Thousands of Catholics in Vietnam have experienced discrimination because of their faith in the country’s northwest province of Dien Bien, where communist forces defeated French troops in 1954.
The province is home to three parishes and many mission stations serving some 3,000 Catholics, including Hmong people. They use their own homes as chapels.
Authorities refuse to recognize local people’s religious needs. They have only approved Dien Bien parish and allowed just one priest to provide pastoral care for local people.
Mary Nguyen (not her real name) serves as a choir conductor and leads prayers at a mission station that ministers to 20 Catholics. The mother of three spoke to Aid to the Church in Need about the continuing hardships of Catholics in Vietnam:
“I embraced Catholicism and married my Catholic husband in 1996. We had to return to his home parish in Ha Nam Province to attend marriage courses and hold our wedding ceremonies.
“Until recent years, Catholics had to practice our faith secretly since local authorities treated this area as being free of religion. They banned us from gathering for prayers, threatened to fine us, and created serious difficulties for visiting priests.
“Priests from other places paid pastoral visits to Catholics in Muong Nhe District two or three times a year. They were required to ask for government permission and provide a list of participants in the services. The priests were forced to leave the venues right after services. In 2015, a bishop and some priests were forced to leave the district on a rainy windy night after their brief visit.
“We did not dare show our Christian identity or set up altars in our homes, but we quietly recited prayers at night. We feared to be confronted with problems for our businesses and livelihood.
“We secretly returned to my husband’s home parish, 300 miles away, to attend Christmas and Easter services. We stayed there for a few days before returning home. Such journeys cost us a lot of money.
“Catholic communities here are not granted permits to buy land to erect chapels, so they have to use their houses as chapels. They are discriminated against because of their faith. Catholic villages are not supplied with power, clean water, public toilets, seeds, and young animals as is the case for other villages. As a result, many people, especially ethnic villagers, live in misery.
“Government authorities cite security reasons for restricting religious activities. They claim that this remote area is home to drug trafficking, human trafficking, and underground groups evangelizing among Hmong villagers.
“While we gather to pray at a local person’s home, security officers stand outside watching us. We wisely tell them that we are praying for our ancestors and our own life, so that they do not cause any problems. Catholics who do run big businesses such as construction companies do not openly attend our prayer services since they fear possible retaliation by the government.
“In 2017, a priest from Dien Bien parish started to visit our mission station and say Mass for us. At first, he had to ask for a government permit every time he paid monthly visits to us. Now he is allowed to celebrate Masses at a local church on a weekly basis. Security officers closely watch our ceremonies, but they cause no problems.
“We do not hate the authorities because God teaches us to love all people. And authorities have relaxed their religious policies a little bit in recent years.
“We pay dearly for decades of living without priests and religious activities. My husband, a carpenter, had a gambling addiction, committed adultery, and abandoned us. He divorced me and died two years ago. Many other families are also dogged by divorces, separations, and family problems.
“From my experience, I see that it is religious faith, not material comfort, that brings real happiness. Now we are elated to be able to publicly show our Catholic identity and have weekly Masses at our village—although our community is still not recognized by the government.”
This interview is reprinted with permission from the Aid to the Church in Need in the United States