Sisters injured in property dispute in Vietnam's capital

Sisters and lay Catholics pray in front of the disputed land plot May 12 in Hanoi. The banners say, "Stop construction on the congregation's land." (Courtesy of Truyen Thong Thai Ha)

As St. Paul de Chartres sisters in Hanoi protested construction of a house on their former land May 8, workers on the site verbally and physically attacked the nuns, injuring several and leaving one unconscious, according to the sisters' provincial superior.

The nuns say government authorities illegally granted a woman papers that allow her to build on the disputed land.

The nuns began providing health care, education, vocational skills and pastoral services for underprivileged people in 1883, according to a May 11 press release from the community signed by Sr. Saint-Jean Tran Thi Anh, provincial superior of the St. Paul de Chartres Sisters in Hanoi, and Fr. Alfonse Pham Hung, head of the office of the archbishop of Hanoi. They built convents, novitiates, schools, and other facilities on a 16,000-square-meter area now based in downtown Hanoi, the country's capital.

After 1954, when communist forces defeated French troops and took control of northern Vietnam, most sisters moved to the south, the press release states. Only 19 St. Paul de Chartres sisters remained at the motherhouse and two other convents.

In 1954, the government began renting some of the sisters' facilities for a state-run institute of microbiology. The sisters stayed at nearby facilities on the remainder of their land.

The nuns received monthly payments from institute officials until 1994, according to the community's press release. After that, the institute stopped the payments but did not return the rented facilities, though the nuns say they have petitioned the government to deal with the case for decades.

The nuns say government authorities illegally granted Tran Huong Ly, a local resident, a certificate to build on the motherhouse's former garden and issued a building permit in 2015. The sisters said they still have on record legal ownership papers for their properties that remain valid by Vietnam's Land Law, which states that the government grants certificates to use land to those who were given papers by previous governments. In Vietnam, private ownership is not recognized by the communist government.

In 2016, Ly started to build a house on the disputed land, but the nuns objected to the construction and petitioned the local government, the People's Committee of Hoan Kiem District, to order Ly to stop building. On July 28, 2016, the committee ordered Ly to stop building.

The press release states Ly resumed construction of a nine-story house on the disputed land plot on May 8 by having workers bring building materials and trucks into the site.

The nuns "objected the construction because the disputed land plot has not been dealt with properly and the congregation had not been informed about the construction," the press release states.

On the evening of May 8, the press release states, when nuns and laypeople gathered to pray in front of the site, the guards Ly hired to monitor the site insulted, threatened and assaulted the nuns at Ly's encouragement.

"A group of men immediately swore at and assaulted the nuns. As a result, one nun was beaten unconscious and some others were injured," the press release states.

The press release says the People's Committee of Hoan Kiem District stated in a reply to the nuns' petition May 11 that it was right to grant legal papers to Ly because the People's Committee of Hanoi City on Jan. 4, 2017, rejected the nuns' petition demanding the government return the land and withdraw papers from Ly and others. On July 26, 2017, the Ministry of Construction acknowledged the city's decision, clearing the way for Ly to restart construction.

The congregation wrote a formal rejection to the reply from the People's Committee of Hoan Kiem District, the press release states.

Ly hired gangsters to attack and insult the nuns, which shows that she "disrespects the laws, justice and human rights," according to the press release.

Ly has not publicly made any comments on the case.

The press release states the congregation is determined to petition the government to withdraw the papers given to Ly and to return the plot to the sisters.

"Now we only use less than one-fourth of our former properties. The rest is used as hospitals by the government and homes by some people," it states.

The sisters have to protect church properties given to them "to serve religious needs and the common good," says the press release, which calls upon local Catholics and supporters to "continuously journey with and support us in this difficult time."

[Joachim Pham is a correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Vietnam.]

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