A Vietnamese priest working in Laos says curbs on religious activities around the northern city of Luang Prabang have intensified following a series of protests last month by ethnic Christians across the border in Vietnam.
“We are deeply concerned about the future of the Luang Prabang apostolic vicariate where religious activities are limited, local Catholics are closely watched and vocations are few,” said Father Raphael Tran Xuan Nhan yesterday.
The Luang Prabang apostolic vicariate has been prevented from development for dozens of years under communist rule, he said.
Father Nhan, from Vinh diocese in central Vietnam, has worked in Laos for many years and established many Legion of Mary groups in the neighboring communist country.
He said that since 1975, when communists took over the country, the vicariate has produced only one native priest and no nuns.
The 57-year-old priest said Luang Prabang provincial authorities try to limit local travel of Catholics, who are required to inform village authorities about their travel if they want to go somewhere.
Father Nhan said the situation worsenes after Hmong ethnic Christians demonstrated and demanded religious freedom in Vietnam’s Dien Bien province which borders Luang Prabang province in early May.
The local government prevents local Catholics from attending Mass at chapels on Sundays by forcing them to do community service or learn government policies.
Four militiamen with guns stand outside Buon Saya chapel watching local Catholics attending services, he said. Sometimes they also sit attending service in the chapel, he added.
Monsignor Tito Banchong Thopahong, apostolic administrator of the apostolic vicariate, and Father Pierre Buntha Silaphet, who was ordained a priest in January, celebrate weekly Mass attended by three nuns aged in their sixties and 20 Catholics at the chapel.
A Vietnamese Dominican priest who has worked in Luang Prabang for six years told ucanews.com on condition of anonymity that the local government plans to move the chapel since it is 30 meters from an army station.
The priest said he and two other Dominicans have had to move to Vientiane, the Lao capital, because government authorities do not want them to teach English free of charge to local people as they are suspected of being spies.
Luang Prabang apostolic vicariate has about 3,900 Catholics among a total population of 1.2 million living in the northern provinces of Bo Keo, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Phong Xali, Udomxai and Xayaburi. The ancient city of Luang Prabang, a center for Buddhism and culture in Laos, is 220 kilometers north of Vientiane.