Vientiane (AsiaNews/UCAN) Catholics in Ban Pong Vang (northern Laos) celebrated Easter in their new church of Our Lady of Fatima which was recently consecrated by the Apostolic Nuncio Mgr Salvatore Pennacchio.
It is the first church built in this part of the country since its fall to Communist insurgents in 1975. Since then the Communist regime has denied religious freedom and constantly harassed and persecuted the Church.
Mgr Tito Bachong Thopahong, apostolic administrator of Luang Prabang vicariate and its only priest, was Easter service celebrant.
He came to perform Easter mass in the new church for 86 eager families who were very happy to have a place of worship of their own.
Catholics in Ban Pong Vang (Xayaburi province) are ethnic Khmu; they are mostly subsistence rice farmers growing vegetables and other grains.
Mgr Thopahong, who is an ethnic Hmong, experienced personally the regime's aversion for Christians. He was jailed from 1977 to 1981, from 1984 to 1986, and for another five months in 1998. Currently, he can do pastoral work, but only with government approval.
"The presence of the Church," he said, "is spreading slowly because it must work within the limits set by the government's religious policy. [But] we want to teach people to become religious so they can develop the country in all aspects."
He is optimistic he might be allowed to build another church in the village of Phonxiang where authorities have already given Catholics permission to meet regularly and pray.
Mgr Thopahong is planning to open a vocational training centre that would teach working skills such as sewing.
He also wants to travel to Nong Khieu and Viengkham, not only to visit Catholics but also to talk to local authorities about the possibility of opening health centres with funds from the Italian bishops.
The Italian Bishops' conference has in fact provided funding for a couple of local programs, one of which is the Pak Leum Leprosy Centre in Luang Prabang.
The apostolic vicariate of Luang Prabang has 3,500 Catholics divided in six parishes out of a population of 1,248,000 people. (LF)