Moroccan Islamists Use Facebook to Target Christians

Local Christians sense authorities, extremists and society in collusion against them.

RABAT, Morocco, June 17 (CDN) — Moroccan Christians say Muslim extremists in the country are aiding and encouraging the government to pursue them by exposing and vilifying them on social networking site Facebook.

Facebook user Gardes Maroc Maroc has posted 32 image collages featuring dozens of Christian converts, calling them “hyena evangelists” or “wolves in lamb’s skins” who are trying to “shake the faith of Muslims.” That terminology on the website, which is in Arabic, matches that of Morocco’s anti-proselytizing law, which outlaws efforts to “shake the faith of Muslims.”

The online images depict Christian converts and their families from across the country and include details about their roles and activities in churches, their personal addresses and anecdotal stories attempting to malign them.

“These are some pics of Moroccan convert hyenas,” reads one image.

Since March, the Moroccan government has expelled more than 100 foreign Christians for alleged “proselytizing.” Authorities failed to give Christians deportation orders or enough time to settle their affairs before they left.

Observers have called this a calculated effort to purge the historically moderate Muslim country, known for its progressive policies, of all Christian elements – both foreign and national.

Amid a national media campaign to vilify Christians in Morocco, more than 7,000 Muslim clerics signed a statement denouncing all Christian activities and calling foreign Christians’ aid work “religious terrorism.”

On the Facebook page, Gardes Maroc Maroc makes a particularly strident call to Moroccan authorities to investigate adoptive parents of children from the village of Ain Leuh, 50 miles south of Fez. The user claims that local Christians under orders of “foreign missionaries” were attempting to adopt the children so missionary efforts would not “go in vain.”

On March 8, the Moroccan government expelled 26 Christian foreign staff members and parents working at Village of Hope in Ain Leuh.

Now efforts against national Christians have gained momentum. One image on the Facebook page challenged the Islamic Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments, saying, “Evangelist hyenas are deriding your Ministry.” The page with the images claimed that Christians had rented out an apartment belonging to that government ministry.

An entire page was dedicated to a well-known Christian TV personality in the Middle East, Rashid Hmami, and his family. The user also inserted pictures of hyenas next to those of Christians, presumably to indicate their danger to the nation.


National Christians Threatened

Moroccan Christians told Compass that authorities had begun harassing them even before the forced deportations of foreigners, and that pressure from officials only intensified in March and April.

Since the deportations started in early March, it seems that authorities, extremists and society as a whole have colluded against them, local Christians said. Dozens of Christians have been called to police stations for interrogation. Many of them have been threatened and verbally abused.

“They mocked our faith,” said one Moroccan Christian who requested anonymity. “They didn’t talk nicely.”  

Authorities interrogated the convert for eight hours and followed him for three weeks in March and April, he said. During interrogation, he added, local police told him they were prepared to throw him in jail and kill him.

Another Moroccan Christian reported that a Muslim had taken him to court because of his Christian activities. Most Moroccan Christians that spoke to Compass said the attitudes of their Muslim relatives had shifted, and many have been kicked out of their homes or chosen to leave “to not create problems” for their families.

Moroccan converts meet in house churches. Some of them have stopped meeting until the pressure subsides.

“The government is testing the reactions,” said Moroccan lawyer Abdel Adghirni of the recent pressure on Christians.

The lawyer, known as one of the strongest defenders of Berber rights in Morocco, said that although the government’s recent reactions seem regressive, they are part of the nation’s societal transformation process.

“The government is trying to dominate,” said Adghirni. “They are defending themselves. They feel the wind of change. All of this is normal for me – like a complex chemistry that activates as different elements come into contact. Things are moving.”


Congressional Hearing

In an effort to alert U.S. Congress to the sudden turn against religious tolerance in Morocco, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission is holding congressional hearings today on the deportations of foreign Christians from the country.

Earlier today, the National Clergy Council held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to congratulate the Moroccan government on religious tolerance. Organizers of the congressional hearings said they view the council’s press conference as an effort to counter the hearings.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, who heads the council, has had numerous exchanges with Moroccan Islamic leaders and in early April met with the Moroccan ambassador to the United States.

“I have enjoyed a close friendship of several years with the ambassador,” Schenck stated on his website.

Organizers of the congressional hearings have said they are baffled that the National Clergy Council, and in particular Schenck, would speak so highly of the Moroccan government at a time when it is in such blatant violation of human rights.

“There’s good and bad in every country, but what Morocco has done on the whole to advance religious liberty in that region of the world is extraordinary,” Schenck said in a media statement yesterday on Christian Newswire. “We hope to present a fair and balanced picture of this unusual country.”

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said that the Moroccan government has deported nearly 50 U.S. citizens.

“In spite of this, the U.S. government has pledged $697.5 million to Morocco over the next five years through the Millennium Challenge Corporation,” he said. Wolf is advocating that the United States withhold the nearly $697.5 million in aid that it has pledged to Morocco.  

“It is inappropriate for American taxpayer money to go to a nation which disregards the rights of American citizens residing in Morocco and forcibly expels Americans without due process of law,” he said.

Among those appearing at the hearing today is Dutch citizen Herman Boonstra, leader of Village of Hope, who was expelled in March. Boonstra and his wife were forced to leave eight adopted children in Morocco. Moroccan authorities have refused re-entry for the couple, as they have for all deported Christian foreigners.

Lawyer Adghirni said he believes Morocco cannot survive and develop economically – and democratically – without national diversity.

“We can’t be free without Christians,” Adghirni said. “The existence of Christians among us is the proof of liberty.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Second Wave of Deportations Hits Foreign Christians in Morocco

Muslim hardliners pressure government; nationals fears they may be next victim of ‘purging.’

ISTANBUL, May 21 (CDN) — In a second wave of deportations from Morocco, officials of the majority-Muslim country have expelled 26 foreign Christians in the last 10 days without due process.

Following the expulsion of more than 40 foreign Christians in March, the deportations were apparently the result of Muslim hardliners pressuring the nation’s royalty to show Islamic solidarity.

The latest deportations bring the number of Christians who have had to leave Morocco to about 105 since early March. Christians and expert observers are calling this a calculated effort to purge the historically moderate country, known for its progressive policies, of all Christian elements – both foreign and national.

“I don’t see the end,” said Salim Sefiane, a Moroccan living abroad. “I see this as a ‘cleansing’ of Christians out of Morocco, and then I see this turning against the Moroccan church, which is already underground, and then persecution of Moroccan Christians, which is already taking place in recent days.”

At least two Moroccan Christians have been beaten in the last 10 days, sources told Compass, and police have brought other Moroccan Christians to police stations daily for psychologically “heavy” interrogations.

Authorities are enquiring about the activities of foreign and local Christians.

Forcibly Ejected

Legal sources said that according to Moroccan law, foreigners who have lived in the country for more than 10 years cannot be deported unless they are accused of a crime. They have the right to appeal the deportation order within 48 hours.

With only hours’ notice and forced escort to the country’s exit ports, almost none of the deportees were able to appeal their deportations.

“Most of these [deportations] are happening over the weekends, when the courts are closed,” Sefiane said. “Most of them are done in a way where they’re bringing them in [to the police station], intimidating them, and manhandling them out of the country. Many of them are not even going back to say goodbye to their wives, or even to pack a bag.”

With the exception of three foreigners, in none of the forced deportations did authorities produce an official deportation order, sources said. In many cases, Moroccan officials used embassies to notify foreigners that they were being deported. In most cases, foreigners were presented with a document in Arabic for them to sign that stated that they “understood” that they were being deported.

Compass learned of one case in which a foreigner was forced to the airport, and when he resisted he was forcibly drugged and sent to his native country.

“The expats in the country are very vulnerable, and the way it has happened has been against the laws of the country,” said a European Christian who was deported last week after nearly a decade of running his business in Morocco. “When I tried to walk away from the situation, I was physically stopped.”

The deported Christian said that authorities never informed any of the Christian foreigners of their rights, when in fact there are national laws protecting foreigners. 

“Basically they are trying to con everyone into leaving the country,” he said.

Deported foreigners have had to leave their families behind in Morocco, as well as their friends and communities. Many of the deportees were the male breadwinners of the family and have left their families behind as they try to decide their future.

“It’s devastating, because we have invested years of our lives into our community, business community and charity sectors,” said the European Christian. “People flooded to our house when they heard I was bundled into the back of a police car by the local authorities. It was like a death in the family – forcibly ejected from the country without being able to say goodbyes, just like that.”

The deportees have included Christians from North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, New Zealand and Korea.

“It’s come out of left field,” said the European. “No one really knows why this is happening.”

Internal Pressure

A regional legal expert said on condition of anonymity that a small number of extremist Muslims have undertaken a media campaign to “get [Christians’] good works out of the public eye and demonize Christians,” in order to expel them and turn the nation against local Christians – some of whom are third-generation followers of Jesus.

“There are too many eyes and ears to what they want to do to the native Christians,” said the expert. “They’re trying to get to them …They want to shut down the native Moroccan Christians.”

Deportation orders are coming from the Ministry of Interior, and speculation on the reason for the sudden spike in expulsions has centered on the arrival of a new, hard-line Muslim interior director in January.

Moroccan officials have cited “proselytism” as the reason for the deportations. Reuters news agency reported Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs Minister Ahmed Toufiq as saying “proselytism” and “activism of some foreigners” had “undermined public order.”

On April 12 local media reported that 7,000 religious Muslim leaders signed a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.

Religious rights advocates point out that under Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the more than 100 foreigners who had lived in Morocco, some for decades, not only had the right to stay in the country but had contributed to the nation. 

“They expelled people who helped build up the country, trained people, educated Moroccan children, cared for orphans and widows, increased the GDP and trade,” said the regional legal expert. “These people they expelled weren’t even proselytizing under their own law. There’s an international standard, yet they changed the definition of the terminology and turned it into this horrible ‘religious terrorism.’”

One of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions, George Washington Academy in Casablanca, has come under fierce criticism from media and investigation by authorities.

“The biggest problem is the image the Ministry of Justice is pushing about who the Christian foreigners are,” said another observer on condition of anonymity. “All the articles have been extreme exaggerations of the manipulative aspect of what foreigners were doing, and especially when it comes to minors.”

Local Christians have reported to sources outside of Morocco that attitudes towards them, which used to be more tolerant, have also shifted as a result of the extremist-led campaign, and some are experiencing family and societal pressure and discrimination as well.

International Forces

While the deportations have perplexed the local Christian community, the regional legal expert said that in some ways this was calculated and inevitable.

He said that the Organization of the Islamic Conference had been putting pressure on countries across the Middle East and North Africa to remove their Christian elements. Iraq, with its decline in Christian population from a few million to a few hundred thousand over the last decade, is a case in point.

“Countries which have been more forward looking and spoken about rights, freedoms and equalities have been pressured to demonstrate their Muslim credentials, and the best way to do this is to sanitize [religious] minorities from the borders,” he said.

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, has called congressional hearings on June 17 to examine the human rights situation in Morocco in light of the expulsions. On Wednesday (May 19) Wolf called on the U.S. government to suspend $697.5 million in aid it has pledged to Morocco based on criteria that it is “ruling justly.”

“We’ve been told the Christians are a threat to the national security, so they are using terrorism laws against peace-loving Christians,” said the deported European Christian. “But it is massively backfiring.”

The Christian described how the Moroccan friends of Christian foreigners have been asking why they are being deported for their faith.

“They are being impacted by the reality of Christ through this, and it’s having more of an effect on the community than years and years of quietly demonstrating Christ peacefully and lawfully,” he said. “By breaking their own laws, they have opened the lid on the reality of the life of Christ.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Bomb Attack in Iraq Seriously Injures Christian Students

One person dead in explosions that end classes for students this semester.

ISTANBUL, May 5 (CDN) — At least 50 Iraqi Christian students are receiving hospital treatment following a bomb attack on Sunday (May 2) outside Mosul that killed at least one person and has forced nearly 1,000 students to drop classes for the rest of the semester.

Nearly 160 people were injured in the blasts targeting three buses full of Christians traveling to the University of Mosul for classes. The convoy of buses, which brings Christian students from villages east of Mosul, was making its daily route accompanied by two Iraqi army cars.

“This is the hardest attack, because they attacked not only one car, but the whole convoy and in an area that is heavily guarded by the army,” said Syrian Catholic Bishop of Mosul Georges Casmoussa.

The explosions happened east of Mosul between two checkpoints. A roadside bomb followed by a car bomb reportedly exploded as the buses were clearing the second checkpoint in the area of Kokjaly. The checkpoint was staffed by U.S., Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers.

The owner of a nearby car repair shop, Radeef Hashim Mahrook, was killed in one of the blasts as he tried to help the students, sources said.

Sources told Compass that lately there have been indications that Islamic extremists intend to increase attacks against Christians in more sophisticated and targeted ways. There were no warnings of the Sunday blasts.

Nearly 20 of the more seriously injured students are receiving treatment in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Casmoussa said the Turkish Consulate and the Kurdish Regional Government have offered to transfer students needing more medical care to Turkey.

“Some of them were severely injured in the face, arms, necks or eyes,” said Casmoussa. “Now the Turkish consulate and the government of Kurdistan offer us to bring the most injured to Turkey to continue the care.”

Many of Mosul’s Christians have fled the city after repeated violence targeting them and live in the villages east of the city. The students on Sunday’s convoy were from Qaraqosh, Karamless and Bartella, located nearly 32 kilometers (20 miles) away.

Over 1,000 Christian students, most belonging to internally displaced families, and about 100 university faculty and staff members commute to Mosul every week in buses belonging to the Syrian Catholic Bishopric. About 15 buses served the internally displaced Christian community daily.

“The project of transportation of students will be stopped,” said Casmoussa. “We can’t continue now.” 

While the church has focused on dealing with immediate medical needs, the bishop said the church simply could not take the responsibility of transporting students after such a calculated and fierce attack.

“The chief of army offered to help us again, but it is impossible,” said Casmoussa. “They were with us every day…yet this is the result. We don’t have another solution now.”

Last February, after attacks against Christians left three university students dead, the Chaldo-Assyrian Student and Youth Union proposed that the Ministry of Education open a new university in a safer area on the Nineveh plains. Nearly 3,000 Christian undergraduate students and 250 graduate students are studying in Mosul.

Casmoussa said the Christian community is hoping the University of Mosul will help Christian students who are unwilling to commute to Mosul by sending faculty members to hold semester-end examinations in Qaraqosh.

“This is [an attack] against all the Christian people,” said Casmoussa. “Our culture is immense capital for the future to build our lives, not just to have bread to eat and continue life without any sense.”

Due to the violence against Christians in Mosul, Casmoussa relocated to the village of Qaraqosh three years ago, and commutes into the city to serve his diocese. On Jan. 17, 2005 gunmen abducted him and released him the next day.

Sunni Muslim insurgents have frequently targeted members of Iraq’s Christian minority, especially in Mosul. Iraq’s current government is Shiite-led.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Officials on island cite ‘renovations,’ but pastor sees pandering to Muslims.

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 22 (Compass Direct News) – A pastor in Zanzibar City said his church is without a worship place after government officials, at the instigation of radical Islamists, evicted the congregation from their rented building on Tanzania’s Zanzibar Island off the coast of East Africa.

With just two days’ notice, government officials ordered Christians of the Church of God Zanzibar from their rented government building effective April 19, ostensibly to pave the way for renovations. But two months later, said pastor Lucian Mgayway, no renovation work has begun and none appears to be forthcoming.

The government has not only failed to renovate the building but has since turned it into a business site, Pastor Mgaywa said. The church had been worshipping in the building since October 2000.

In evicting the church from its building in the Kariakoo area of Zanzibar City, Pastor Mgaywa said, the government gave in to partisan demands.

“Our being told to vacate the premise by the government was a calculated move to disintegrate the church and to please the Muslims who do not want us to be in this particular area,” he said.

Forced to rent different worship venues each week, the congregation can no longer bear the financial burden that comes with it, said Pastor Mgaywa.

“Hire venues are available, but we can no longer afford it due to limited finances,” he said. “Reasons for our being kicked out are purely religious.”

The church’s 50 members had seen signs that the eviction was coming. With increasing frequency Muslim youths had passed by the church hurling insults because they felt Christians had intruded on their territory, Pastor Mgaywa said.

“The church had been experiencing stone-throwing on the roof of the building by the Muslims during worship service,” he said. He added that since the eviction notice, members of the congregation have been increasingly harassed by area Muslims.

Pastor Mgaywa said that after receiving the order on April 17 to vacate by April 19, the congregation sought an audience with the acting director of the Zanzibar Social Security Fund, identified only by his surname of Hassan. Officials, however, rejected the church’s request to continue using the premises.

Otherwise, when the government gave two days’ notice to vacate the premises for “renovations” to be carried out, the congregation obliged; they did not seek legal redress, he said, as they had trusted that officials’ stated intentions were genuine.

Now that the congregation is left without site options, the pastor said, he has been visiting members in their homes to worship together.

Shut-downs and attacks are not unknown on the predominantly Muslim, semi-autonomous island as a resurgent Christian movement makes inroads. On May 9 Muslim extremists expelled Zanzibar Pentecostal Church worshippers from their rented property at Ungunja Ukuu, on the outskirts of Zanzibar City (see “Radical Muslims Drive Church from Worship Place in Zanzibar”).

The attackers had been angered by a recent upsurge in Christian evangelism in the area. Radical Muslims had sent ominous threats to the Christians warning them to stop their activities.

The church had undertaken a two-day evangelism campaign culminating in an Easter celebration. On the morning of the assault, more than 20 church members had gathered for Saturday fellowship when word reached them that Muslim extremists were about to attack. As the radical group approached, the Christians fled in fear of their lives.

In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, churches face other hurdles. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.

Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.

Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania might dominate them, and tensions have persisted.

Report from Compass Direct News


Militia destroys church building in the Nuba Mountains

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 8 (Compass Direct News) — Support for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in the wake of an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant is fast turning into orchestrated attacks on Christians.

A thatched-grass building in the Nuba Mountains village of Chat, used by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Sudanese Church of Christ, is one of the latest targets of such attacks.

The building was destroyed by fire on March 27 by a suspected government militia. Pro-Bashir mobs have attacked those they believe support the ICC’s determination to prosecute Bashir for atrocities in the Darfur region.

As support for President Bashir escalates, especially in the North, the church faces one of the worst threats to its existence in the recent past. Today, it struggles simply to survive.

Drivers on the streets of Khartoum, even the road leading toward the airport, see huge pictures of Bashir staring down from billboards with pro-Bashir messages, such as “Mr. President, we are with you” and “You are not alone.”

Kuwa Shamal, acting director of the Sudanese Church of Christ, says of the billboard campaign: “I wish the same government assuring support to the president could have the same encouraging message for the struggling church.”


Chief Accused of Leading Attack

The Sudanese Church of Christ was forced to conclude a morning worship service prematurely on March 27 when a hostile group attacked. An eyewitness said this militia was led by the area chief, Kafi Tahir, who supports an Islamist agenda and is said to receive government support.

The eyewitness, a Muslim who requested anonymity, said the chief and his accomplices were armed. Helpless church members fled the structure, which had a capacity of about 500. The chief then ordered his accomplices to set the church ablaze and church members ran for their lives, the eyewitness said.

“The Sudanese Church of Christ is concerned of the government move to frustrate the activities of the churches in Nuba Mountains,” said Barnabas Maitias, president of the Sudanese Church of Christ. “It is alleged that the Ministry of Defense has distributed a number of weapons to individuals who are out to support Islamic agenda and the government in Nuba Mountains, including Chief Kafi Tahir of Chat village, who recently led a group of unknown people to destroy our church.”

Indeed, many Christians are worried as a new wave of intolerance sweeps the region. The intolerance could worsen as ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo continues to press for a court trial of Bashir.

Matta Mubarak, general secretary of the Sudanese Church of Christ, told Compass that the villagers of Chat have previously opposed the chief, who then destroyed the church building in retaliation.

“The chief fled for his life to Kadugli and he is living a comfortable life. As a result, justice for the church in Nuba Mountains has been thrown out of the window,” Mubarak said. “What kind of a world are we living in, where criminals are not charged? The church feels that the Sudanese government is not concerned about the rights of Christians in the North. The future of the church in the North is uncertain.”


Worshiping Without Buildings or Land

For a month now, members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church have worshiped outdoors and without the help of an evangelist who had led them.

Shamal said that evangelist Aburahaman Tai of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was attacked in early March outside the church by the same group that later destroyed the building.

“He was beaten and sustained head injuries and was treated at a local dispensary before being discharged,” Shamal said. “He is still recovering. Indeed, it is a big blow to the church, to have no place to worship and to lack a pastor. This is a big tragedy.”

Mubarak said that in some parts of Sudan, Islam has conquered the church. “In Northern Sudan, at a place called Dongola, the church building has been converted into a mosque and the few Christians forced to convert to Islam,” Mubarak said.

Church struggles extend even to land ownership. Maitias told Compass that after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the Sudan Inter-religious Council petitioned the government for a piece of land to be allocated to the church for worship. He said three churches were allowed to apply for land allocation for the purpose of building houses of worship: the Sudanese Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church of Sudan and the Catholic Church.

But to their surprise, the offer was given with some conditions: every year, the government must cross-check church operations and is free to repossess land at will.

“We as the church find our free operation not guaranteed,” Maitias said.

Andrea Amet Ubiu, who works with the Sudan Council of Churches in Khartoum, bought a piece of land from Zinab Adut in 1994 and constructed a temporary house at Salma village, which is about two miles from Khartoum.

“In 2005 the government began demolishing temporary structures in the area with a view of carrying out reallocations. To my surprise, when this [reallocation] was done, I was left out and was informed that the land I bought was not legitimate since the lady who sold the land to me was not entitled to it because she had no husband or children,” Ubiu said.

“But I knew it was a calculated move by the local authorities to deny me the land, because all along I had not supported the government before the signing of the peace agreement between the North and the South,” Ubiu added. “Life for me in Salma has been harsh, so I decided to forget the issue of the land and moved to a new location called Hagyouf area, five kilometers [three miles] from the town center.”

Maitias sees such discrimination as common for Christians in northern Sudan.

“Here in the North, the Church is discriminated [against] in almost everything, even including education,” Maitias said. “Christian institutions are not recognized by the government. Christian religious education is not taught in government schools. Christian programs are only given less than three hours in the national media on Sundays and Christian workers given only two hours for Sunday worship. Christmas celebrations are restricted to a day for celebrations, like marching with police security.”

Christians who wish to operate a restaurant during Ramadan must obtain a permit from authorities. “We always ask ourselves, why all this? Our identity as Christians is an anathema,” Maitias said. “Instead, the government prefers calling us ‘non-Muslims.’”

A dozen non-governmental organizations have been expelled from the country because of their vocal opposition to human rights abuses in Darfur.  

Report from Compass Direct News


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