Vinh (AsiaNews) - "In Vietnam the Church is trying to revive the missionary spirit with enthusiasm in order to bring Christ's message to those who do not know it yet. All of [its] members, including the laity, are actively involved in the New Evangelisation," said Mgr Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, bishop of Vinh, who has been the victim in recent months of a campaign of persecution by the government and state media.
As preparations for Christmas got underway, the bishop wanted to talk about the situation in his diocese, which was targeted by the authorities in September and October.
Despite raids by police against Catholics, detentions and the conviction of two parishioners, the community has kept the faith alive, joyfully attending the services.
For the archbishop, Vietnam's top rulers have been thwarting the task of proclaiming the word of God. Yet, "despite many difficulties," the Church in Vietnam "grows more and more."
On 23 October, a Court in Vinh, capital of the province of Nghe An, sentenced Ngo Van Khoi, 53, and Nguyen Van Hai, 43, to seven and six months in jail respectively after a trial behind closed doors that lasted about three hours; even their families had not been informed.
The series of street protests in early September triggered by their arrest was met by a harsh crackdown by the police. The bishop, who has been the victim himself of a smear campaign, has sided with the faithful, making repeated appeals to the international community.
For Mgr Paul, "the great support of the Vietnamese bishops' conference" at a time of great difficulty embodies real solidarity and help. "Hence," he said, "we are called and encouraged to protect truth and justice more forcefully."
Sadly, "As a result of the violent and inhumane actions of the authorities," tensions are rising among the faithful. And, he added, "whilst people are getting angry, they are not afraid. In difficult situations, Catholics always show strong faith and a strong sense of unity."
On this, the bishop noted that "all the parishes in the diocese have been organising for a while prayer vigils and Masses for those who are suffering; especially for the two innocent prisoners," and "will continue doing so until they are freed."
Although "The protest will continue until their release," the prelate noted, Catholics want to "live in peace" and encourage "forgiveness and reconciliation".
"Dialogue is a priority," Mgr Paul explained. "As Christians we cannot resort to violence. We cannot betray Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. The reaction of some of the faithful is understandable," he said. Yet, especially in this period close to Christmas "our goals remain dialogue, peace, charity and forgiveness."
The Diocese of Vinh covers the provinces of Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Quang Binh and has about 529,000 members or 10 per cent of the total population, which the bishop describes as a "strong, well organised and very united community."
At present, Vietnam has a population of about 87 million people, including 48 per cent Buddhists, slightly more than 7 per cent Catholic, 5.6 per cent holding syncretistic beliefs, and lastly, approximately 20 per cent atheist.
Although they are a minority (albeit an important one), Christians are particularly active in education, health and social affairs.
Conversely, religious freedom has been steadily declining in the country. More controls and restrictions on worship came into effect with Decree 92 in accordance with the rules and directives imposed by the Communist government and one party state. (DS)