MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, absentee voting starts today in some states and we'll hear how that could affect the presidential race. First though, let's go to Vietnam. That is a communist country and it's home to an estimated six million Catholics. Relations between the church and the Vietnamese government have improved in recent years, but disputes over land are now threatening those gains. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Hanoi.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: It's Tuesday morning around 10:30 at the Thai Ha Church in central Hanoi, and it's standing room only.
(Soundbite of singing)
SULLIVAN: The windows open wide, so that those sitting outside fanning themselves in the sweltering heat can listen in and take part, too. A mid-morning mass is not normal here, but these are not normal times. The church is locked in a bitter dispute with the state over land both claim as their own. The church is mobilizing its followers and many of those here today have been bused in from nearby provinces.
(Soundbite of priest speaking in Vietnamese)
SULLIVAN: The priest says today's prayers are for their brothers and sisters who've been arrested or detained in the past few weeks. We are praying they will be freed, the priest says, and that the land that belongs to the church will be returned. That land is just next door, a large vacant lot, recently razed, that developers are hungry to build on. Land the government says the church gave up voluntarily more than 50 years ago. Last month, parishioners broke through a brick wall surrounding the lot and staked their claim to the land by erecting statues of the Virgin Mary, several crucifixes and other religious icons.
(Soundbite of singing)
SULLIVAN: Parishioners come to pray at the makeshift shrine, while about a dozen women sit under umbrellas off to the side, chanting for peace. Plainclothes police are everywhere busily snapping pictures for later. Juan Vankay (ph), 38, is one of the priests here.
Mr. JUAN VAKAY (Priest, Thai Ha Church, Vietnam): (Through Translator) During the day there are not that many people here, but in the evening there will be thousands. They don't fear being arrested or detained, or dying. All they want - all we want is justice - for the land that was taken from us to be returned.
SULLIVAN: The priest says police used tear gas and stun guns against some parishioners last month, charges denied by police. Vu Hong Khanh, vice chairman of the Hanoi People's Committee, rejects any allegations of wrongdoing by the government, and is adamant the church has no legal claim to the land.
Mr. VU HONG KHANH (Vice Chairman, Hanoi Peoples Committee, Vietnam): (Through Translator) In the last month we have confirmed the priest and parishioners from Thai Ha continue to ignore the law by inciting people to hold vigils and to reclaim the land near Thai Ha Church. This is a clear violation of the law.
SULLIVAN: Criminal charges have been filed against eight parishioners, now in police custody. This is the second time this year that Vietnam's Catholics have openly challenged the government. In January, thousands gathered outside St. Joseph's Cathedral, the city's largest, demanding the return of land where the Vatican embassy once stood. The vigils ended after the government and church officials agreed to sit down and discuss the issue. Last Thursday, though, government officials abruptly informed church leaders that land would be turned into a park. Construction started the next morning. Church leaders were not amused and say they'll keep trying to get the land returned.
It's not clear how either dispute will be resolved, but the fact they've gotten this far is an indication of how much Vietnam has changed in the years since its leaders decided to embrace market reforms and court foreign investment. The government is also more sensitive to world opinion than it was in the past. The Internet, too, is helping change and shape people's attitudes. Those who directly challenge the party's legitimacy and authority are still ruthlessly suppressed, but other expressions of discontent are now tolerated more than in the past. Factory workers can now strike for and get better wages, disgruntled farmers can, and do, organize protests against what they see as unfair compensation for land seized by the state. Nguyen Thanh Xuan is deputy chairman of the government's religious affairs committee. He says the church and state may yet work out a compromise.
Mr. NGUYEN THANH XUAN (Deputy Chairman, Governments Religious Affairs Committee, Vietnam): (Through Translator) Vietnam doesn't have much land, he says, but we have four times as many people now than we did 100 years ago. So there's no question, he says, of returning any land to the church, period.
SULLIVAN: However, Nguyen Thanh Xuan says the government may consider reallocating some government land for the church to use, but not own. But that would have to be done legally, he says, within the law. Not, he says, the way they're behaving at Thai Ha. Not, he says, like a mob. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.
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