vietnam today after clashes with police left many worshippers injured. There have also been a number of arrests.
At 9am this morning, hundreds of Catholics in the diocese of Vinh were attacked by police as they began building an altar and puting up a cross in the grounds of a church that was bombed during the Vietnam War.
Fr Le Thanh Hong, pastor of Tam Toa parish said: “The police far outnumbered parishioners. They fired teargas at the crowd before kicking and beating them brutally with stun guns, and batons. Many priests and lay people have been wounded.”
”Some were made to sit on the ground, where again they were beaten by a group of gang youth employed by police, while dozens were thrown into police trucks,” Fr Le said.
The church of Tam Toa, built in Portuguese style with a large bell, was inaugurated in 1887, and considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in Vietnam.
The parish can trace its origins back to 1631 in early years of the Church in Vietnam. It developed quickly during the 17th century and was the largest parish in the region, supporting a school, convent and orphanage.
In 1886, an anti-Western group, ‘Van Than’, attacked the parish of Tam Toa killing 52 parishioners for what it considered retaliation against the French presence in Vietnam. Tam Toa church was erected a year later for the survivors of the massacre.
Unfortunately in 1968, it became the casualty of US Air Force’s bombing in which most of its parts were destroyed except the entrance and the bell tower which still stand firm today.
Tam Tow now has more than a thousand parishioners, many of whom are eager to renovate their church and to involve more people with religious activities as the way to foster their faith. But this effort has been stalled indefinitely by the government’s interference with the usage of Tam Toa church.
Although they could not afford to rebuild their church, Mass was still been celebrated in the ruins of the building until March 1996 when the People’s Committee of Quang Binh province confiscated the church stating that it had been chosen as a War Memorial’ and "must be preserved and protected for future generations to remember American War Crimes."
The archdiocese of Hue immediately protested. In May 2006, the parish was transferred to Vinh diocese. Bishop Paul Maria Cao has since then repeatedly asked for the requisition of the church. But there has been no response from the government.
On 2 February this year, despite threats from the government, Bishop Paul Maria Cao Dinh Thuyen and 14 priests of the diocese of Vinh (334 km South of Hanoi), concelebrated Mass at the church. Thousands of Catholics attended the Mass.