Vietnamese Catholics Under Communist Iron Grip
J.B. An Dang9/29/2008

Before sunrise on Friday morning, Sep. 19, 2008, as most residents on Nha Chung St still sleeping, hundreds of police had assembled in front of the archbishop's residence in Hanoi, blocking access to the residence, the cathedral, and all roads leading to the nearby nunciature.

Instinctively, most of priests and seminarians in St. Joseph Major Seminary, and nuns in the convent of Adorers of the Holy Cross congregation anticipated the arrest of their archbishop as state media had repeatedly warned days before. They tried to contact the archbishop’s office to no avail. The telephone line was cut off and even cell phones (mobiles) did not work. Rushing down to the scene, they could see several police vehicles with technical devices installed to block cell phone signal, preventing both incoming and/or outgoing phone calls.

Soon they were able to find out that their archbishop had neither been arrested nor taken to jail. But in reality the whole neighborhood, including the archbishop, was being sequestered by police order. “No one gets out, no one gets in,” yelled the policeman while a herd of public order enforcement dogs barking viciously at them.

Almost immediately after that, bulldozers moved into the area and started excavating the front yard of the building. Bells from the steeple of St. Joseph Cathedral Hanoi rang continuously to alert and summon parishioners while state-controlled television and radio stations announcing that the government had decided to demolish the building, to convert the land into a public playground.

Mingling in line with hundreds of Catholics who were rushing to the site to witness the unthinkable event was Ben Stocking, an American reporter, the Hanoi bureau chief for Associated Press. As a routine, Mr. Stocking wanted to show to the world what he was seeing. While trying to take as many photos as he could, he was grabbed away, punched, choked, and hit over the head with a camera by police. He was arrested and later released, but not before his camera was confiscated and his head needed to have stitches for injury he received while being manhandled by the police..

The obvious question is why to build "a public playground" Vietnam government had to deploy hundreds of police armed to the teeth, aided by professionally trained dogs; and was prepared to attack anyone who dared to inform their plot to the outside world?

This article is our effort to present a concise background of Church property issues in Vietnam and enormous challenges the Church has to face in their struggle to reclaim property illegally seized by the communist government.

1. A history of persecutions and Martyrs

Catholicism came ashore in Vietnam sometime during 16th century, thanks to the work of missionaries from France, Spain and Portugal. Since its very first outset, the seed of Faith in Vietnam soil was mixed with the abundant blood of the martyrs from all walks of life, from the courageous missionary clergy as well as the local clergy and the Christian people of Vietnam.

Vietnam Catholic Church history reports that during a period of 261 years, from 1625 to 1886, 53 edicts were signed by the Trinh, the Nguyen Lords and the Kings of Nguyen dynasty, one worse than the previous one. During that time, there were approximately 130,000 Christians were being victimized by these persecutions which were widespread all over the country. The Church suffered the worst persecutions under the kingdom of Minh Mang (1820-1840), the “Nero of Indochina”.

Just recently 117 of this immense multitude of Heroes, whose sufferance was of cruelty indeed, were recognized, chosen and raised to the Altars by the Holy See.

The Church in Vietnam has even suffered more than ever since the communists took control of the North in 1954 and later, the South, in 1975.

1.1 The North after 1954.

In 1954, when Vietnam was divided into North and South strategic regions following the Geneva Convention, many priests from the North followed the exodus and flight of millions of Catholics and others to the South. Those who chose to remain had lived under extremely harsh condition set by the atheist regime. They were denied access to education and decent jobs, and treated as second-class citizens, being subjected to constant harassment from public officials and non Catholics.

At first, the North government did follow its Chinese counterpart in religion policies: it tried its best to set up a state-controlled Catholic Church. A few months after taking control the North, the “Liaison Committee for Patriotic and Peace-Loving Catholics” was born in March 1955.

The initial task for the committee was to establish a Patriotic Church loyal to the Party. But it failed miserably thanks to the fidelity to Christ and His Church of the Bishops, priests, religious and the laity. While other religions were divided into an official (or state-approved) one and an underground one, all along there has always been only one Catholic Church in Vietnam which wholeheartedly belonged to Christ and His Church even at the price of grave sufferings. As a result, alternative governmental measures were applied, highlighted by clergy eradication and new Church property confiscation policies.

In the land reform campaign which spread to most of the villages of North Vietnam from mid-1955 to mid-1956, many Catholic leaders were falsely labeled as landlords and subjected to the confiscation of their land, which actually belonged to the Church. In an official document [1], the government reported that the land reform campaign was conducted at 3,563 villages with more than half a million people charged as landlords. Among them 172,008 were executed. Vietnam government admitted that among those who were killed, 123,226 were actually victims of injustice. A significant number of priests and lay leaders were killed in this campaign resulting in so many congregations living without Mass and sacraments for decades.

In subsequent years, the clergy and faithful were also jailed for other various reasons or even for no reasons at all. The plight of Redemptorists in the North was a typical example [2].

In 1954, when most Redemptorists moved to the South of Vietnam, Fr. Joseph Vu Ngoc Bich, Fr. Denis Paquette, Fr. Thomas Côté, Br. Clement Pham Van Dat and Br. Marcel Nguyen Tan Van remained in Hanoi. They, too, had been at the receiving end of mistreatment by the atheist, communist regime, and soon found themselves facing brutal persecutions. On May 7th, 1955, Br. Marcel Nguyen was arrested for no reason. Four year later, on July 9th, 1959, he died in the communist prison camp. Fr. Denis Paquette, a French national, faced deportation on October 23rd, 1958. One year later, Fr. Thomas Côté, also originally from France, faced the same fate. Less than three years later, on October 9th, 1962, Br. Clement Pham was arrested. He died later in the communist prison on October 7th, 1970 in a rural area of Yen Bai. This left Fr. Joseph Vu to run the church by himself. Despite his persistent protests, local authorities gradually seized the parish’s land one section at a time. Consequently, the land piece was reduced from its original 15 acres to its present-day size of little more than half an acre.

The clergy eradication and the Church property confiscation policies have resulted in dire consequences where many congregations of faithful in the upper north provinces of Vietnam have been without churches and priests for more than half a century. Nonetheless, some congregations have preserved the seed of their faith and even transmit it to the descendant generations. It has been told that during that bloody chapter of the Church history in North Vietnam, though there was no regular Sunday mass being celebrated, and many churches which were destroyed during the war, the faithful frequently gathered and turned abandoned houses or even barns into worship places.

This was the testimony of defiance under oppression, a sheer will to remain children of God at all costs.

1.2 The South after 1975.

After Saigon fell into communism on April 30, 1975, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese people, from former officers in the armed forces to religious leaders were rounded up in re-education camps in remote, secluded areas, usually deep in the jungle or where escaping was virtually impossible. Many were executed without a trial. The rest of those, who were malnourished and received little or no medical care, had to do hard laborious work under 24/7 surveillance of armed prison guards. Poor health, malnutrition combined with constant physical labor, mandatory self confessions and political indoctrination, had made life a living hell for political prisoners in Vietnam, and contributed to a high death rate in the camps [3].

The re-education camp policy which resulted in over 100,000 deaths, shed a cloud of fear all over Vietnam, especially in the South.

As a result, a wave of millions people tried to escape the country by any means. They were prepared to risk everything. Many took to the ocean in tiny, overcrowded fishing boats. At least half of the so called "boat people", never made it to their destination. Many died at the hand of the pirates.

In that context, many Church properties were confiscated or transferred to the State under coercive conditions. The Church's ministries were severely hampered, seminaries could not function, and many dioceses remained without bishops for decades.

Soon after the communists took control of South Vietnam, a “Committee for Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics” was also born in the South with its “Catholics and People” magazine first published on July 10, 1975. This was seen as the second attempt of the government to set up a state-run Church.

At first, some priests and religious actively joined the committee as they believed it might be a good way to serve the country which had been torn by successive wars. But most of them joined it out of fear.

However, tables were turned after the first meeting of the so-called “Committee for Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics” in December 1976. Priests and religious who attended the meeting in Hanoi were shocked and had second thought about the real motive of this organization when the celebrants deliberately ignored the prayer for the Pope in the Mass on the last day of the meeting.

Also, Catholics in the South became more vigilant at the ploy of the atheist government to create a Catholic schism as the “Catholics and People” magazine, which, despite its name, is controlled by the Communist party rather than the Church – has carried a series of anti-Vatican articles to lay harsh criticisms on Vatican and the Pope.

The fate of “Committee for Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics” was decided after a letter from The Holy See warning the clergy who involved in the committee. Most of priests withdrew from the committee when the letter was published in 1985.

While the Vietnamese government claims that everyone in Vietnam has the right to believe or not believe in any religion, in practice, only those who follow state-approved churches are looked upon favorably. Others can quickly find themselves suffered overt persecutions. A series of Church properties in South Vietnam were seized after the government recognized its failure to set up a “Patriotic Catholic Church”.

Altogether more or less 2250 Church properties in both the North and the South of Vietnam have been seized. Some of them were turned into factories, movie theatres, restaurants, or government offices. Some simply were destroyed. Others were sold or gave to government officials.

1.3 Present limitations on religious freedom.

With the introduction to open market, the gradual opening to the West, especially to the United States, beginning with the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo in February 1994, the normalization of relations in July 1995, and the accession into WTO in November 2006; there has been a number of positive developments in religious liberty. The situation of the Church in Vietnam was improved due in good part to the persistent efforts of the Holy See to maintain an official dialogue with the authorities, including an annual visit to Vietnam of a Vatican delegation [4].

However, there can be no denying that religious freedom is severely limited in today's Vietnam. One puzzle the communist regime has to solve is how it can capitalize its economic system without weakening the power grip of the ruling Communist Party. Vietnamese communists, like communists around the world, are too consumed with the fear of “hostile forces behind Catholics” that they spend great efforts in limiting and monitoring Church activities. It is fair to say that persecutions are still on their way especially in the rural areas such as in the North and in the Central Highlands. The persecutions against the Catholics in Son La province is a typical example [5].

Months prior to the visit from President George W. Bush, and the WTO accession, Vietnam issued several decrees and ordinances that outlawed forced renunciations of faith, and relaxed restrictions on religious freedom. However, things seem to return back to previous status, at least with Hmong Catholics in Son La province.

Local Catholics in Son La report that many Hmong Catholics have been forced to shy away from religion activities. Those who refused to do so were detained, interrogated, arrested, imprisoned, beat, and harassed. In some cases, their rice fields were set on fire and land confiscated. Last year, soon after the meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, an entire of Catholic village fled into a jungle to avoid persecutions. They traveled far south to Thanh Hóa province.

Local authorities responded by setting up border guard stations within ethnic villages to prevent further runaways. There have been reports in which security officials pressured Hmong Catholics to sign pledges agreeing to abandon “Christianity and politics”, and to construct traditional animistic altars in their homes. These practices were outlawed in a February 2005 decree. However, so far, no security officials have been punished for these actions.

The local government of Son La has long connected Hmong Christianity with the “receive the king” tradition of Hmong culture. This tradition was interpreted as a harbinger of political secession, a serious national security threat.

In June 2006, the Son La’s Committee of Population Propaganda issued a document urging officials to take active measures to “resolutely subdue” the growth of Christianity because “Son La people have no ‘genuine need’ for religion”, “Christians spend so much time for worship, and on Sunday, they rest from work”. This “undermines the revolution”.

The document brazenly contradicts to numerous decrees and ordinances from Vietnam Prime Minister in 2005 and 2006.

There are more severe restraints on religious freedom, which Catholic bishops in Vietnam repeatedly speak out on, calling for the government to relax specific restrictions. After each meeting of the Episcopal conference, the bishops typically send a memorial of the meeting to the Prime Minister, in which they list the areas of great concerns. Among these, typically are the following:

1) The long delays in securing the appointment of bishops and diocesan administrators. This has always been a main point on the agenda in the bilateral meetings between the Vatican and the Vietnam government.

2) The restrictions on the ordination, appointment and transfer of priests. This is a major sticking point. Even after completing all requisite studies for ordination, candidates are often made to wait years before beginning their ministry.

3) The carrying out of the Church's normal activities, involving travel, holding meetings, developing new pastoral initiatives, are all subjected to approval by the civil authorities.

4) Recruitment of seminarians is severely restricted; only a certain number may be enrolled in the diocesan seminaries each year, and candidates and even their families are subjected to scrutiny.

5) Publications and other media are severely restricted. The Church has no access to the mass media.

6) So many properties once belonged to the Church were transferred to state administration under coercive conditions on the grounds that they were needed for social purposes. Even when these purposes are no longer met, the properties are seldom returned to their owners. Recently, it is reported that they have been used as financial resources for government officials. Some of them were turned into movie theatres, restaurants, night clubs or government offices. Some simply were destroyed. Others were sold or provided to selected government officials for personal use.

7) Local governments are still pursuing policies of religious persecution for the ethnic minorities, especially the Montagnards in the Central Highlands, and the Thai, and Hmong in the Northern Mountains.

8) The communist government has severely restricted all the Church activities in education and keeps pursuing an anti-Christian education policy. In text books, the Church has been systematically described as ‘evil’ and ‘obstacles’ to the progress of the society. Also, relations between the Catholic Church and the government remain tense due partly to ongoing efforts from the government to distort history in order to falsely accuse the Church of being ally to foreign invaders in 19th and 20th centuries.

2. Hanoi Property Disputes

Hanoi Archdiocese, like other Vietnam dioceses, has many properties seized by the government. Three main property disputes are the former nunciature, the Redemptorist land at Thai Ha, and a parish presteby at Ha Dong.

2.1 The nunciature.

On Oct 18th, 1951, Pope Pius XII appointed Archbishop John Jarlath Dooley, S.S.C.M.E (1906 – 1999) as the Apostolic Delegate to Indochina.

On arrival to Vietnam, Archbishop John Dooley decided to move the Indochina Apostolic Delegate’s residence from Hue to Hanoi due to the political importance of the latter. In Hanoi, his office was set temporarily inside the Archbishopric complex.

When Vietnam was divided into two distinct states in 1954, he remained in Hanoi. However, five years later, in March, 1959 he had to leave Hanoi for medical treatment. Before leaving Vietnam, he wrote a letter in which he thanked Bishop Joseph Marie Trinh Nhu Khue (1898-1978) of Hanoi to allow him to use the building for a long time.

Father Terence O'Driscoll, an Irish priest, undertook the office temporarily while waiting for the Holy See’s instructions. But, within 2 weeks after Archbishop John Dooley left Vietnam, Hanoi deported Fr. O'Driscoll and all staff of the Apostolic Delegation.

Soon, the communist government occupied the Nunciature, built a wall to separate it with the rest of the Archbishopric complex, despite strong protests of Bishop Joseph Marie Trinh.

Since then, the former Nunciature has been used for various purposes, including those as means to torture Hanoi Catholic leaders and staff who lived nearby with loudly music played late into midnight. Needless to say, the music and other activities from the building disrupt badly church services in the nearby Hanoi Cathedral.

In 1980s, Cardinal Joseph-Marie Trinh Van Can (1921-1990), Archbishop of Hanoi, had repeatedly reported the issue but the government kept torturing him with loudly music until his death.

In 2000, Cardinal Paul Joseph Pham Dinh Tung requested the return of the building to the archdiocese. The Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops has also sent petitions to the authorities for the return of the building. Yet, their petitions have gone unanswered.

2.2 Redemptorist land at Thai Ha.

Thai Ha parish is run by Redemptorists. The congregation arrived in Vietnam in 1925. Since then, Redemptorists have taken the Good News to many provinces in the North of the country. In 1928, they bought 6 hectares at Thai Ha, Hanoi to build a convent and a church. Mass for the Inauguration of the convent was held on May 1929. The church was inaugurated 6 years later, in 1935.

In 1941, there were up to 66 members including 17 priests, 12 brothers, 26 seminarians, and 11 novices living in the convent. The number of members kept increasing steadily until 1954, when Vietnam was divided into two distinct states. In 1954, most Redemptorists moved to the South of Vietnam. Fr. Joseph Vu Ngoc Bich and other 4 Redemptorists remained in Hanoi. They lived under extremely harsh treatment by the atheist regime, and soon faced brutal persecutions. Since 1962, after other Redemptorists were jailed or deported, Fr. Joseph Vu had run the church alone. Despite Fr. Joseph Vu’s persistent protests, local authorities had managed to nibble bite by bite the parish’s land. The original area of 60,000 square meters was reduced to 2,700 square meters. The communist government converted the convent into Dong Da hospital, and distributed or sold illegally large parts of the land to state-owned companies, and government officials.

Priests, religious and the laity of Thai Ha parish have repeatedly requested for the return of the land seized by the government. In support of their demands they note that the Redemptorists hold the legal land deeds and have never signed agreements to offer any part of the land to the government even under coercive conditions.

Since 1996, Hanoi Redemptorists and Thai Ha parishioners have been demanding the return of the land belonging to them. Their petitions have gone unanswered. But at the start of the year fences went up and security officials were called in to protect the construction which had begun.

2.3 Ha Dong Parish Presteby.

Ha Dong is a city of 200,000 inhabitants, 40 kilometers from Hanoi. The parish’s presteby was commandeered 30 years ago, and had since used for the offices of the Ha Dong People's Committee. The faithful have for many years demanded that the parish be returned to its rightful owners.

3. Social context of prayer protests

3.1 Vietnamese growing dissatisfaction with the government’s stance on China-Vietnam border issues.

In November 2007, China formalized its annexation of the Paracels and Spratlys by incorporating the two archipelagoes into a newly formed administrative unit (known as "Tam Sa") of Hainan province. When this decision became known, Vietnamese students organized unprecedented protests outside Chinese diplomatic offices in Hanoi and Saigon. These protests only lasted for two weeks as Vietnamese police depressed quickly and detained many of the organizers.

Students’ patriotic protests called into question the very legitimacy of the communist’s rule. Fifty years ago, China issued a declaration essentially claiming the entire South China Sea as an inland lake. Within days, on Sep. 14, 1958, prime minister Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to his counterpart Chou En-lai, acknowledging China's claim. The motivation of the Hanoi communists was absurd but for obvious reason: they needed China's military support badly during the war against the US-backed South Vietnam.

Toward the end of the Vietnam War, China taking advantage of South Vietnam's weakening military position attacked the Paracel Islands. In the naval battle of January 19, 1974, and subsequent Chinese attacks, 53 South Vietnamese sailors lost their lives defending the islands. The Saigon government protested the unprovoked invasion, while the Hanoi government expressed support for the Chinese move.

After the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, more disgraceful concessions with China have been made by the Vietnam government. In year 2000 alone, Vietnam lost 700 sq.km of its land area for China. Hanoi regime relies on China for political support, photocopying Beijing's model of open economics and closed politics. As a result, it is reluctant to openly criticize China out of the fear that to criticize China is to condemn itself. Recently, China's renewed assertion of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea - waters between Vietnam and the Philippines and stretching down to Indonesia - have stirred popular outrage at home and across the diaspora due to Hanoi's mute reaction to Beijing's stance and its disgraceful land and water border concessions to China.

3.2 Pervading corruptions.

In the era of open market, when there is plenty of opportunities for government officials to get rich overnight, the danger of corruption would also be looming as the rich of the same socio-political interest needs to form an alliance of those who would do anything to buy out the heart and souls of the public officials whose thickness of their wallet seems more important than the welfare of the public, even the security of the country.

The scandal PMU18 can serve as an example. It started out with a few bets on soccer games - $7 million worth of bets - and it raised such a ruckus here that even the leader of the Communist Party joined in, saying that corruption "threatens the survival of our system."

The bets were reportedly placed by the head of PMU18, a government agency that handles hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign development aid for construction projects.

The amount of money at stake was an eye-opener over the audacity of the corruption that seems to pervade Vietnam. In just one bet, according to the local press, $320,000 was lost on a match in Britain between Manchester United and Arsenal on Jan. 3.

The discovery of the bets set investigators on a trail of mansions, mistresses, luxury cars and protection money that led to the resignation in early April of the transport minister and the jailing of his deputy. Three men implicated in the scandal had been on a list of nominees to join the Communist Party Central Committee later that month.

Ironically, investigators reached to somewhere and stopped. All people involved were found not guilty. The two reporters who brought to light the scandal were jailed.

3.3 Land disputes.

In both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh cities (formerly known as Saigon) hundreds of peasants protest daily to plead for the requisition of their land.

In a letter to the President and the PM of Vietnam, Bishop Michael Hoang Duc Oanh of Kontum diocese wrote "In this country numerous of the farmers and the poor have pleaded for years for the requisition of their properties but all in vain, as the authorities chose to persecute rather than to take care of them!"

Land disputes in Vietnam are on the rise as land value has increased at a dazing rate. Local authorities have invented infeasible projects just to have a cause to confiscate or to buy at very cheap prices land of peasants. Once the peasants have been kicked out of their land, state officials resell their land at higher prices, or build up hotels, restaurants, and night clubs as financial resources for government officials.

4. Catholics’ prayer protests

4.1 Protests out broke at the nunciature.

In a letter, released on December 15, 2007, Archbishop Joseph Ngo had informed his congregation that the nunciature within the premises of his palace was seized illegally by the government since 1959. He asked the congregation to pray for the return of the building.

Prayer protest ouside the nunciature
On December 18th, a rally was held drawing thousands Catholics to the street. The daily demonstrations quickly grew into major events when more and more Catholics gathered day and night praying in front of the building. Every day, priests and Catholic followers lit candles, placed flowers and sang at the iron fence. These events have attracted attentions of international Catholic and secular media, and through them of the international community.

Hanoi Catholics prayer protests clearly pose great threats to Vietnam government. This is the first time it has to deal with the protests – bolder than ever - from Catholics as a religious community. Also, these protests occurred just a few months after Vietnam created a watershed, especially for the US, through a wave of harassments, arrests and criminal charges against human rights and democracy advocates engaged in peaceful and perfectly legal activities [6]. Vietnam had been put for years on the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). Apparently, it did not want to suffer more economic measures from US and other Western countries.

4.2 Protests out broke at Thai Ha.

While peaceful demonstrations for the restitution of the nunciature were still on the way, police forcibly intervened in an analogues protest in the parish of Thai Ha. The parishioners discovered that state officials had secretly sold their land to private entities out of the fear their shares might be returned to Catholics. These victims in their desperation were left with no choice other than holding peaceful protests to call out for justice from the authorities since Jan. 5, 2008.

Protest at Thai Ha
Police in mass clashed with protestors. This was seen as a message that Vietnam’s government was not be prepared for any agreements on land disputes that satisfy the legitimate aspiration of Hanoi’s Catholics. The protest, however, could stop the selling of the parish land.

In the afternoon of Jan. 7, the authorities came to allay the concerns of the crowd, promising that construction work would end. Instead the next day the Hanoi People’s Committee issued an official order authorizing the construction in the disputed land. Angered by the flip-flopping action, people realized that government institutions had made a mockery of their own words and of people’s sentiments in order to protect those who broke the law.

In a message sent on the same day to all the Redemptorists in the country[7], the provincial superior, Fr Joseph Cao Dinh Tri, said that the local government had illegally confiscated land belonging to their monastery at Thai Ha, Hanoi and was supporting a construction project there.

The Redemptorist in Hanoi, Fr Cao continued, "have responded by gathering people to pray at the construction site, asking the government to respect fairness and put justice into practice. I would earnestly implore all of you, the whole province of Vietnam, to be in solidarity with our brother Redemptorists in Hanoi, in order to pray for our common apostolate".

The Redemptorists in Saigon immediately held a prayer protest at their Redemptorist convent drawing more than 4,000 Catholics. It was the largest, and probably the first, anti-government protest held in the city since the communists took power in 1975.

4.3 Protests out broke at Ha Dong.

Prayer protest at Ha Dong
Prayer protests soon reached Ha Dong. The protest began Jan. 6, and since then had seen hundreds of faithful meeting in front of what was once their parish building to pray for justice to be done.

The faithful were provoked into action by a statement made by government officials rejecting their demand that the building be returned to its owners after it was seized 30 years to house the Ha Dong People’s Committee.

Parishioners had repeatedly forwarded petitions demanding the building’s return but to no avail.

However, Ha Dong was recently elevated to the status of city and so the Committee was moved. This persuaded the parish vicar, Fr Joseph Nguyen Ngọc Hinh, to try again to get the building back.

This time, however, he got an astonishing answer. He was told that a “parish leader” had donated the building to the government in 1977.

Father Nguyen responded saying that no parishioner had the right to do such a thing according to Canon Law 1292.

Even more astonishing was the fact that the “parish leader” who made the donation was in fact a member of the Communist Party appointed by the government to the parish council who in turn donated the property to the government.

4.4. Ultimatum of the government for Catholics to stop protesting.

Police filming
Early in the morning of Jan. 25, more than two thousands of Catholics gathered in the streets of Hanoi to show their opposition to the government’s refusal to hand over the nunciature.

The morning protest was followed by a Mass for the birthday of Cardinal Paul Joseph Pham Dinh Tung, the former archbishop of Hanoi. Following the celebration, a second peaceful demonstration began which later turned violent. During the protest, a Hmong woman had climbed over a gate to place flowers on a statue of the Virgin Mary inside the building.

Discovered by security personnel, the woman was chased around the garden of the building. Disregarding the woman's explanations for her venturing into the building, the guards kicked and slapped her severely. In the witness of more than 2,000 Catholics, a security commander even loudly ordered his subordinates to beat to death the woman.

Attorney Le Quoc Quan, a Catholic, intervened telling the security officials that their acts were unlawful and that they should stop beating the woman. However, they turned to attack him and dragged him to an office where he was beaten cruelly.

Seeing all this brutality, in order to rescue Mr. Quan and the woman, the protestors had no other choice than breaking through the gate to confront the security officers. They occupied the building, erected a giant cross and sit-in protested on the garden of the building despite cold rains and biting winds.

Large numbers of security police, in uniform and in plain-clothes, were on the site, surrounding the protestors and mingling in their ranks, taking photos and filming with video cameras.

The next day, the city's governing body issued an ultimatum giving the protestors until 5 p.m. Sunday Jan. 27 to leave the premises and to remove statues of the Virgin Mary and the cross that they had erected on Friday.

Also, the government-controlled media, which had remained silent about the protests, jumped in describing the protestors as "naive people," and charged that the Catholic clergy had been “lying to their flock” and inciting them against the government. The media campaign led to fears that a police crackdown was imminent.

Despite all of measures of intimidation, the archbishop did not disperse protestors. None of the government instructions were followed. On the contrary, he challenged the order saying that “Praying is a basic human right protected by laws. Should any of my flock is going to jail for praying, I’m prepared to take his or her place in jail”

More than 3,000 Catholics gathered in the garden of the building that once housed the apostolic nuncio for a prayer vigil on Sunday, January 27th, 2008 in defiance of a government order to vacate the site.

4.5. Concessions.

Not daring to show its hand and challenge the international community, the government tried to seek a way to escape from the deadlock. On February 1st, the government agreed to turn the building over to Church leaders [8].

The concession by the Vietnamese government came just hours after the publication of a letter from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, urging Hanoi's Catholics to avoid confrontation with police. In his Jan. 30 letter to Hanoi's Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet [9], Cardinal Bertone had promised to press the government to restore use of the building. Diplomatic initiatives by the Vatican evidently produced an immediate effect. The government agreed to allow the Catholic archdiocese to resume use of the building, in exchange for a promise that the daily prayer vigils would stop.

5. Attempts to betray promises.

5.1. Buddhist Church claimed ownership of the land.

Two weeks after the agreement was reached, however, the Catholic activists who organized the public protests- and drew international attention to the situation, prompting the government's concession- began to doubt whether the government would keep its promise from what was about to happen next.

State workers had repainted the fence surrounding the building. The gates have been strengthened, and new panels have been set in place, carrying Communist symbols and slogans, underlining the point that the building is state-owned.

Although Archbishop Ngo had said that the building would be turned over to the Church in a series of steps, the latest moves by government officials suggest that a quick transfer is out of the question.

In a sudden, Hanoi Catholics faced a serious setback in their quest, as a state-approved Buddhist Church claimed ownership of the land.

In a letter sent to Vietnam Prime Minister - dated Feb. 16 –Thich Trung Hau, a leader of the Vietnam Buddhist Church set up by the Communist government in 1981, stated that all the settlements regarding the former nuncio's office must be approved by his church, since he claimed that his Church was the authentic owner of the land [10].

The Buddhist leader's letter was written soon after Le Quang Vinh, the Vietnamese government's former religious-affairs chief, suggested that the Buddhist group was the lawful owner of the plot of land on which the archbishop's residence, the city's Catholic cathedral, and St. Joseph seminary are located. The office of the papal nuncio, which was seized by the government in 1959, was on the same property.

Vinh argued that the land was seized from the original Buddhist owners by French colonial rules and transferred to the Catholic Church. Hau, the Buddhist official, backed that argument, claiming that on the land in dispute there had been a pagoda named Bao Thien which was built in 1054. In 1883, “The French colonists seized and donated it to Bishop Puginier”, he stated.

Also, the state-run “Catholics and People” magazine (despite of its name, it’s a state-run publication) opened fire on Hanoi Catholics. On Feb. 15 and since then, it had carried a series of articles supporting Thich Trung Hau’s claim to the building, charging that Catholic activists had violated property laws while accusing the demonstrators of harming the public reputation of Catholic citizens. It argued that the nunciature became public property by default when the papal envoy left the country in 1959. The magazine went even further stating that Saigon Cathedral and numerous Catholic churches should be returned to Buddhists in an obvious attempt to terrorize Catholics.

Catholic activists in Hanoi, already worried about the willingness of the government to restore the property, see these episodes as a government excuse for reneging on the promise made to Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet on Feb. 1.

5.2. The UBCV

In an interview with BBC, a spokesman for the outlawed Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, disputed the claims of Thich Trung Hau and the state-run “Catholics and People” magazine. He charged that the government had encouraged the rival Buddhist group to stake a claim to the property.

A strong Buddhist protest
“It is clear that the government is reluctant to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of Catholics," the Buddhist leader told the BBC. "Now they want to use Buddhists to confront the Catholics for them.”

Thich Khong Tanh, whose UBCV claims to represent 80% of the Buddhists living in Vietnam, said that the rival Buddhist group is "a tool of the Communist party." The UBCV was outlawed in 1981 because of its refusal to follow the dictates of the government; he himself has spent 15 years in prison for his human-rights efforts.

The underground Buddhist leader said that there was no doubt that the Catholic Church owned legal title to the disputed property in Hanoi. While the government-approved Buddhist group claimed that the Bao Thien pagoda was built on that land, Thich Khong Tanh said that the pagoda was actually at a separate location - and in an event, was destroyed in 1426, more than four centuries before the Catholic Church gained titled to the land.

He underlined that the UBCV “has nothing to deal with the nunciature” calling for greater attentions to two key UBCV institutions that had been seized by the government: the Vietnam Quoc Tu Pagoda and the Quang Duc Cultural Centre in Saigon.

Some government officials had already criticized those who involve in the latest moves raising the concern that this development might force Catholics to cooperate with the Unified Buddhist Church.

In some sense, prayer protests from the Buddhists may cause more concerns than those of Catholics as most Vietnamese are Buddhist. Also, Buddhists protests may be followed by a ritual in which a monk sets himself on fire to express his strong protest.

5.3. Media campaign to prepare public opinion for the betrayal and persecutions.

In order to crackdown protests that had been dragging on for 8 months, in Mid August, Vietnam government launched a terrorizing campaign against Hanoi Catholics, starting with a media campaign threatening to use "extreme actions" against the Redemptorists, depicting them as "criminals" who have used their influence to incite the faithful in a confrontation against the government, destroying state property, assembling and praying illegally in public areas, and disturbing public order. The campaign, which has incited a socially negative sentiment not only against the Redemptorists but also the Church as a whole, has been stepped up by a series of arrests on 28th August.

On the same day, numerous of priests and lay people were kicked and beaten brutally by police when they peacefully requested for the release of detainees. Demonstrators had claimed the police beat them brutally and used stun guns on them.

Even worse, on Sunday 31th August, Vietnam police disrupted a Catholic procession on the ground of Hanoi Redemptorist Monastery. Fr. Peter Nguyen Van Khai, the celebrant, was personally attacked when he was leading this procession. A policeman sprayed the priest, altar boys and people nearby with tear gas at close range causing many to faint and vomit. Smoke grenades were reportedly being thrown into the crowd causing a total chaos among the faithful; many ran and cried out in panic. About thirty parishioners, most of them were women and children, suffered badly from tear gas inhalation. Among them at least 20 were hospitalized. Needless to say, a supposed-to-be peaceful religious event had been completely ruined as it was showing a clear signal from an unyielding government which was determined to persecute rather than negotiate.

6. The shameful betrayal of promises.

6.1. Bulldozing the nunciature

All in a sudden, on Friday Sep. 19, 2008, the government announced the nunciature would be demolished for a playground and immediately carried out with the back of its armed forces. As stated by archbishop Joseph Ngo [11] “This action is going against the policy of dialogue that the Catholic Church and Vietnam government have pursued. It was such an insult to the legitimate aspirations of the Hanoi Catholic community, ridicules the law, and disrespects the Catholic Church in Vietnam. It is also an act of trembling morality, and a mocking of society's conscience.”

6.2. Media campaign to gain public opinion for the betrayal and persecutions.

The next day, Hanoi Archbishop went to the office of Hanoi People’s Committee to protest. The day after, state-controlled media opened fire on him. Several “government-controlled media quoted his remarks out of context and interpreted his comment in the opposite direction,” said cardinal Pham Minh Man’s letter in a letter to all priests, religious and faithful in his archdiocese.

The Cardinal was referring to a sentence in the statement in which Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet said: “Travelling overseas often, we feel humiliated to be carrying a Vietnamese passport because wherever we go; we are always examined scrupulously [by customs agents]. We are really sad. We desire our country to become stronger so that we can be like Japanese citizens who can pass through anywhere without being inspected. Koreans already enjoy that. We hope Vietnam becomes a strong, united country, so that we are respected everywhere we go.”

Instead of the quoting the entire paragraph state-run media simply quoted the prelate as saying “we feel humiliated to be carrying a Vietnamese passport” and then raised serious doubts about his patriotism.

The above incident was just one among series of distortions and false accusations against Catholics. State media have attributed manufactured quotations to actual Catholics and have presented a beggar as a critical Catholic parishioner. They have even gone so far as to name a man who has been dead for several years as a detractor.

Judge Vu Kim My, a Catholic prosecutor in the Diocese of Phat Diem, accused a Sep. 15 article in the People’s Police newspaper of putting words in his mouth about the Thai Ha Church property dispute.

“I confirm that I never said anything relating to Thai Ha, I never asked for the punishment [against the protestors], I did not mention God in my answers,” he said.

Judge Vu claimed that the newspaper reporter only asked him two questions, both of which related to general knowledge of the law.

“The rest of the report was added by them,” he charged.

A falsehood in an Aug. 20 article in the New Hanoi newspaper had also been exposed. The paper reported that Nguyen Quoc Cuong of Dai On parish accused the protestors at Thai Ha Church of “not following the Catholic teachings.”

The Archdiocese of Hanoi made inquiries about the supposed parishioner, only to discover that he was invented by the newspaper.

“He simply does not exist in our parish,” a parish council member of Dai On parish said.

The New Hanoi newspaper also introduced Nguyen Duc Thang as a parishioner of Thach Bich parish, depicting him as a dissident strongly opposed to the Catholic protests.

“Yes, he was a Catholic in my parish,” said Fr. Nguyen Khac Que, the pastor of Thach Bich.

The priest added: “he already died a few years ago. I have no idea how a dead person could answer an interview of the paper.”

Such incidents only added to the series of deceptive reports on the demonstrations.

On Sep. 4 at Thai Ha Monastery, cameramen from Hanoi Television interviewed an elderly person who was introduced as a Catholic. When demonstrators asked him his baptized name, he admitted he was a beggar and said the cameramen “had given me some money to act and speak as instructed.”

The Voice of Vietnam, the state’s official radio network, reported that Father Nguyen Van Khanh who is the pastor of Gia Nghia parish (Buon Me Thuot diocese) opposed the Thai Ha protests and praised the land policy of the government. When contacted by Dalat diocese, he insisted that no one had interviewed him.

Also, in a Letter of Communion sent to the Provincial Superior of the Redemptorists in Vietnam and the Superior of Thai Ha Monastery, concerning the Thai Ha Church property dispute, Bishop Anthony Vu Huy Chuong of Hung Hoa told them: “Recently, the vicar of Can Kiem confirmed with me that the man who spoke on state television against Thai Ha on behalf of Can Kiem parishioners is only a local government official – not a Catholic at all.”

The bishop’s report that the media was producing false Catholics’ identities echoes another incident in which state newspapers on Sep 7 introduced two men named Pham Huy Ba and Nguyen Van Nhat as Catholic priests. The men spoke with ill will about protestors at Thai Ha, but the Archdiocese of Hanoi immediately confirmed that the men were not Catholic priests, saying “They have never been priests. They must have been ‘ordained’ by the government”

6.3. Pro-government mob.

Police standing by
Pro-government forces rallying in Hanoi
Another attack was carried out on Thursday Sep. 25 against Catholics praying in front of the compound that once housed the apostolic delegation. This time government thugs reached the front entrance of the archbishop’s office, shouting slogans and calling for archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet’s head. An iron cross on the property was destroyed and a statue of the Pietà, which was in the building before it was seized by the authorities in 1959, was taken away.

The thugs arrived at 4 pm. Following a well-established Stalinist scenario state-owned buses delivered youth, military veterans and other communist associations to express what one agent called “the fury of people” against Catholics, especially the archbishop. Nguyen The Thao, chairman of the capital’s People’s Committee (City Hall), had repeatedly described Catholics as “a danger”, calling on the people to defend the state.

Once on site the bully-boys playing out their role in this tragic comedy threw themselves at the Catholics at prayer, and then moved to the nearby archbishop’s office, shouting slogans against the archbishop and in praise of Communism.

In the building priests and employees locked down the doors as police, out in large numbers, stood idly by. Some agents even helped the mob destroy the iron cross erected in January in the former delegation’s garden and wheel away the statue of the Pietà that was in the building.

Some Catholics found refuge in St Joseph Cathedral where they rang the bell to call for help from the faithful in nearby parishes.

Only then did police order the thugs away to avoid a clash with the people who were rushing to the site.

6.4. Unlawful deeds of the city’s committee.

After fake priests being presented on state media, a nameless beggar paid to claim to be Christian, a dead interviewed to criticize the Church, false statements attributed to a judge and a priest, words of an archbishop tailored and took out of context, now comes “agreed nothing” altered to “agreed everything”. In two separate letters, Hanoi Redemptorists bring to the light the dishonesty of a Religious Affair officials and unlawful deeds of the city’s committee.

According to Hanoi Redemptorists, Pham Xuan Tien, the chief of Hanoi’s Religious Affairs Department told lies when stated that Hanoi Redemptorists had “confessed” that they committed “two sins against the government”: “having religious activities outside worship premise”, and “having unregistered religious activities”. The statement 88/TB-BTG-NVH “distorted the truth”, Redemptorists wrote in a rebuttal dated Sep. 25, 2008.

Tien’s statement, printed on most state-controlled newspaper on Wednesday Sep. 24, 2008, went further stating that as a result of the two said “sins”, the Redemptorists agreed a third point containing the confession of “having violated sessions 9, 12, 15, and 25 of the Ordinance on Belief and Religion; and sessions 2, 21, 26, and 27 of the Decree 22/2005/ND-CP released on March 01, 2005.”

Fr. Joseph Nguyen Van That, who signed the rebuttal to Hanoi People’s Committee, stated that: “It is true that we, priests and representatives of parishioners, had a meeting with Mr. Tien and the delegation of Hanoi’s Religious Affairs Department at 16:30 on Sep. 22, 2008 at the meeting room of Hanoi Redemptorist Monastery – Thai Ha parish. But, we never agreed with any point stated on the statement 88/TB-BTG-NVH dated Sep. 23, 2008. The statement 88/TB-BTG-NVH completely distorted the truth saying that we ‘agree everything’”.

Changing “agreed nothing” to “agreed everything” is a blatant lie, said the protest letter. The incident is another dramatic testimony of how Vietnam government has distorted words of Catholic clergy in Hanoi.

In another protest letter, sent to the People’s Committee of Hanoi city, Fr. Vu Khoi Phung, superior of Thai Ha monastery accused the committee of disobedience state’s Law on Complaint and Denunciation.

According to the letter, since 1996, Redemptorists and their parishioners had repeatedly sent petitions to the government asking for the requisition of their land. All had gone to deaf ears, until recently when they got a letter from Vu Hong Khanh, deputy chairman of the city committee. Khanh rejected their petition by the Order 2476 dated July 3, 2008.

“The session 2 of the Order 2476 stated that ‘This is the first decision for the complaint’,” Fr. Matthew Vu wrote.

Later, “On Aug. 28, our monastery received the communiqué 680/UBND-NNDC of Hanoi People’s Committee urging us to elaborate more documents... to support our claim. It was interpreted that the committee agreed to dialogue with us on the dispute.”

“We had been waiting for a reasonable and official reply from Hanoi People’s Committee, then suddenly, we were invited to the People’s Committee of Dong Da district to hear the announcement of the plan to convert the lot at 178 Nguyen Luong Bang [the disputed land] to a park.”

“We really surprised to learn that the city’s committee decided to build a park at 178 Nguyen Luong Bang despite law and procedure concerning Complaint and Denunciation.”

Fr. Nguyen The Hien, explained during a meeting on Wednesday Sep. 24 with the city committee’s officials that:

“According to current state’s Law on Complaint and Denunciation, we have the chance to protest the government decisions up to three times. And after that if our petition is still rejected we still have another chance to solve the dispute at a court. Why did you announce the decision to convert it into a park when we have only been rejected for the first time, and we are still protesting lawfully?” he asked, calling on the committee to respect the law.

Fr. Matthew Vu, and all 13 other priests of Hanoi Redemptorists Monastery asked Hanoi People’s Committee “to take state’s Law on Complaint and Denunciation seriously; stop the conversion project at 178 Nguyen Luong Bang..; solve the dispute in full compliance with law and procedure of Complaint and Denunciation” and finally “return the disputed land for us to use in religious and charity activities.”

The next day, despite of Redemptorists’ protest, construction workers backed by hundreds police started bulldozing the land.

7. Reactions of the Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi, and the priests of the parish of Thai Ha have not done anything against current canon law". It was the blunt and unwavering response that the Vietnamese bishops' conference had sent to the president of the People's Committee of Hanoi, Nguyen The Thao, who had asked for the "severe punishment" and "transfer" of Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet [12].

The statement of the Vietnamese bishops was made public on Sep. 26, 2008, signed by the president of the Episcopal Conference, Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon. It was released at the end of the annual assembly of the bishops, which concludes on the day.

The note, also sent to the president and prime minister of Vietnam, responds to a letter from Thao dated Sep. 23, 2008 in which the bishop and religious were accused of “inciting riots, falsely accusing the government, showing disrespect for the nation, breaking and ridiculing the law, and instigating others to violate it”. The four priests named by Thao were the same ones "warned" by him.

In another statement, the Vietnamese bishops also highlighted other problems in the country, like the unjust appropriation of individual and Church property, the spread of naked corruption, injustice against the poor and against believers, repression against the people and against religion, the abuse of force on the part of the authorities, and the dishonesty of the state media.

Conclusion

We are at our wit's end as the injustice being done to our brothers and sisters in Christ, to the unarmed, religious people whose only weapon to protect themselves and church property has always been praying with an unshaken belief in God. Now their hope for the return of their property is gone, their integrity crushed, their trust in the very government who called themselves "servant of the people" evaporated as this self-proclaimed "servant" did just the opposite with what they promised

As our Church leaders and fellow parishioners' effort being exhausted, we are calling out to you to be our eyes and ears, to be our voice to the world, our most trusted source of guidance and support. This self serving communist regime has never done anything for the common good of its people, let alone to the benefit of Christians whom they have a long history of despite and discrimination against.

Our hope is that you would be informed of the situation we are facing so that you can carry on the torch of freedom of speech and the right to own our homes and property in Vietnam where no one is allowed to report any governmental abuse of power and of its people. Ben Stocking was a startling example. The Vietnamese government has the advantage of being the monopolistic owner of more than 600 newspapers, magazines and several broadcasting companies to support their twisted agenda while we have none to voice ours. We only have faith in God and in people like you.

It is absurd to label our fight for justice as to serve the Church's ambition and financial gains when sending parishioners into harm's way to confront the governmental mighty forces. Our Church leadership and parishioners did not ask for their homes and property to be illegally taken away by the government while there's a great need for room to conduct religious activities at hand. We are just simply demanding our constitutional rights to be respected by the same government who leads the country under the guidance of the same constitution. How can Vietnam while trying by all means to be recognized by the world as a civilized, democratic country, be at the same time denying our basic human rights to practice our religion and to own our home/land?

With that in mind please accept our sincere thanks in advance for being the witness to the truth. We hope that if God has led us to you, he will bless you with the wisdom, the zeal to serve mankind to your absolute best- more than we can imagine.

We praise the Lord everyday for his love and guidance, we will also forever be grateful for your being there for us at this difficult time of our Church as a whole. May God bless you all.

References:

[1] The history of Vietnam economics from 1945 to 2000, Vol. 2, Vietnam Bureau of Economic Affairs, Hanoi, 2004.

[2] Asia-News, Hanoi Catholics demonstrate for parish land, http://www.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=11195&geo=53&size=A

[3] One of these prisoners, well known to the world, was Cardinal François Xavier Nguyen Văn Thuận (1928-2002). On April 24th, 1975, The Holy Father Paul VI appointed him Archbishop Coadjutor of Saigon. On August 15th, 1975, 3 months after the communists took control Vietnam, he was imprisoned. The communists said his appointment was a plot of the Vatican.

At 47 years old; with only a rosary in his pocket as his luggage, he was sent to a communist re-education camp, where he spent 13 long years, including nine in absolute solitary confinement where he saw nothing other than a thick darkness. Released on November 21st, 1988, and expelled from his Country, he came to Vatican, where he was appointed President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. After having preached the Lent Spiritual Exercises for the Pope and the Roman Curia during the Year of the Great Jubilee, during the following Consistory, on February 21st, 2001, he was appointed Cardinal. Only a year later, on September 16th, 2002, he died after a long a painful sickness due to the hardship that he had suffered before.

[4] While all religious activities remain under state control, the government started a dialogue with Catholics in the 1990s which led to a milestone visit to the Vatican almost a year ago by Prime Minister Dung.

Hanoi had tense relations with Pope John Paul II, deemed a contributor to the defeat of Soviet communism, but congratulated his successor Benedict XVI soon after he became pontiff in 2005, saying it wanted closer relations.

[5] VietCatholic News Agency, Vietnam: Hmong Catholics face severe persecutions, http://vietcatholic.net/News/Html/50872.htm

[6] One of these human rights and democracy advocates is Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly who was sentenced on March 30th, 2007 for eight years in prison. Father Ly, a prisoner of conscience, began his dissident activities as early as the 1970s. He spent a year in prison from 1977 to 1978, and an additional nine from May 1983 to July 1992 for "opposing the revolution and destroying the people's unity."

In November 2000, he gained global and official attention when members of the US Committee for Religious Freedom visited him in his village, during the visit of U.S. president Clinton to Vietnam.

On May 17th, 2001, he was arrested again at An Truyen church, and received in October 2001 another prison sentence of 15 years for activities linked to the defense of free expression. The sentence was later reduced several times and he was finally released in February 2004. On February 19th, 2007, security police surrounded and raided Hue Archdiocese to ransack the office, confiscate computers and arrested him.

[7] Provincial’s Letter To All The Redemptorists In Vietnam Regarding The Local Government Has Illegally Confiscated Our Monastery’s Land In Thai Ha http://vietcatholic.net/News/Html/50861.htm

[8] Letter of Archbishop Joseph Ngô Quang Kiệt of Hanoi http://vietcatholic.net/News/Html/51901.htm

[9] Letter of the Vatican Secretary of State to the Archbishop of Hanoi http://vietcatholic.net/News/Html/51834.htm

[10] Viet Buddhists claim land promised to Catholics in Hanoi http://www.catholicculture.org/news/features/index.cfm?recnum=56793

[11] Urgent Protest Letter from Hanoi Archbishop http://vietcatholic.net/News/Html/58736.htm

[12] Statement of Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops on current issues http://vietcatholic.net/News/Html/59225.htm

See Also

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