Hundreds of Vietnamese Catholics took part in prayer vigils in Hanoi at the weekend, to ask for the return of church land seized by the authorities half a century ago. Priests, religious and parishioners lit candles, placed flowers and sang at the railings around a property near Hanoi's central St Joseph's Cathedral after Saturday and Sunday Masses. They say the large French colonial villa was the former home of the Vatican's delegate to Hanoi, confiscated by the state when he was expelled in the late 1950s. The building survived the Vietnam war. Since the communists took power in 1975 it has been used as a discotheque while the 2.7 acre garden, with an enormous banyan tree, is used as a motorcycle carpark. A diocesan priest told AFP: "It's the land and the property of the church. We have the certificate of ownership of the property since 1933." Catholics are hopeful the dispute will be resolved after Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet during a prayer meeting with thousands of followers in late December, and promised to consider the issue. Vietnam has Southeast Asia's largest Catholic community after the Philippines -- about six million out of a population of 84 million. Relations between the government and all religious faiths have been tense in the past and are strictly controlled by the state. However in recent years the situation has relaxed a little. In 2005 Cardinal Cescenzio Sepe ordained 57 new priests in Hanoi Cathedral. The ceremony was the first time a cardinal from the Vatican had conducted an ordination in Vietnam and was widely seen as an indication that relations between the Catholic Church and the Vietnamese were improving. In November 2006 President George Bush attended a Catholic Mass at Cua Bac Catholic Church. The visit came just days after the United States removed Vietnam from its list of the 'world's worst violators of religious freedom'. Last year Prime Minister Dung visited Pope Benedict. Christian festivals such as Christmas are becoming popular, with thousands of followers and curious now crowding Vietnam's cathedrals and churches. However, religious issues still remain sensitive. The weekend vigils were not reported by local media. Christians are still barred from the diplomatic and police services and the churches are not allowed to have newspapers, schools or hospitals.
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