Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) - A visit by the bishop of Kontum has brought comfort and relief to ethnic Bahnar Catholics in Dak Pnan, a village that has hosted leper patients and volunteers for years. Located in Mang Yang District (Gia Kai province, south-central Vietnam), the village has about 160 residents. However, local authorities have recently put pressure on the faithful and intimidated them, forcing them to remove a cross from the house of prayer, dismantle the altar and hide the holy sacrament. Officials replaced Christian symbols with a picture of Ho Chi Minh. Only the arrival of Mgr Michael Hoàng Đức Oanh, bishop of Kontum, to which the village belongs, raised the spirit of local Catholics, victimised and abused once again by local authorities.
According to Yao Phu, who lives in Dak Pnan, the community "is under pressure and terrorised" because of the abuses and threats by local officials. Because of fear, many people "are not able to eat and sleep".
Police entered the leper colony, ordering the faithful to "remove the church bell" and tear down the small bell tower near the building.
As religious symbols were removed or destroyed, including the bell tower, the cross, the altar and the empty chapel that had been used for eating and drinking, panic spread among Catholics and patients. A picture of Ho Chi Minh was placed inside the structure, a sign of the "victory" by Communist authorities over the village Catholic residents.
Yet, the visit by Mgr Michael Hoàng Đức Oanh brought confidence and hope to the frightened community. The bishop visited the small altar Yao Phu built and pleaded with God.
Speaking to the faithful, the prelate told them "not to fear." He blessed the village, promising that he would visit them "more often". He encouraged residents to maintain their faith though charity, despite the persecution.
"From today on, every home in the village is a small chapel," Kontum bishop said, "where we can pray to God for ourselves and our brothers and sisters."
Official figures indicate that in Vietnam at least 18,000 have leprosy, living in some 21 centres. They and their families suffer from heavy-handed discrimination in everyday life.
For this reason, the Catholic Church has launched initiatives to help the sick and their families to re-enter society.
The diocese of Kontum has 350,000 members, 90,000 ethnic Kinh and 160,000 belonging to other ethnic groups.