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Vietnam govt’s claim on church land irks parishioners

Land disputes between local governments and religious institutions are common in the one-party communist state
Thanh Hai parishioners protest against the local authorities' plan to build schools on land borrowed from Thanh Hai church, on May 8.

Thanh Hai parishioners protest against the local authorities' plan to build schools on land borrowed from Thanh Hai church, on May 8. (Photo: rfa.org)

Published: May 17, 2024 11:15 AM GMT
Updated: May 20, 2024 04:48 AM GMT

Parishioners of a Catholic church in Vietnam have protested the government’s plan to build a new school on land reportedly owned by the parish, say reports.

The land was loaned out to the authorities in 1975 and belonged to Thanh Hai Church under the Phan Thiet Diocese in Binh Thuan province, they argued, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on May 15.

“No one, from the authorities to the priests, can take away our land,” a parishioner who did not reveal her name due to fear of reprisals told RFA.

She claimed the land belonged to their parents and grandparents “who put a lot of effort and hard work to claim it since they migrated to the South.”

Reportedly, the parish had lent two school buildings which were included in a 6,136.8 square meters (1.5 acres) plot to the government for functioning as public schools.

Hundreds of parishioners gathered in the parish compound on May 8 and stopped the authorities from measuring and bifurcating the land based on this claim.

“We demanded that the authorities stop measuring the land… that used to be the parish’s Catholic primary and middle schools,” a second unnamed source, a member of the parish pastoral council told RFA.

The source said the authorities accepted their demand and “since then nothing has happened at the site.”

The parish was informed of the government’s plans to return one of the buildings to the church and raze the other to build a modern 10-classroom school building, at a meeting on March 1.

The officials avoided all references to returning the land to the parish and instead used the term “land extension.”

The decision was reportedly welcomed by the diocesan authorities and the parish priest, but the parishioners disagreed.

Thanh Hai parish has some 8,000 parishioners who make up some 75 percent of the population in the locality, RFA reported citing a 2015 government survey.

In 2014 the church authorities had requested the government to return the school and the land to them for developing the area to serve the increasing parish population.

The parish had claimed the land lease based on the “1996 Land Use Declaration,” which was signed by the then parish priest Vu Ngoc Dang and the then Chair of Thanh Hai Ward People’s Committee.

The Binh Thuan province authorities however have denied borrowing the parish’s land, according to a document published on its website, RFA reported.

The document says that "starting from the school year 1975-1976, all types of private schools [run by individuals, and religious and social organizations] will be converted into public schools," RFA reported.

Established in 1955, the first parishioners were people who migrated from the northern provinces of Thanh Hoa, Hai Phong, and Quang Binh following the signing of the Geneva Accords, which divided Vietnam into the communist North and anti-communist South.

Before the North defeated the South and unified Vietnam in 1975, the schools on the church land were run by the parish and only parishioners’ children could attend.

This was changed after 1975 when the new government requisitioned the schools and ordered that they serve all children in the ward.

The diocesan authorities, the parish priest, and the people’s committee have yet to respond to requests for comments from RFA.

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