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Vietnam Catholics defy critics, observe environment day

State media criticism of church event draws fire from local netizens

ucanews.com reporter, Ho Chi Minh City

ucanews.com reporter, Ho Chi Minh City

Published: August 09, 2016 08:21 AM GMT

Updated: August 09, 2016 10:49 AM GMT

Vietnam Catholics defy critics, observe environment day

Police stand guard outside the Formosa steel plant’s main gate to prevent protesters getting inside. (Photo courtesy of tinmungchonguoingheo.com)

State media have accused church leaders of causing social disorder and attempting to dupe foreign donors by holding a Day for the Environment on Aug. 7.

Catholics in Vinh Diocese, northern Vietnam, observed the environmental celebration by holding Mass and adoration, conducting peaceful demonstrations and cleaning up garbage from around their parishes.

The diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission initiated the event to raise public awareness about environmental protection.

"Holding a day for the environment is a conspiracy of [Bishop] Nguyen Thai Hop and his priests to get finance from foreign organizations and individuals," a report on viet24h a state-run news website claimed before the event.

The report accused diocesan leaders of "inciting and inducing local Catholics to participate in the event in negative ways … to cause social disorder."

It said the commission had also slandered the government’s response to the marine disaster in Ha Tinh province, where a Taiwanese-built steel plant owned by Formosa Plastics reportedly discharged hundreds of tons of toxic waste into the surrounding waters and soil. 

The report quoted the commission as saying that "the disaster has been made worse by the government's slow reaction and lack of transparency" and that "local people were suffering the consequences for the selfish intentions of government officials."

The newspaper also charged local priests with financing extremist and reactionary objectives abroad to complicate domestic issues and cause instability inside Vietnam.

This is the second time state-run media has criticized the outspoken Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop and his priests since the maritime disaster in early April.

However, on social media there was strong public criticism of the report. Many people said the report’s author did not understand the church’s social teaching and lacked patriotism.

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"Church leaders work for the common good and have responsibility for the environment and the nation, while government officials try to work for personal interests," said a reader named Diem Hong.

An activist based in Ho Chi Minh City told ucanews.com that the diocese’s activities on Aug. 7 had three aims: to "make the environment better after Formosa [Plastics] caused pollution, to raise awareness about environmental protection among communities, and help people see the government’s failure to protect the environment."

As part of the day 5,000 parishioners from across the diocese staged a motorbike demonstration to Manh Son Church, holding banners declaring, "Close up Formosa. Destroying the environment is a crime."

Security officials and police were deployed along the route, while authorities cut mobile phone signals to prevent people from contacting one another.

Some 4,000 Catholics from Cua Sot parish carried a Marian statue around the parish and marched to a local port to pray for the environment. While 700 Catholics from Dong Yen parish collected garbage and set fire to it in front of Formosa Plastic’s steel plant in Ha Tinh Province. Police were deployed in front of the plant’s gate and used fire engines to put the fire out.

On social media many people expressed gratitude to Catholics in Vinh Diocese for leading the fight for environmental justice in Vietnam.

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