Vietnam: US bishops join Lunar New Year celebrations

 Phu Cam Cathedral in Hue was packed with tens of thousands of Catholics when a group of US Bishops celebrated Mass on Monday evening ­ the first day in the Year of the Ox. Traditionally, for Vietnamese Catholics, the first day of the Lunar New Year (commonly known as Tet) is the Thanksgiving Day. It is a time to give thanks for many graces of God during the last year and express gratitude to their parents and grandparents.

Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco led the American delegation, which included three other bishops from California dioceses (Bishops Todd Brown of Orange, Dan Walsh of Santa Rosa, and Ignatisu Chung Wang, a San Francisco auxiliary).

The American prelates concelebrated Mass with Hue's Archbishop Stephen Nguyen Nhu The and hundreds of Vietnamese priests.

A day earlier, the American prelates concelebrated Mass commemorating the return of St. Paul on the eve of Lunar New Year with bishop Joseph Chau Ngoc Tri and priests of diocese of Danang, 80km south of Hue.

Like Hanoi, the archdiocese of Hue has struggled through a difficult year, clashing with the Communist regime repeatedly over the ownership of properties that were seized by the government from Church ownership.

Among the most dramatic conflicts is Our Lady of La Vang Shrine, the main religious Catholic shrine in Viet Nam. All the land of 23.66 hectares that surrounds the basilica has been seized by the government since 1975.

In April last year, Nguyen Duc Chinh, deputy chairman of the People's Committee of Quang Tri, during a meeting with Archbishop Stephen Nguyen Nhu The, and Bishop Francis Le Van Hong, coadjutor bishop made an official announcement that 21.18 hectares (out of a total of 23.66 hectares originally expropriated) around the basilica would be returned to the Church soon. However, so far, no move has been made.

An Bang parish is another case. The parish is located 25 km Southeast of Hue city with about 800 active Catholics living and fishing in the area. In the middle of nowhere, on the land once owned by Mr. Le Khinh, a parishioner who donated his property to his parish upon his death, a church was built. But due to the poverty of parishioners, it has not a single chair. Nor can church goers be protected from the rain or hot sun since there is no roof, no wall, no fan, nothing.

Their poverty, however, does not appeal to the pity of the government; and does not spare them from attacks of officials who are so driven by greed and ambition that they have been trying to take every step to dissociate the people with their legitimate need for a decent worshiping place where they can be in communion with Christ. They have turned down each and every request to build a "real church" from the priest and his parishioners while publicly announcing they had already made plans to seize the land and turn the area into a tourist resort.

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