07/26/2008, 00.00
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Vietnamese Church cares for lepers amid indifference of government and people

by J.B. VU
In the province of Ca Mau, the Catholic community has started projects to support the sick and their families; health care, education, and help finding work are the most pressing needs. The objective is that of infusing a sense of solidarity and collaboration among the people.

Ca Mau (AsiaNews) - Leprosy is a plague that still strikes a large segment of the Vietnamese population, and particularly the poorest classes. The sick are discriminated against, and government policies are insufficient; for this reason, the Catholic Church in the country has created welcome centers and health care initiatives dedicated to lepers. According to official statistics from the health department, in the province of Ca Mau alone there are 642 people with this disease; thanks to the charity work undertaken by priests, sisters, and lay volunteers in the area, more than 470 of them receive assistance, and the most urgent cases (66 at the moment) enjoy free health care and medicines to combat the disease.

The most urgent problem remains the condition of complete marginalization that lepers face, isolated and discriminated against by the rest of "civil" society. Catholic associations offer assistance to more than 100 families, helping the sick and their relatives to find work, building houses, ensuring supplies of drinking water, providing incentives to send their children to school, from primary education to university, through scholarships for tuition and books.

Most of the sick and their families live in the village of Xom Moi, under the pastoral care of Fr Nguyen Duc Muoi, who is supported by a religious brother with a nursing diploma, and a social worker. "I decided to dedicate my missionary activity", Fr Muoi says, " to serving the lepers. They are human beings, but they are the object of constant discrimination". The priest emphasizes the profound suffering that they must face, but the greater pain is "the attitude of the so-called healthy toward the sick. For this reason, it is even more important to demonstrate affection and consideration toward them", showing them that "the love of God is for all" without distinction between healthy and sick.

A teacher who works in the elementary school in the village of Xom Moi confirms the "discriminatory" attitude of the students toward the "children of the lepers", but the objective is that of "fostering integration. And the results are there, because over time friendships have arisen and there is a greater sense of solidarity toward the least fortunate".

The Church's work of assistance toward the sick is meeting with resistance and difficulties: it is undertaken in silence, far from the noise of government propaganda, and often faces obstacles on the part of the local authorities, who do not look kindly on charitable activities carried out by Catholics. "But there is justice in the world", concludes Fr Muoi, "and we will continue to work for the good of the people, both material and spiritual".

The first missionary to set foot in Ca Mau was the Dominican Gaspar de Santa Cruz, in 1550, arriving from the island of Malacca. In 1659, the Holy See made the six provinces of South Vietnam dioceses. The place is known, in spite of itself, for the 1946 assassination of Fr Francis Truong Buu Diep, a Vietnamese martyr and pastor of the church of Tac Say.

Ca Mau numbers 1.16 million inhabitants, of whom 44,000 are Catholic.

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