Montagnards denied the right to celebrate Mass for the start of the New Year

Hanoi, Vietnam – Catholic Montagnards from Ia Grai, in Vietnam’s central highlands, were unable to celebrate Mass on the first day of Tết or Lunar New Year because the local People’s Committee explicitly forbade it.

Bùi Minh Sơn, chairman of the Ia Grai People’s Committee, justified the prohibition saying that since Tết was not a Catholic holiday Catholics had no right to celebrate Mass for that day. He backed his argument with threats of legal action against anyone, clergy or faithful, who dared to say and attend Mass.

In a petition to Chairman Sơn himself, Ia Grai Catholics noted that Vietnamese Catholics dedicate the first days of the new year to Christ and the Virgin Mary as part of their devotional traditions and that this is done in public gatherings where congregations can celebrate the Eucharist and take part in other services, exchange New Year greetings and receive the blessings of their priests.

In response Ia Grai People’s Committee chairman simply reiterated the fact that Tết is not a Catholic holiday and celebrating Mass on that day is a violation of the ‘State law and Ordinance on Religion and Belief’. For this reason he ordered security forces to arrest anyone gathering to celebrate the New Year according to Catholic rites on the basis of ordinance No 34/UBND-DTTG.

According to this law, every year Catholic priests must provide local authorities with the list of Masses that they intend to celebrate in the coming year; implicitly this means that some Masses may be banned and that priests officiating them are in violation of the law.

This said the situation of religious freedom has improved in Vietnam in recent years partly as a result of the country’s gradual opening to the West, especially to the United States beginning with the lifting of the US trade embargo in 1994, the normalisation of diplomatic relations in 1995 and Vietnam’s accession to WTO in November 2006.

The Church’s situation has also improved in good part to the persistent efforts by the Holy See to maintain a dialogue with the authorities, including a mutual exchange of visiting delegations.

Still episodes of intolerance are occurring at the local level and against ethnic minorities like the Montagnards in the central highlands and Thais, Hmong and Muong living in the northern mountains.