01/08/2014, 00.00
VIETNAM
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Vinh: Christmas celebration for the release of two Catholics, jailed for defending religious freedom

Ngo Van Khoi and Nguyen Van Hai left jail on 22 December, welcomed by the Catholic community, which celebrated their liberation. A special thanks goes to Mgr Paul Nguyen Thai Hop who fought against the unjust sentence, and expressed his joy for their homecoming and the special occasion of celebration.

Vinh (AsiaNews) - During the recently-concluded Christmas festivities, the faithful in the Diocese of Vinh not only celebrated the birth of Jesus, but also gathered en masse around their bishop to welcome two members of My Yen parish church released by authorities after spending several months in prison.

Their arrest and subsequent conviction a few months ago had triggered a reaction among Catholics, backed in their fight for religious freedom by their bishop, Mgr Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, and the whole Vietnamese bishops' conference.

After serving their sentence, Ngo Van Khoi and Nguyen Van Hai were able to return home just before Christmas.

Speaking to AsiaNews, the prelate (pictured with the two men) spoke about the community's feeling of "great joy and happiness," and its embrace of the two parishioners on this special occasion of celebration.

In the past few months, the "My Yen case" had been at the centre of a battle pitting the Catholic community against Vietnamese authorities, deserving local and international media coverage.

After six months in prison, the two men were released on 22 December, giving them the opportunity to celebrate the holiday season with their families.

On the day of their release, local sources told Église d'Asie (EdA) that their neighbours and many friends had come from different places to show their sympathy and joy for their homecoming.

For their part, the two former prisoners expressed their gratitude towards the parish, the diocese and especially the bishop for their support and their involvement in the fight for their release.

"We do not know how to express the emotions we felt when we realised the support by the bishop, the priests and our compatriots at home and abroad for our cause," Ngo Van Khoi and Nguyen Van Hai said.

On Christmas Eve, Mgr Paul led a Thanksgiving Mass at the parish church, attended by more than 5,000 people.

At the end of the Eucharist, the two former prisoners turned to the gathering to express again their gratitude and appreciation for their efforts in favour of their release and against the lies expressed by the authorities and local media.

On 23 October, after a trial behind closed doors that lasted about three hours, a court in Vinh, capital of Nghe An province, had sentenced Ngo Van Khoi, 53, to seven months in prison and Nguyen Van Hai, 43, to six months. Their families had not been notified about the proceedings.

The two men had been arrest on 27 June after an altercation with plainclothes police a month earlier. This, in turn, had triggered a series of protests that culminated in early September.

Forcibly suppressed by the police, the demonstrations sparked a confrontation between government officials and representatives of the Catholic Church, including Vinh Bishop Mgr Paul Nguyen Thai Hop.

In a statement, Vinh Diocese leaders had slammed the verdict, calling it "unfair and ambiguous". After months in jail and (empty) promises of release, the accused were sentenced for "disturbing public order" at the end of a hasty trial that lasted a few hours.

By contrast, mainstream media followed the official line, praising the authorities for being "transparent". They also suggested that the general public "approved" the outcome of the courtroom proceedings.

In reality, Catholics and non-Catholic expressed their support for the defendants, on several occasions claiming their innocence against the charges.

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