03/12/2005, 00.00
LAOS
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Ethnic Minority Catholics Build Community

Vientiane (AsiaNews/Ucan) – Religions are strictly controlled by the socialist Lao regime. Catholics are just  30 thousand but they do not lack of evangelizers even among ethnic groups. Khmu Catholics in Vientiane, recently organized themselves as an informal community, receiving a boost with their first faith and leadership formation.

More than 20 young Catholics from the Khmu (Khamu) ethnic minority group took recently part in a training program at the cathedral in Vientiane. Starting in August 2004 with 15 members, the group now has about 40 members.The Khmu form the second-largest ethnic group in Laos, after the majority Lao. They are concentrated in neighboring Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang provinces, but also live in several other surrounding northern provinces. Most are settled farmers, though some still live by hunting.

Three catechists conducted the training, which focused on the Bible and how to strengthen one's faith. Khamnoy, 20, who is studying to be a teacher at Dongkhamsang College, said the training helped her deepen her faith and encouraged her to spread the Good News to other Khmu people. 

Khamnoy said that in her village the faith life of Khmu Catholics "is not strong," because priests are not allowed to go there to teach. As a result, some Catholics want to give up their faith.

On the other hand, the small Khmu Catholic community in the capital "is a good forum where I can regularly share my faith and make friends," she said.

Oblate Bishop Jean Khamse Vithavong, vicar apostolic of Vientiane, who gave the opening presentation at the training, congratulated the young Khmu for getting involved in the training.

Observing that young Khmu typically come to the capital to get an education, the bishop told them, "Education should help you serve others." Bishop Khamse exhorted them to learn patience, be open to others  and to focus on the inner life rather than just on money and wealth.

Niyom, a participant, recalled how the community in Vientiane coalesced last year. He said the young Khmu Catholics in the cathedral parish used to go their own way after Sunday Mass. Now they gather after the 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass and share snacks. They sing and play the guitar.

"When we gather, we have the power to do things to help our society, especially other Khmu who don't know God yet," Niyom said.

They have translated prayers such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be into the Khmu dialect. They also have composed religious songs and plan to translate Gospel readings.

Each member donates 5,000 kip (about US.67 cents) each week to a fund the group uses to buy necessities for poor Khmu villagers.

Others said the community has deepened their faith life and expanded their circle of friends.

"My understanding about God is still weak," admitted Tik, "but I am proud to be a Khmu Catholic because God loves Khmu people too."

In 1995 about 450,000 of the estimated 521,000 Khmu in the world were living in Laos, which had a population of about 5.5 million in 2000. Other Khmu communities are in Vietnam, Thailand, China and the United States.

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