.- Despite a widely circulated threat of an imminent government crackdown, hundreds of thousands of Catholics from the Diocese of Vinh held massive protests on Saturday night. They demanded the immediate release of three Catholics detained for the past few weeks, following an incident at Tam Toa parish.
On July 20, Vietnamese police brutally beat hundreds of Catholics who were erecting a cross and building an altar on the ground of Tam Toa church, which collapsed during the Vietnam War after a U.S. air raid. Vietnamese authorities had claimed the ruined building for the centuries-old parish as a war memorial.
In the aftermath of the incident, all 178 parishes of the Diocese of Vinh, which have about 500,000 Catholics, held simultaneous protests and candlelight processions on Saturday. The protests this past weekend mark the third time that the vigils and marches have been held across the country in recent weeks.
“The protestors marched on the streets in seas of lights, receiving applause from bystanders standing on sidewalks who looked up to them with eyes widened in admiration for their courage to stand up against the tyrannous regime,” Sr. Emily Nguyen told CNA.
Protesters gathered at local churches holding placards. Some placards accused the government of ongoing persecution against Catholics, while others demanded the return of Church and individual properties seized by police and still others demanded an end to the state media’s distortion of truth, defamation of religion, and stirring up of hatred between Catholics and non-Catholics.
Other diocese held candlelight vigils as a show of solidarity with victims of police and government-backed gangs. On Saturday night 3,000 Catholics joined in a candlelight vigil at Thai Ha Church in Hanoi. About 2,500 Catholics in Saigon joined another vigil at Saigon Redemptorist Monastery.
Government authorities in the Diocese of Vinh are rumored to be seeking tougher measures to deal with the Catholics’ ongoing protests. Disaffected youth, army veterans, and members of the Communist Youth League have supposedly been asked to join paramilitary groups to attack Catholics.
State media campaigns have spread negative reports about Catholics, with some concrete effects, Sr. Emily Nguyen reports. Food stalls along road sides in Quang Binh reportedly have refused to sell food to anyone wearing a Catholic symbol, possibly a result of the provincial government’s policy to isolate Catholics.
The Vietnamese government has not yet agreed to dialogue on issues of controversy. An August 6 statement from Fr. Anthony Pham Dinh Phung, chief secretary of the Diocese of Vinh, said that the provincial government of Quang Binh had asked representatives of the bishop of Vinh to come to Dong Hoi to discuss the Tam Toa church incident. Fr. Anthony Pham has insisted that negotiations be held at the Bishop of Vinh’s office for the safety of the diocese’s representatives.
According to Sr. Emily Nguyen, Quang Binh officials have not replied to the diocese’s statement.