Hanoi, Jan. 17, 2008 (CWNews.com) - Archbishop Joseph Ngô Quang Kiet of Hanoi has issued a sharp rejoinder to the Vietnamese government's warning that Catholics are engaged in "illegal activities" with their prayer campaigns outside the former office of the apostolic nuncio.

After the government charged that Catholic activists are "taking advantage of religious freedom to stir up protests against the government"-- hinting that a crackdown was likely-- the archbishop shot back that the Catholic people of Hanoi “have no other choice than praying peacefully on disputed lands to attract the attention of the government on injustices they have suffered” because “their petitions have gone unanswered."

In a statement released through the chancellor of the Hanoi archdiocese, Father John Le Trong Cung, the archbishop reiterated his argument that the government should return the nuncio's office to the Catholic Church. He also strongly argued that the government must not allow a construction project to go forward on land that the Church claims, pointing out that Vietnamese law forbids building on disputed land. The statement by Archbishop Ngo indicated that Church leaders will not back down from their public protests. Several other Vietnamese Catholic bishops have made public statements of support for the Hanoi prelate.

In a related development, Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham of Saigon has also criticized the government for its failure to resolve a dispute over confiscated church property. The cardinal had made a request more than 3 years ago for the use of a building on the property of the Saigon seminary; the government finally respected to his request-- negatively-- in November 2007. In a letter that was sent in December, but only recently made public, the Vietnamese cardinal said that he was "shocked at both reasons for the rejection of his request, and at the long waiting time."