An ethnic Hmong Catholic family from Phinh Ho Parish based in Vietnam’s Yen Bai province have been kept in jail for spreading Catholic faith among villagers. The parish, founded by French missionaries in the early decades of the 20th century, is now home to 2,700 Hmong faithful from villages in the two districts of Tram Tau and Van Chan.

The parish had no resident priests from 1952, when the last foreign missionary was expelled by communists, until 2013, when a priest was sent to resume religious activities among local Catholics. During this period, to help people maintain their faith, John Sung Bla Giong conducted catechism courses for local villagers at his home.

Giong and his four children were wrongly accused of heroin trafficking and given harsh sentences, while relatives were not informed about their whereabouts and trials. The octogenarian father of 12 is currently serving a 29-year sentence. His daughter, Therese Sung Thi Hong, spoke to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about how her relatives continue their evangelization efforts and suffer religious persecution as a result:

“During the hard times without priests, many Hmong villagers from other places came to learn the Scriptures, catechism hymns and prayers in Hmong language at our home. Those who finished the courses would lead prayers at their villages.

“My father, whose parents were baptized by foreign missionaries, taught them in the evening to steer clear of government officials’ oversight. My big family cultivated crops and fed them.

Mass in Phinh ho parish

“Public security officers and authorities did not arrest my father for his work until 2011, when they broke into our house, arrested him, and charged him with drug dealing. As evidence, they produced a packet as big as a brick containing heroin. We protested and one of the officials shoved me down on the ground, causing me to nearly suffer a miscarriage of my second child.

“We believed that my father was brought in on a false charge since a local man called Ton many times had asked my father to buy heroin for him and promised to give money, but my father refused. We saw Ton holding the packet earlier that day.

“For years, we did not know where my father was detained or when he was tried. Later we had to bribe local authorities to be told that he is held in Yen Lap Camp in Phu Tho province, 130 miles away from home.

“We paid visits to him and he said he had been sentenced to 29 years in jail. At first, he plead not guilty, and he said he would appeal to the higher court, but he was so badly tortured that he gave up his appeal. Consequently, he has gone blind and he suffered a massive heart attack.

“He has been hospitalized a few times. Last year, I looked after him for four days in a hospital. He was nothing but skin and bone. He said his cellmates take away all his food that we send him as he is blind.

“We have not visited him for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is able to phone us for five minutes every month. Prison officials said they will release him in three years. We do not know if he will still be alive at that time. We are greatly concerned about his poor health as he is 82 years old. We love him so much and have no choice but to pray for him to be safe and peaceful until he is freed. My mother, 80, who is in poor health, often cries when thinking of him.

“My three siblings and one brother-in-law, who serve as catechists and lay leaders at villages, were also sentenced to 2 to 4 years in jail on trumped-up drug-related offenses in 2012, 2013, 2017 and 2020. Three of them have been freed.

“More than half of our big family has to move to avoid government sanctions, in order to continue to be able to pursue evangelization efforts. We do not violate any laws but only help others practice the Catholic faith to live a good and peaceful life.