Police did nothing and even prevented rescue efforts to save the lives of Catholics whose boat sank off east coast of Central Vietnam near Hue.

During the protest on Monday Dec. 15 at An Bang parish of archdiocese of Hue, a great number of police in the area watched indifferently the shipwreck of a boat carrying Catholics. "And they turned their back against those victims who were struggling for their lives," said Fr. Peter Nguyen Huu Giai, the pastor of the parish whose land has been in dispute with local government for months.

Catholics at An Bang parish have protested since September after authorities in Vinh An, Phu Vang of Thua Thien province (Hue diocese) have told them to remove the cross and the altar from their church which was built, or so the government claims, on public land. Parishioners have rejected the order claiming that the land on which the church now stands was owned by a parishioner, a Mr. Le Khinh, who passed away a few years ago.

Parishioners at An Bang, mostly poor peasants and fishermen, had built a small church on the land with the agreement from Mr. Le Khinh and his children. Their "church" actually consists of only an altar and a huge cross. It has nothing else, no roof, no doors, nor windows. Every day, one can see Fr. Peter Nguyen and his flock braving cold rain and hot sun celebrate Mass in the "open church."

During the recent wave of anti-Catholics, local government claimed the ownership of the land and asked the poor parish to move away. An outbreak of protests followed after authorities in Vinh An had announced their plan to build a tourist resort in the area.

On Monday Dec. 15, "when parishioners were gathering at their church to prepare for Christmas, hundreds of police were mobilized to blockade the area," said Fr. Peter Nguyen. They prevented Catholics from any construction on the land. "They told me and my parishioners that we would not be allowed to celebrate Christmas there," added Fr. Peter.

Catholics in the area rushed to the site as they saw the great number of police at their church. "At 12:15pm," during a sit-in protest of parishioners, "a boat carrying 4 Catholics was capsized. Police and local officials saw the entire tragedy but none lift a ginger to save lives. A police man even tried to prevent rescue efforts," Fr. Peter reported.

"Catholics jumped to the water and successfully saved our brothers and sisters. But we were still shocked at the way this government behaved. They often called themselves 'servants of the people'. This incident shows clearly how true the slogan is, " said Fr. Peter.

Like their colleagues in Hanoi, authorities in Vinh An launched a campaign of intimidation and harassment.

"Every morning, at 5:30 am, loudspeakers start repeating state religious policy, saying how this government respects the Catholic Church," Fr. Peter said. Also, "many parishioners have been summoned."

"Furthermore, they have built three police stations right at our church. They film anyone come to attend Mass here", he added.