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Solidarity in Little Saigon


Elisabeth Deffner

A woman holds a candle during the opening ceremony of the holy year celebration outside a Catholic church near Hanoi, Vietnam. (CNS photo/Kham, Reuters)

Accompanied by hundreds of parishioners from central Hanoi’s Thai Ha Parish, Redemptorist Father Joseph Nguyen Van Phuong made his way to the People’s Committee of Hanoi to submit an official complaint on Dec. 2, 2011. He wanted Vietnamese authorities to cease expropriating land that the Redemptorists had purchased in 1928.

A group of Vietnamese Catholics in California shone a spotlight on the fight for religious freedom in Vietnam.

Father Phuong filed his complaint, but trouble started after he left the People’s Committee.

Police and militiamen, with batons at the ready, surrounded the priest and his parishioners. When the mob approached the priest, a parishioner pushed herself in front of him, begging them not to harm Father Phuong. Instead, they beat her so severely that she was sent to the hospital.

Horrific as this incident was, the situation for Vietnamese Catholics is not as bad as it is for other Christian faith groups, says Ken Nguyen, co-founder of Vietnamese Martyrs Council 14445 in Santa Ana, Calif. “Others have experienced horrible abuses,” but with Catholics, the government is a little more cautious, he said, because the Vatican has had some diplomatic influence in speaking for the country’s nearly 6 million Catholics, who constitute about 7 percent of the population and the largest religious minority.


Vietnamese Catholics fortunately have the support of their expatriate brothers and sisters, particularly in a Southern California enclave known as Little Saigon.

Far from their homeland, the world’s largest concentration of Vietnamese immigrants has settled in Westminster and Garden Grove, neighboring cities in the heart of Orange County, Calif. The first cluster of immigrants settled there after landing at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in the southern part of the county that was one of four U.S. centers to receive refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Their numbers were bolstered by a second wave of refugees that fled in the 1970s and 80s.

About a quarter of the 60-plus parishes in the Diocese of Orange offer Mass in Vietnamese. Here, Pope John Paul II appointed the first Vietnamese bishop in the United States, Bishop Dominic Luong, as an auxiliary of the diocese in 2003. Here also, a group of Vietnamese Catholics has shone a spotlight on the fight for religious freedom in Vietnam.

Chartered four years ago as the first Vietnamese-speaking council on the West Coast, Council 14445 now has nearly 120 members. The council is not based at a parish, but at the diocese’s Vietnamese Catholic Center, which is located near Little Saigon and serves all the Vietnamese Catholics in the diocese.

As one of its goals, the council strives to connect with the entire Vietnamese-American community — not just Vietnamese Catholics. Knights organized a candlelight vigil in December 2011 to bring attention to religious freedom and human rights issues in Vietnam. The event drew a crowd of 2,000 to hear remarks by Bishop Luong — a charter council member — and a recorded interview with Father Phuong from Thai Ha. The vigil also featured interviews with Bishop Vincent Nguyen Van Long and Bishop Vincent Nguyen Manh Hieu, the first Vietnamese bishops in Australia and Canada, respectively.

“We want the Vietnamese community here in California to be aware of what’s happening in Vietnam, to raise awareness of religious abuse and human rights violations,” Ken Nguyen explained.

After the event — which was heavily publicized on television and in newspaper stories around the world — the council received many calls from friends who still live in Vietnam. “They said, ‘We feel so great that you did this for us,’” Nguyen said. “‘Thank you for fighting with us.’”

Clergy, religious and leaders of the Vietnamese community in Orange County, Calif., participate in a candlelight prayer vigil on Dec. 10. Approximately 2,000 people attended the event, which was organized by Vietnamese Martyrs Council 14445. (CNS photo/Reuters)

The council is also developing twin websites — one in Vietnamese, one in English — which will allow people to contact their federal representatives and draw attention to religious repression in Vietnam. In addition, Nguyen noted, there are several K of C priests who are currently in Vietnam, holding regular underground meetings with Catholic men.

Father Michael Mai, former director of the Vietnamese Catholic Center, said that concern for religious liberty in his homeland fits well with the Knights’ principles, which first attracted him to the Order. When Father Mai first came to the United States in 1975, he had nothing — and then he received a chalice from the Knights of Columbus. As co-founder and chaplain of Council 14445, he is helping others experience the value of the Order — and offering them a chance to stand in solidarity with their oppressed brothers.

It’s an uphill battle with the government, he admitted. Communists “do not believe in spiritual beliefs,” he said.


Thai Ha is merely one of the latest examples efforts by the Vietnamese government to stifle religious freedom. When Jesuits opened the first permanent Christian mission in Vietnam in 1615, the area — then comprised of three neighboring kingdoms — had an imperial edict against Christianity. The persecution against Catholics in Vietnam is sometimes dubbed “the Great Massacre,” and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Christians there suffered and died for their faith. In 1988, Pope John Paul II canonized 117 of these individuals — St. Andrew Dung Lac and Companions — whose feast day is celebrated Nov. 24.

In the late 19th century, a treaty with France guaranteed religious freedom for Catholics in Vietnam — but that freedom was short-lived. Catholics and other Christians have been fighting, and dying, for the right to worship ever since the French colonists were defeated in 1954 and the nation plunged into civil war. The end of the war in 1975 did not ease the restrictions on religious liberty, either. Once north and south were reunited under the Communist government, all people of faith were placed in a precarious position. Even Buddhists have been threatened and abused.

In recent years, government officials have destroyed church property, torn down chapel buildings, and arrested clergy and worshipers. Christians’ homes have been burned to the ground, and believers have been intimidated, threatened and beaten.

On June 26, 2011, a Mennonite pastor from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) was taken into custody and beaten until his jaw and hand were broken. The following month, police and security forces burst into a worship service in the central highlands and began kicking and beating worshipers, members of an ethnic minority; 16 were left seriously injured. In November, worshipers at a Christian house church near Hanoi were brutally beaten by a gang who threatened to kill the pastor if he continued his work. At the time, though, they merely beat him until he lost consciousness.

In Hanoi, the decades-long conflict over the Redemptorists’ lakeside property has sometimes involved quasi-legal action. But more often than not, threats, violence and terrorism have been the basis of the government’s mostly successful efforts to squeeze the Redemptorists out. In all, the order’s 15-plus acres have been whittled down to less than one, as the government has claimed the land as “public property.”

Online Catholic news agency AsiaNews reported that in November, a uniformed man burst into the church during Mass. Gripping an electric baton, he headed straight to the altar, hurling threats and insults at the priest. Another AsiaNews story stated that a group of hooligans desecrated the Eucharist and poured dirty oil on a statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. And following the violence on Dec. 2, Thai Ha clergy — including Father Phuong — and dozens of parishioners were arrested and bused to a rehabilitation center for prostitutes, where they were detained for about 12 hours.


The human rights group Freedom House has acquired documents from the Vietnamese government that, it says, show “a concerted and ongoing government campaign to arrest and reverse the country’s growing Christian movements.” One of these documents expressed concern that Christian churches had been involved in the successful effort to bring down Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

“Vietnam’s policies,” a release from Freedom House said, “are driven by the assumption that Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity are seamlessly connected with Vietnam’s imperialist enemies past, present, real and imagined.”

Whatever the motivation for Vietnam’s oppression of religious practice, Council 14445 is going to continue to raise awareness of the issue — and provide opportunities for others to join the fight for religious freedom.

“We are fighting so hard for Thai Ha because it is the frontier,” Nguyen said simply. “If they can crush Thai Ha, they will continue their abuse — and not just of Catholics, but of other religions too.”

Since Catholics in the United States and other parts of the world enjoy far greater freedom than their brothers and sisters in Vietnam, Father Mai added, it is their responsibility to use that freedom on behalf of those who are suffering.

“In Vietnam, the people could not talk with freedom,” he said. “We live in a free country; we have a free voice. We need to support them.”


Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, Calif.