“If I return now, they will throw me in jail and kill me.” These are the frank words that mark an encounter with Father Peter Nguyen Khai, a 41-year-old Vietnamese priest living in Rome.

His crime? Not hiding his Catholic faith.

“My parents taught me how to pray daily and keep the faith in our home, but we never went to church,” says Fr. Khai who grew up in the predominantly Catholic village of Phuc Nhac in the Ninh Binh province of northern Vietnam.

“I learned that the government did not allow the parishioners to gather for worship at the church. Attending Holy Mass, therefore, was a special treat for me.”

It is a situation that many Vietnamese Catholics simply had to learn to live with. For Fr. Khai, though, any thoughts of quietly co-existing with the regime evaporated following one particular boyhood experience.

“One day, I saw a mentally ill woman who used to wander around the village. She came to the church in tears, banging on its front door with her skinny hands and crying out with great anguish: ‘The church is still here, but where is Father?’”

“Father” was a local pastor, Fr. Matthew Hau, who a few years before had been arrested, tortured and killed by the local communist authorities. A vicious persecution of all the Catholics in the village then ensued – the Khai family included.

“After learning the story of Fr. Matthew Hau and his heroic acts to the end of his life in order to protect the faith of his people, especially the accounts of his arrest, torture and senseless murder, I suddenly had a strong desire to become a priest—a “Father” like him,” says Fr. Khai. 

And so began 12 years of clandestine formation with just one aim – to become a Catholic priest.

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Initially he sought out the only surviving Redemptorist priest in northern Vietnam, a member of his extended family, Fr. Joseph Bich. Under the pretense of being the old man’s caretaker, Fr. Khai studied at Fr. Bich’s home in Hanoi.

“Unfortunately, the police in Hanoi suspected my real reason. They summoned me repeatedly to the local precinct for interrogation and put all kinds of pressure on Fr. Joseph Bich.” 

And so, Fr. Khai set off for the relative safety of Saigon in the south of the country. It was here after years of secret studying, that Fr. Khai says, “I was secretly ordained to the priesthood in a small room on the night of September 25, 2001.”

Thus began a decade of priestly ministry to the Catholic population in both north and south Vietnam, often playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the communist authorities.

However in 2010, “after a few years of leading the faithful,” says Fr. Khai “in highly publicized quests for justice and truth against the oppression of the communist government,” his superiors decided to send him to Rome.

Unable to leave the country legally, he made a dangerous trek across the Vietnamese border into Laos and on to Thailand.

“After many perilous days during which I had more than once confronted the fear of death, I arrived in Bangkok,” the Thai capital.

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“Throughout these escape episodes I knew that St. Joseph was protecting me in a special way. His own story of leading Mary and the baby Jesus to safety remained my constant hope and inspiration,” says Fr. Khai.

In Rome, his campaign for the Catholics of Vietnam continues. He shares photos of peaceful protest and prayer being suppressed by riot police, images of tear gas being used and women being beaten. He even shows prints of babies who, he claims, were forcibly aborted by the authorities. Fr. Khai says he carried out proper burials on each one.

He says the past few months spent “at the heart of the Church” has only deepened his “love and devotion to the causes of my Catholic brothers and sisters back home who still struggle and suffer every day for their faith in a ruthless regime.”

That suffering, he says, is “systematic” and “cunning” and comes in many guises from interference in episcopal appointments down to everyday discrimination in politics, the law and freedom of worship.

“The government uses all forces at their disposal, including the state media, the political apparatus, the laws and the public education system to stop the growth of the Catholic Church at all costs.”

“Catholics in every part of Vietnam are considered second-class citizens, deserving discrimination in legal treatment” he concludes.

His key message is that he not only wants the outside world to protest but also to pray for Vietnam, a country he believes is ripe for the message of Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

“Vietnamese society as a whole is thirsty for truth and justice and their result which is peace. They are tired of living under a regime full of lies, corruption and unjust treatment.”

“When the Catholic leadership is strong in promoting these fundamental values, they earn the respect and loyalty of the poor, the educated and the young people who are seeking.”