The situation has been ongoing since 2004 when Mgr Anthony Vu Huy Chuong, bishop of Hung Hoa diocese, petitioned local authorities for the right to celebrate Mass twice a year, at Easter and Christmas.
The then chairman of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, Nguyen The Thao, rejected the request arguing that “since there are no religious followers in Son La, there is no need for [religious] services.”
No only was Thao’s statement a violation of religious freedom in Vietnam and an attempt to hinder the Church’s missionary efforts, but it was also a brazen lie since the town is home to at least 3,000 Catholics from 40 different ethnic groups. The Church in fact has records of at least 700 Catholic families as far back as 1985. Since then and despite the Church’s efforts Catholics who want to attend Mass must travel amid great difficulties to neighbouring provinces. In the end the request was officially turned down in May 2006 as per district order CV 1336/CV-UBND.
In the absence of official recognition the faithful do meet for prayer meetings in underground locations, like the basements (pictured) of private homes or in stores, spreading the information by word of mouth to avoid retaliations.
Priests involved in local pastoral work are not treated any better. They put their own safety and dignity at risk and are subject to harassment by the authorities.
Many locals remember in fact what happened last year to Fr Joseph Nguyen Trung Thoai when he tried to celebrate Mass. When the police found out they took him into custody and tried their best to discourage the faithful from celebrating the birth of Jesus in any formal or meaningful way.
Although Father Joseph was in prison, he was not forgotten. In fact his parishioners did not abandon him, standing in front of the detention centre where he was being held they demanded his release. Although Christmas celebrations were wrecked, the Christmas spirit was alive and well among believers, experiencing together Jesus’ love.
Since he became Communist Party chief in the province, Thao Xuan Sung and his deputy, Hoang Chi Thuc, have turned Son La into a Chinese-styled province ruled in accordance with Stalinist-Maoist principles, the worst province in Vietnam in terms of religious freedom.
Under their reign religious activities by Catholics have been more closely monitored. The faithful have been subjected to heavy-handed tactics like subordinating foreign aid for clean water and electricity to abandoning their religion. Catholics have even been asked not to meet at home for religious activities.
Last year it seemed that things might change for the better. Bishop Anthony Vu Huy Chuong was unexpectedly visited by a representative of the European Union. He also met Vietnam’s president who told the chairman of the Central Committee on Religion, Mr Thi, to “get the issue resolved quickly.”
Similarly, early last year a high ranking officer from the Central Security Agency told Father Thoai to “rest assured;” saying: “You can perform your duties as you wish, this year is different from 2005, even from 2006"
But there is no sign the government followed up its statements with action.
Some faithful told VietCatholic News that this year almost 500 faithful were able to meet in the basement of garage in the days leading up to Christmas. As usual plainclothes policemen showed up but their abuse seemed more subtle and less brutal than in the past. Still they were bent on preventing large scale meetings and beefed controls to prevent people from other areas from joining celebrations in Son La. And this has been going on since mid-November.
In the meantime petitions by Catholics continue to be rejected on the grounds that there “is no need for religious services in Son La.”
Thus celebrating Christmas in Son La appears condemned to be a pipe dream for local Christians.