"This is a special order," a plainclothes immigration policeman said when AFP reporters tried to enter one road leading to Dong Chiem parish, about 70 kilometres (40 miles) from central Hanoi in My Duc district.

At the only other access road, several policemen also refused to let the reporters pass.

One immigration officer said there was a "land dispute" and people were not allowed to enter for their own protection.

The immigration police specialise in dealing with foreigners. Except for an AFP reporter, no other foreigners were visible in the farming area where buffalo worked the fields.

Unrest broke out before dawn on Wednesday when parishioners tried to stop a large group of police and troops sent to dismantle the crucifix on top of a mountain, said Nguyen Van Huu, the parish priest.

He said parishioners told him the police used electric prods, tear gas and stones against the crowd, two of whom were seriously injured and taken to Hanoi for treatment.

Four or five other parishioners were hurt, said the priest, who was not present at the time of the incident. Troops succeeded in dismantling the cross, he added.

As described by the priest, the clash was one of the most serious recent incidents in a long-running series of church-state land disputes.

"The people have not fully recovered yet," he said by telephone on Friday.

Police have refused to comment, and no one answered the phone Friday at the local government office, the People's Committee.

Huu said local authorities argued that the cross which replaced a wooden crucifix destroyed many years ago during wartime was built without permission last year on state-managed land.

"In fact, we have used this land for more than 100 years," he said.

Whether they will try to put up another cross is unclear, the priest added.

"Now we have to stabilise the situation and whether we will rebuild the cross or not, we have to consider," he said, adding that the law does not forbid them from doing so.

Officials began seizing church property, along with many other buildings and farms, more than 50 years ago when communists took power in what was then North Vietnam.

In December 2007, Catholics began a series of demonstrations over seized land that sometimes involved hundreds of protesters.

Vietnam has Southeast Asia's second largest Catholic community after the Philippines, with at least six million followers.

The government says it respects freedom of religion.

Agence France Presse - January 7, 2010

Diocese of Hanoi : destruction of the crucifix of Dong Chiem "true sacrilege"

The site has belonged to the parish for more than one hundred years and since 1944 has been used as a cemetery. Priests and faithful travel to express solidarity with the attacked parishioners. Found and hospitalized two wounded that police had taken away.

Hanoi - "A sacrilege" that "offends the Catholic faith"; the archdiocese of Hanoi has expressed its outrage at the January 6 destruction, carried out with the explosive, of the crucifix in the cemetery of the parish of Dong Chiem. The same day, "the priests and faithful flocked to Dong Chiem to bring solidarity and best wishes to the pastors and parishioners. They are close to the victims of the violence and concelebrated a Mass, praying for the wounded and for the parish as a whole".

"The hill - says a statement issued yesterday by Vice-Chancellor, Father John Le Trong Cung - has always been owned by the parish, since its establishment, more than one hundred years ago." Furthermore, "since the time of the Great Hunger, - the statement continues - that hit the north of Vietnam between October 1944 and May 1945 and in which two million people died of starvation, the site has been used as the parish cemetery. Still today, the parish allows some people to rent some of the hill for cultivation”.

It is known, however, that the authorities deny any right of ownership, with the statement that in a communist country "the land belongs to the people and the state manages it for the people."

Father John Le Trong Cung recalls that before the destruction of the cross, the faithful intervened to ask the police not to pursue the sacrilegious action, but the hundreds of police in riot gear present reacted with brutality. "At least a dozen people have been badly beaten, two of them were seriously injured and taken to a clinic in Te Tieu, where, however, they did not receive treatment. Later, the priests and the faithful found them and they took them to Viet Duc hospital, where doctors intervened”.

"Now we are experiencing great pain and we are deeply anguished, because what happened to the crucifix is a sacrilege against Christ our Lord. It is a real sacrilege, an insult against the most sacred symbol of our faith. Brutally attacking unarmed and innocent civilians is a savage and inhuman act, which seriously injures human dignity. This senseless conduct must be condemned. "

Finally Father Le Trong Cung calls to priests, religious and faithful to pray "that our country will become just, democratic and civil where sacred values are respected and human rights protected".

By J.B. An Dang - AsiaNews.it - January 8, 2010