Turkey Arrests 20 Allegedly Linked to Malatya Murders


Suspects in Ergenekon network long sought in homicide case to be questioned.

ISTANBUL, March 18 (CDN) — In simultaneous operations in nine different provinces of Turkey, authorities yesterday arrested 20 people suspected of playing a role in the murder of three Christians in Malatya in 2007, according to local news reports.

Zekeriya Oz, chief prosecutor overseeing the investigation into a clandestine network known as Ergenekon allegedly aimed at destabilizing the government, ordered the arrests based on information that linked the suspects to both the network and to the Malatya murders, Turkish press reported after Istanbul Chief of Police Chief Huseyin Capkin announced the sweep at a press conference yesterday.

“This was an operation related to the Malatya Zirve publishing house murders,” Capkin said, according to online news agency Malatya Guncel. “They were just arrested. This is connected to the Zirve publishing house. That’s the framework.”

Those apprehended include Ruhi Abat, a Muslim theology professor from Malatya Inonu University, Mehmet Ulger, a retired commander of the Malatya Gendarmerie in service at the time of the murders, and other members of the military. Oz will question the suspects in Istanbul, according to reports.

Police also raided the guesthouse of the Izmir Gendarmerie, seizing computers and documents. News sources listed Malatya, Siirt, Mugla, Mersin and Izmir as some of the cities in which authorities conducted raids and arrests.

A plaintiff attorney in the Malatya murder case, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, told Compass that the names on the list of those arrested were suspects he and his colleagues have been trying to convince the Malatya prosecutor to pursue since the court received a tip in May 2008.

“They are all the usual suspects,” Cengiz said. “All their names were mentioned in the first informant letter. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, we couldn’t find anyone to investigate these allegations.”

The letter was the first of many informant letters the Malatya court has received since it started hearing the case on Nov. 22, 2007. Penned by someone who identified himself by the pseudonym “Ali Arslan” but unsigned, the letter claimed that Ulger incited Emre Gunaydin, one of the suspects, to carry out the murders and that he communicated with Gunaydin through Abat and two gendarmerie officers, reported Turkish English daily Today’s Zaman.

Cengiz said that, though it was the duty of the Malatya prosecutor to pursue leads in the informant letter, the prosecutor deferred the investigation to the military court, which in turn refused to investigate, claiming that the name on the letter was fake and the letter was not signed.

“It was like a joke,” Cengiz said.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, plaintiff lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Cengiz told Compass that new evidence in the Ergenekon case might have convinced Oz to pursue those detained yesterday, and he called the move “a very big step” in shedding light on the Malatya case. He and colleague Erdal Dogan said their efforts – especially a request they sent to Oz on Jan. 18, 2010 asking him to investigate the allegations that Ergenekon members were behind the Malatya murders – surely helped to move the process along.

“I believe our efforts had a very big influence on this,” Cengiz said. “We submitted a petition and requested this from Oz last year. He is acting with the Malatya prosecutor on this.”

At the request of the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office, the Istanbul Police Department prepared a report last year revealing links between the Malatya murders and Ergenekon, according to Today’s Zaman. According to the report, Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for a bogus ultranationalist association known as the Turkish Orthodox Church, described foreign missionary activity as “spying” and “provoking.”

“A piece of evidence in the report was a conference on missionary activity given by Sevgi Erenerol … at the General Staff’s Strategic Research and Study Center,” reported Today’s Zaman.

Erenerol was arrested in connection with Ergenekon in 2008. Her suspected links with those thought to have masterminded the Zirve murders may have influenced yesterday’s arrests, Today’s Zaman reported.

She is also believed to be one of the key people behind false accusations against two members of Turkey’s Protestant Church, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who were arrested in October 2006 for insulting Turkishness and Islam because they openly shared their faith.

After four years of legal battle, a judge finally acquitted the two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge. The two men are in the process of appealing the fine.

The Turkish Constitution grants all citizens the right to speak about their faith.

Plaintiff attorneys in the Malatya murders case said they believe yesterday’s arrests bring them closer to their requests that the Malatya murders case file be joined to that of the Ergenekon trial.

“From now on, we can predict it is very possible that our case will be sent to Istanbul soon and that these two cases will be merged,” said Cengiz.

The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for April 29.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Christians in Turkey Face Harassment; Murder Trial Stalls


Departure of presiding judge in Malatya case could further delay justice, attorneys fear.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — Though the horrific scale of the 2007 Malatya murders has not been repeated in Turkey’s Protestant church, a recent report shows harassment continues to be a daily problem for the country’s Christians and churches.

Discrimination, slander and attacks against churches were among the examples of ongoing harassment that the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches (TEK) recorded in 2010.

In an eight-page report published earlier this year, TEK’s Committee for Religious Freedom and Legal Affairs outlined problems Protestants face. Turkish laws and “negative attitudes of civil servants” continue to make it nearly impossible for non-Muslims to establish places of worship, the committee reported. Three churches faced legal problems last year regarding their buildings, according to the report.

Missionary activities are still considered a national threat despite the existence of Turkish laws guaranteeing citizens the freedom to propagate and teach their faith, and children are victims of discrimination at school, according to the report. Though the Religious Education General Directorate for Higher Education and Training Committee allows non-Muslim students to stay out of religious classes, parents have reported cases in which they were not able to take their children out of such
courses.

“After four years [since the Malatya murders], Turkey’s religious freedoms have not improved as desired,” said attorney Erdal Dogan. “Christians, Alevis [a Shiite sub-community] and people of other beliefs are still not protected by law. And people of other faiths apart from Muslims have no legal status. Since racism is still prevalent in the context of freedom, discrimination in its turn has become a fact of life.”   

About a third of Turks are estimated to be Alevis.

Turkey rose to 30th place in Open Doors’ 2011 World Watch List of nations in which persecution against Christians takes place, up from 35th place the previous year. The Christian support organization cited deteriorating conditions as the secular country applied some laws in discriminatory ways against Christians.

TEK estimates that there are up to 3,500 Protestant Christians in Turkey.

 

Malatya Trial Stalled

In the trial of the five primary suspects in the murder of three Christians in Malatya, plaintiff attorneys fear the departure of one of the three judges to a Supreme Court of Appeals post in Ankara could further stall the nearly four-year-old case.

The loss of Judge Eray Gurtekin, who had presided over the case since it began on Nov. 22, 2007, could threaten to set back the progress of the court that has been examining links between the killers and alleged masterminds, according to Dogan, a plaintiff attorney in the case. Gurtekin was appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeals in Turkey’s capital Ankara last month.

“In a three-member panel [of judges], the change of one is not really helpful,” said Dogan, “because just as the previous presiding judge had started to understand and pay close attention to the case file, a new judge came in his place. I hope he will catch on quickly.”

The new judge joined the Malatya hearings panel this month, and Dogan said there could be more changes in the panel.

The 12th Istanbul High Criminal Court is expected to hear the testimony of another witness on March 29, and the court is trying to locate two more witnesses in order to shed light on the Malatya murders.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, prosecuting lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Questioned by the judges, Varol Bulent Aral – suspected of being one of the people who planned the murders and linked the killers to the masterminds – said he wanted the court to find out who was supporting the Zirve Publishing Co. He added a cryptic remark to Tilmann Geske’s widow, Suzanne Geske, who continues to live in Malatya with her three children and regularly attends the murder hearings.

“I want to ask Suzanne, what business does a German have here?”

The judges finally threw Aral out of the courtroom for contempt of court when he told the judges: “You are in the clouds!”

Prosecuting lawyers still hope judges will join the Malatya case files to the Cage Plan case, which is being tried at an Istanbul court.

The threat of violence against Christians continues. Last week Turkish news sources reported that Istanbul police arrested two suspects, ages 17 and 18, accused of plotting to assassinate a priest on the European side of the city. The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office is examining their case.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Trial over ‘Insulting Turkishness’ Again Yields No Evidence


Justice Minister says Article 301 defendants ‘presumed innocent’ until verdict.

ISTANBUL, May 28 (CDN) — The 11th hearing of a case of alleged slander against two Turkish Christians closed just minutes after it opened this week, due to lack of any progress.

Prosecutors produced no new evidence against Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal since the last court session four months ago. Despite lack of any tangible reason to continue the stalled case, their lawyer said, the Silivri Criminal Court set still another hearing to be held on Oct. 14.

“They are uselessly dragging this out,” defense lawyer Haydar Polat said moments after Judge Hayrettin Sevim closed the Tuesday (May 25) hearing.

Court-ordered attempts to locate and produce testimonies from two witnesses summoned three times now by the prosecution had again proved fruitless, the judge noted in Tuesday’s court record.

Murat Inan, the only lawyer who appeared this time on behalf of the prosecution team, arrived late at the courtroom, after the hearing had already begun.

The two Protestant Christians were accused in October 2006 of slandering the Turkish nation and Islam under Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code.

The prosecution has yet to provide any concrete evidence of the charges, which allegedly took place while the two men were involved in evangelistic activities in the town of Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Both Tastan, 41, and Topal, 50, became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention for the past two years, ever since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals,
politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Two weeks ago, Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin commented before the United Nations Human Rights Council on the controversial May 2008 amendments to Article 301, under which Tastan and Topal are being tried.

Ergin insisted that the revised Article 301 had provided “a two-fold assurance” for freedom of expression in Turkey. The most significant revision required all Article 301 cases to obtain formal permission from the justice minister before being prosecuted.

This week Ergin released Justice Ministry statistics, noting that out of 1,252 cases filed under Article 301 during the past three years, only 83 were approved for prosecution.

Stressing the principle of “presumption of innocence,” Ergin went on to criticize the Turkish media for presenting Article 301 defendants as guilty when they were charged, before courts had heard their cases or issued verdicts.  

But for Tastan and Topal, who by the next hearing will have been in trial for four years, Ergin’s comments were little comfort.

“At this point, we are tired of this,” Tastan admitted. “If they can’t find these so-called witnesses, then the court needs to issue a verdict. After four years, it has become a joke!”

Topal added that without any hard evidence, “the prosecution must produce a witness, someone who knows us. I cannot understand why the court keeps asking these witnesses to come and testify, when they don’t even know us, they have never met us or talked with us!”

Both men would like to see the trial concluded by the end of the year.

“From the beginning, the charges against us have been filled with contradictions,” Topal said. “But we are entirely innocent of all these charges, so of course we expect a complete acquittal.”

Report from Compass Direct News

GFA women missionaries harassed by mob of boys in India


Three Gospel for Asia-supported women missionaries were cornered and harassed by a mob of nearly 30 boys. Chameli, Harshita and Vinaya were giving out tracts and sharing the love of Jesus in one of India’s coastal cities when the incident took place, reports Gospel for Asia to ASSIST News Service.

They had been able to reach out in the community for a while that day without incident. Then, as they were walking down one street, two young boys approached, demanding to know if the women were there to convert people.

They came toward them in full force, took away their tracts and began hitting Harshita and Vinaya in the head with them. Chameli, the other woman, tried to calm the boys, but the boys were so enraged that they began to verbally harass the women, even calling them prostitutes.

They grabbed all the tracts the women had been carrying, tore them into pieces and threw the fragments into the air.

Chameli, Harshita and Vinaya tried to escape into another street but saw two more boys standing in front of them. When they looked around, they saw more boys standing at every possible way of escape. Soon, the mob grew to close to 30 boys surrounding them and verbally abusing them.

This went on for half an hour, and the boys did not allow the women to leave. The women called a GFA-supported district pastor, Rushil, on a mobile phone, and he came out to help them. When he arrived, the boys began to slander him as well.

But somehow Rushil was able to help the women escape to safety.

“Though this incident traumatized the sisters, they are continuing the ministry with hope that those who opposed the Gospel will come to the Lord very soon,” writes GFA’s correspondent in the area.

Women’s teams like this one can be especially effective in reaching other women with the news of Christ’s love. It can be harder for men to reach them because of cultural restrictions. These teams have touched the lives of many women, showing them their worth in Christ’s sight.

GFA leaders ask for prayer for women like Chameli, Harshita and Vinaya as they daily share the Good News of Christ, that they will have the Lord’s heart, that their opposers will be drawn to Him through their witness and for their protection as they courageously reach out in challenging areas.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

BANGLADESH: MUSLIMS THREATEN PASTOR FOR EVANGELIZING


Previously beaten in a mosque, evangelist has faced opposition for more than a year.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, January 6 (Compass Direct News) – The torture and harassment that a Christian pastor in Meherpur district has faced for more than a year loomed anew last month when a 4,000-strong crowd of Muslims celebrating Islam’s largest festival accused him of “misleading” Muslims.

Jhontu Biswas, 31, said residents of Fulbaria town, 270 kilometers (168 miles) west of Dhaka, accused him of misleading Muslims by distributing Christian booklets. They confronted him en masse on Dec. 9 as they gathered for the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival of sacrifice.

“They also accused me of converting poor people by offering money,” said Biswas. “They called several local journalists in that massive assembly to publish news against me and my activities. They took my photograph and interviewed me but did not publish anything in their respective newspapers.”

Biswas denied the accusations against him, and the Muslims threatened to harm him and others who converted from Islam to Christianity, especially in the event of a hard-line Islamic government coming to power following Dec. 29 elections, he said.

“They said, ‘You will be in great trouble at that time,’” Biswas said.

Fortunately for Biswas, the left-leaning Awami League-led Grand Alliance won a landslide victory in the election, and it does not include Islamic fundamentalist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami. Prior to Bangladesh’s national election on Dec. 29, the country was ruled for two years by an army-backed, caretaker government that imposed a countrywide state of emergency.

Had the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party coalition government including Jamaat-e-Islami come to power, area Christians said they would be in even greater danger.

“We hope that we can work our religious activities properly during the tenure of this government, and also hope that this government will ensure all of our constitutional rights regarding religious activities,” Biswas said.

 

Beaten in Mosque

The pastor has been under continuous pressure to give up his faith and not spread Christianity since he was baptized on Feb. 14, 2007, he said. He was in a meeting with members of his church on Dec. 31, 2007, he said, when police suddenly surrounded the building and dragged him out.

A drug peddler, a 36-year-old woman named Fulwara Begum, had left a bag full of illegal drugs behind his church in accordance with a plan hatched by area Muslims, he said. They informed police, and officers arrested him for drug possession and sale – but instead of taking him to the police station, they took him to a nearby mosque.

“It was a trick to arrest me and slander my reputation so that I cannot do evangelical activities here,” said Biswas. “They told me, ‘If you accept Islam after confessing to Christianity and ask forgiveness of Allah, we will not do anything against you and release you.’ They beat me with sticks in the mosque after my vehement denial to their proposal.”

Police called on a Muslim cleric to encourage Biswas to seek forgiveness for embracing Christianity.

The following day, Jan. 1, 2008, police sent him to Meherpur central jail on drug charges, but the jailer would not admit him because of his battered condition. Police took him to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for five to six hours. He was subsequently put into jail.

“Whenever I did not agree with them, police beat me inhumanely in the police station,” he said. “They tried to brainwash me into accepting Islam throughout almost the whole night. But I did not agree with them. Then they tortured me.”

After 20 days in jail, Biswas was released on bail.

 

Elderly Shop Owner Struck

On Aug. 16, Muslim extremists had vandalized a grocery store near Biswas’ church. The 78-year-old owner of the shop, Abdus Sobhan, told Compass that he was beaten and his shop was looted. They also hurled stones and bricks at the nearby church.

“My angry Muslim neighbors did it,” Sobhan said. “Around seven to eight people came on that night and vandalized the shop. I am a poor man. That shop was my only source of living. They demolished it and looted stuffs of around 30,000 taka [US$443].”

Area Muslims put a sign near the shop that designated it as that of a Christian and stating, “Do not buy anything from here.”

Sobhan went to police to file a case. Instead, officers asked him barrage of questions about why he became a Christian. Resigned, he left the police station.

The father of nine daughters and two sons, Sobhan said he became a Christian on Feb. 24, 2007 along with his wife.

The president of the Assembly of God church in southern Khulna division, Jonathan Litu Munshi, told Compass that Biswas was the first Christian in the area. Through him 200 to 230 people have received Christ as their redeemer in the predominantly Muslim area within the past year and a half.

“Local people filed a false case against him to torture him so that he does not continue his religious activities,” said Munshi. “Unfortunately a septuagenarian convert was also beaten in that area for his faith in Christ.”

The Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami is influencing the area residents, Christians said, adding that party workers have persuaded Muslims not to hire Christian converts, who are largely day-laborers eking out a living.  

Report from Compass Direct News

VIETNAM: ATTACK ON CATHOLIC CHAPEL SHOWS AUTHORITIES’ FEAR OF RELIGION


On same day, Mennonite denomination receives legal recognition; pastors wary.

LOS ANGELES, November 20 (Compass Direct News) – At a chapel on the remaining patch of Thai Ha Redemptorist property in Hanoi that the Vietnamese government had yet to confiscate, at 10 p.m. on Saturday night (Nov. 15) an official came to summon the priests to an “urgent meeting.” According to Vietcatholic.net website and other church sources, it proved to be a ruse to draw them away from the property while government-inspired gangs attacked St. Gerardo Chapel.

As the gangs ravaged the chapel, Father Joseph Dinh told Independent Catholic News, some people at the church began ringing the church bells to signal for help while others sent urgent e-mail and text messages asking Catholics to defend it.

Hundreds of police with stun guns tried to keep the arriving faithful from entering the chapel to stop the destruction. The hundreds of Catholics who arrived eventually overwhelmed officers, going past police to scare off the attackers. Witnesses reportedly said that government, police and security officials had stood by doing nothing to protect the chapel.

They also said that fleeing gang members shouted obscenities threatening to kill the priests and the faithful, as well as the archbishop.

“It is significant that the government attack against the monastery came on the eve of the celebration of the Feast of Vietnamese Martyrs,” a local priest told Vietcatholic.net. “This attack reminds people that since the outset, the seed of faith in Vietnam’s soil was mixed with the abundant blood of Catholic martyrs from all walks of life – from courageous missionaries to local clergy and the Christian faithful.”

The priest concluded by decrying the deterioration of conditions for Vietnamese Catholics.

A government spokesman later denied that the Vietnamese forces or authorities were involved in the attack.

As the government had achieved its objective of taking over the contested land, the well-coordinated attack came as a surprise to many. In September, Vietnam had resorted to force to answer months of growing but peaceful prayer vigils over long-confiscated Catholic properties in Hanoi, reneging on a promise to negotiate a settlement. Unilaterally, the government quickly turned the papal nunciature and the rest of the Thai Ha Redemptorist property into public parks.

The solidarity demonstrated by Catholics throughout the country appeared to have alarmed authorities. They reverted to classic attacks of disinformation and slander against Catholic leaders, and even after they had halted the prayer vigils, taken the contested land and allowed previous gangs to ransack the Redemptorist chapel, authorities demanded the removal of the archbishop of Hanoi, Ngo Quang Kiet, whom they accused of inciting riots against the state.

A Protestant pastor in Hanoi said the government’s recent conflict with Catholics has had a ripple affect on other churches and religions.

“Though it is the Catholics who are being most lambasted in the state media, Protestants are also maligned along with Catholics by government propaganda,” he said. “Secondly, all religious leaders are again subject to closer surveillance.”

 

Mennonite Church Recognized

Ironically, only a few hours earlier on the same day the chapel was attacked, the Vietnam Mennonite Church was allowed to hold its organizing general assembly in Ho Chi Minh City, becoming the fifth smaller church body to receive full legal recognition in 2008.

While registration can mark an improvement in the way the government treats a church, it is not to be confused with full religious freedom, church leaders said, as it is sometimes used as a means of control. The dubious benefits of registration have led many Protestant groups to simply quit seeking it.

Other Protestant groups to receive legal recognition in 2008 were the Grace Baptist Church, the Vietnam Presbyterian Church, the Vietnam Baptist Church, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. This brought the total number of fully recognized Protestant denominations to eight. Two of the eight bodies, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), received legal recognition before the new religion legislation initiated in late 2004.

None of the 24 house church organizations of the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF), however, has received even the lower-level “national registration to carry out religious activity.” Only one in seven of its congregations even have permission to operate locally.

Of the total 2,148 VEF congregations, 1,498 have applied for local permission to carry out religious activity, but only 334 have received it. Another house church organization has had 80 congregations apply for local permission to operate and has received only refusals or no answer at all. Other groups report a similar experience.

A hint of the government’s attitude toward registered churches, pastors said, was evident in its official news release on the Vietnam Mennonite Church general assembly. The Vietnam News Agency release of Nov. 15 enjoining the church to “serve both God and the nation” and to “unite with other people in the course of national reconstruction” struck some church leaders as an expectation that their congregations will serve political ends.

Christian leaders detected government fear of churches’ international connections in the official claim that, “For more than three decades, the Vietnam Mennonite Church has operated independently from foreign Mennonite churches.”

As is customary, the ceremony included an address by a representative of the Bureau of Religious Affairs. Nguyen Thanh Xuan said he expects the Mennonite Church “to bring into full play good characteristics of Protestantism, uphold the tradition of charity, and join hands with other religious and non-religious people to build a country of stability and prosperity.”

The heavy-handed treatment of Catholics over the disputed property and the offering of legal registration to more Protestant groups does not present the contrast it may first appear, said one long-time observer.

“Catholics outnumber Protestants about five to one and are a much more formidable and unified organization than Vietnam’s fractured Protestants,” he said. “Alarmed at the largest countrywide Catholic solidarity ever demonstrated, nonplussed security authorities ordered a classic, harsh crackdown and incited ‘punishment’ disguised as citizens’ outrage.”

Protestants, he said, are less numerous, more divided and rarely capable of joint action, so they do not pose a serious threat.

“For example, the oft-repeated requests and ultimatums by the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) on their 265 confiscated properties are simply ignored,” he said. “And don’t forget that the majority of Protestants are ethnic minorities in remote areas who remain closely watched by the government.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

VIETNAM: AUTHORITIES BULLDOZE HISTORIC BUILDING IN LAND DISPUTE


Promise of negotiated settlement fades; Catholic leaders threatened with legal action.

HANOI, September 26 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities in Hanoi have responded to months of Catholic prayer vigils and demonstrations over disputed land by destroying the one-time residence of the papal nuncio in central Hanoi.

In suddenly bulldozing the land that once served as the Vatican embassy and residence near St. Joseph’s Cathedral last Friday (Sept. 19), the government broke its promise to Catholic leaders in February to negotiate a settlement concerning the property.

The destruction of the building held sacred by Catholics is the latest blow to Christians’ long struggle to get the government to return confiscated church properties. Catholic, Protestant and other religious leaders deemed the government response to peaceful Catholic pressure a serious setback for religious freedom.

Authorities cite Vietnamese law stipulating that lands subject to “land management and socialist land reform policies in place before 1991” cannot be considered.

On Monday (Sept. 22) the Vietnam News Agency reported that the Catholic Church ceded the Nha Chung Vatican Embassy property to the state in 1961 and that it would be turned into a library and park.

“Bookworms will soon be able to enjoy the facilities offered by a brand-new library, located at 42 Nha Chung Street, in Hoan Kiem District,” the state reported. “In addition to all of the services usually offered by a library, situated on the premises of an existing three-story, French-designed building surrounded by greenery and including a childrens’ playground, the renovation, which began last Friday, aims to better meet Hanoians’ demands for relaxation.”

Sources said Vietnam’s frequent pronouncements of new openness to religion, and the formation of a joint Catholic/government working committee regarding relationships with the Vatican and other outstanding matters, may have led Catholics to test the waters. Late last year Catholics began to hold prayer vigils outside the fence of the long-vacant Vatican Embassy seized by the government in the mid-1950s.

The historic building property on Nha Chung Street is adjacent to the Hanoi archbishop and cardinal’s residence and only a half block away from St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

The daily morning and evening prayer vigils began to draw large crowds, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, when thousands came to Masses at the cathedral. Authorities in a country where demonstrations are not allowed became seriously worried when warnings to stop went unheeded.

In discussion with Catholic leaders in late February, the government agreed to negotiate a settlement in good faith on the condition that Catholic leaders would call a halt to the prayer vigils. Archbishop of Hanoi Ngo Quang Kiet told Compass in April that after agreeing to a joint working committee, the government showed no sincerity in building relationships or in settling grievances.

In late August an aide to the archbishop told Compass in Hanoi that the twice daily prayer vigils had resumed. At that time about 100 people participated each time, but the number and intensity was growing. Catholic leaders made no secret of their appeal to prayer and assembled people as their only tools in their struggle with the government for redress on confiscated properties.

In recent weeks the Redemptorists at Thai Ha, also in Hanoi, also began prayer vigils to recover some of their large property. Over the years their part of an original plot of 60,000 square meters had been reduced by government confiscation to less than 2,000 square meters.

According to observers, the Catholics conducted themselves during their vigils with decorum and order as they reverently marched, prayed and sang. The government’s response however, quickly escalated from accusing the Catholics of interfering with traffic to accusing them of all night public disturbances – and then accusing Catholic leaders of inciting riots and breaking religion laws.

 

Catholic Leaders Warned

Authorities this week delivered a written warning to Archbishop Kiet warning him of “extreme action” if he did not stop the daily prayer vigils. They also issued a warning to four priests at a Hanoi church locked in the land dispute. The archbishop and priests are accused of “stirring the population” and encouraging illegal religious activity.

State and Hanoi city media releases and radio and TV coverage during September painted the Catholics in the worst possible light; sources said the media fabricated stories and paid people to speak against the Catholics. With no opportunity to make their side of the story known through Vietnam’s state-controlled media, Catholics are reporting events through VietCatholic News, Zenit and other overseas news sites.

Catholic calls for media to retract specific, demonstrably false stories and appeals to press laws have gone entirely unheeded. Rather, sources said, improbable accusations and vicious slander against Catholics sharply escalated.

Vietnam Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, archbishop of Saigon, wrote a letter to all priests, religious and faithful on Monday (Sept. 22) denouncing the state’s media lies. Unrest is spreading throughout Vietnam’s Catholic community, believed to number more than 7 million, as the letter by the cardinal and others by bishops are read in the churches.

 

Thugs Bussed In

Demonstrations escalated this week with estimates of 7,000 to 10,000 people, including students gathered at Thai Ha on Wednesday night (Sept. 24). It was said to be the largest public demonstration since the Communist unification of Vietnam 33 years ago.

Wednesday afternoon (Sept. 24), hundreds of police and plainclothes officers tried to control an upset crowd of Catholics as a statue of the Virgin Mary was removed from the Vatican Embassy area under police protection and taken to an unknown location. The next day, sources said, authorities recruited gangs that included uniformed Communist youth league members and others and bussed them to the site, where they attacked Catholic protestors outside the archbishop’s residence.

Similar gangs destroyed property, including sacred items at Thai Ha, the same day.

The state media also announced that the 17,000-square meter Thai Ha Redemptorist property in Hanoi is also to be turned into a public park.

The reversion to old-style, default Communist repression involving violence cloaked in lies is also worrying to Vietnam’s Protestants, some of whom have joined Catholics in the prayer vigils.

Protestant leaders contacted by Compass were united in their disappointment in and condemnation of the government’s belligerent response to peaceful prayer vigils.

“Sadly, the government has again shown its true attitude toward religions,” said one Protestant leader. “We have doubted the sincerity of recent improvements, and now they have clearly shown everyone what is still in their hearts.”

Some Vietnam observers fear the government’s belligerence may be evidence of hard-liners’ ascendance in an ongoing struggle with more moderate reformers. The timing of this property destruction, some Vietnamese church leaders said, is calculated to take advantage of uncertainty in the United States, especially as elections draw near.  

Report from Compass Direct News