Sisters in Vietnam refuse government order to turn over convent lands

The gate of the Lovers of the Holy Cross Congregation is based in the Thu Thiem New Urban Project in Ho Chi Minh City. (Joachim Pham)

Hundreds of Catholic sisters in southern Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City have refused an order by government authorities to vacate their convents on church lands and clear the way for a controversial urban development.

The state-run Saigon Giai Phong newspaper reported on May 13 that Nguyen Hoai Nam, head of District 2 that is home to the Thu Thiem New Urban Project, said local authorities encouraged the Lovers of the Holy Cross Congregation and the Thu Thiem Church to turn over their land to the government so it can build infrastructure for the project.

Nam said 22 religious facilities and worship places in the area have been removed and rebuilt at other sites, and congregations have offered their land to the project, which is expected to be an international trade and financial center on the Saigon River.

The Thu Thiem Church serves local Catholics who formed Thu Thiem Parish in 1859. (Joachim Pham)

Only this Catholic congregation and church remain in the 930-hectare (2,300-acre) development approved by the late Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet in 1996.

"We do not agree to remove our convents from the area because this is sacred land where our first sisters built the congregation," Sr. Maria Nguyen Thi Ngoan, general superior, said in a petition sent to Nguyen Thien Nhan, Communist Party chief of the city. Ho Chi Minh City is the largest commercial capital in southern Vietnam.

Ngoan also demanded the government pay appropriate prices in recompense for the congregation's three former schools, which the government "borrowed" for educational purposes in 1975. The three buildings standing on an acre of the congregation's grounds are no longer used but they were not returned to the nuns.

Ngoan, representing the 610 Lovers of the Holy Cross nuns, said they have lived and served people in the area since 1840 "as God's will."

The nuns first settled in the wild, sparsely populated area to escape from government persecution of Catholics. They lived in leaf houses until they built their present convents, chapel and other facilities in the 1920s.

The Thu Thiem Church, based near the congregation, was built in 1859. Father John Baptist Le Dang Niem serves as parish priest.

For years the nuns have petitioned the city government to respect and protect their historic facilities by law. Article 1 of the Ordinance on Protecting and Using Historic and Cultural Sites and Monuments stipulates, "All historic and cultural sites are protected by the State." 

The chapel of the congregation was built in the 1920s. The Lovers of the Holy Cross sisters have lived in the area since 1840. (Joachim Pham)

Ngoan said in the petition, dated May 22, "We hope city officials are ready to meet our legitimate needs so that we can serve people and the society better."

The nuns offer education, scholarships and accommodation to students from poor families, and provide health care to people with HIV/AIDS and other illnesses. They also teach vocational skills to young women and ethnic people.

She said it is necessary to retain their facilities covering only five hectares, about 12 acres, a very small part of the project's more than 1600-acre central area.

Evictions and disruptions

State-run newspapers reported in early May that the initial project aiming to serve 245,000 people was designed to cover 2,300 acres, with almost 400 of them going to relocate local residents in one section of the development. Reports said the project would allow local religious facilities to remain in the new urban area.

However, city authorities changed the project's initial plans many times, forcing local people to move to places far away from the new urban area, and confiscating private land outside the project boundaries to enable investors to build commercial apartments and residences. They also decided to remove all local religious facilities from the area.

Local newspapers reported that almost 50,000 residents have been evicted from their properties and were paid below-market prices. Without enough money to buy new homes, many have become homeless.

Homeowners have complained to the government about their unfair treatment for years but their demands were ignored. They also asked authorities to present the initial project maps, which authorities said could not be found. Citizens accused authorities of abusing their power and being corrupted by interest groups.

On May 15, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc asked the Government Inspectorate, an agency that handles citizen complaints and corruption allegations, to examine the whole project and report results to him by July 15.

The new urban area attracting real estate investors faces the downtown of Ho Chi Minh City across the Saigon River. (Joachim Pham)

Public support 

In an online statement issued on May 19, hundreds of protesters, including former government officials and religious leaders, demanded the government to return the nuns' and residents' properties that were not part of the urban expansion plan, according to the prime minister's original directive.

They requested that the government pay proper restitution for those whose properties were unfairly or illegally taken.

Protesters said the project showed that the government has severely violated citizen rights to live and worship locally.

They said the city government showed how lawlessness has seriously infected the current authoritarian state, and the problem's root is the constitutionalized notion that all land and natural resources are public properties but shall be managed by the state.

They urged the government to stop immediately all illegal land grabbing from rightful owners. Those who are responsible for destroying people's lives, flouting the law and desecrating national values should be severely punished, the protesters urged.

On May 29, Catholics, rights activists and intellectuals issued another statement to call on the government to recognize various forms of land ownership. Since then, faith, democratic and human rights groups, plus about 200 other individuals, have added their signatures to the statement.

The state reclaims or confiscates land from organizations and individuals for military aims, and economic and social development for public interests.

"These things have deprived people of long-time private ownership of land, which was recognized by the 1946 Constitution," the statement read. The constitution was the first one adopted by the newly instated communist government at the close of World War II.

The activists said the property seizures have caused public anger and outcry throughout the country.

They requested the government amend the constitution to recognize land ownership by individuals, organizations and communities. The constitution now allows only public ownership of land.

They demanded that the interests of people living in project development areas, rather than those of government authorities and interest groups, be considered first.

Finally, they asked the government to let the Thu Thiem Church and convents remain in place.

In a May 29 meeting with reporters in Hanoi, Nhan said the government will offer "proper solutions to deal with people's complaints."

Nhan said city authorities also sent complaints to the National Assembly members who are attending their annual meeting. 

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

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