Sisters minister under official pressure to ethnic minorities in Vietnam's Central Highlands

Editor's note: A number of indigenous ethnic minorities live in Vietnam's Central Highlands, remote from town centers. Some receive regular assistance from women religious who carry out their ministry secretively because the government does not sanction church-sponsored work.

During a recent visit to the provinces of Gia Lai and Kon Tum in the Central Highlands, I was introduced to some convents and a center for orphans, children with physical disabilities and those from poor families. The center is based in an area where religions are declared by government authorities not to exist.

An elderly nun called Rose opened the gate of the center, and the children greeted me warmly.

"We welcome you because my friend sister introduced you to me," she said. "Here we have never received any strangers." Then she told me her story about education and evangelization work in the area.

"Every time local officials unexpectedly visit the center, we do not open the gate until we hide the statues of God and the saints. If they find this is a convent, they will expel us from here," she said.

The center, built two years ago, provides accommodation for 70 children from ages 1 to 18. They are from five ethnic minority groups — Ede, Gie, Jarai, Ro Ngao and Se Dang – and the majority Kinh Vietnamese people. Some have as many as 14 siblings and others are from parents who suffer mental disorders and other serious diseases. The sisters give these children loving care, food and scholarships.

"Are you a nun," local officials often asked her. "Yes, I am. But now I am retired. I bring up these children because their parents send them to me," she replied to them.

Two other young nuns serving at the center pretend to officials that they are her nieces.

Government officials had impeded the sisters' work by repeatedly checking the children's personal papers, for instance, until Sister Rose told them, "If you will not allow me to help the children, please take them away and bring them up." Then the authorities allowed them to operate the center.

She said officials, as a ploy, have asked her to register the center as a religious facility and invite other nuns to come there to work, but she refused. "I do not believe them. If I follow their requests, they will expel us," she said.

The stance of the Vietnamese government is to refuse to recognize the existence of religions in the area and to try to prevent missionaries from working with local people.

At the center's hidden chapel, children say daily prayers and a priest comes to celebrate weekly Mass.

The center is the second one Sister Rose built since she started to work in the area more than a decade ago. The first one, housing 20 children, was disbanded by the police.

Sister Rose said the nuns have rarely worn habits to avoid official attention to their work. They dress normally, visit ethnic villagers and learn their languages. They offer them food, clothes and medicine, and they look after elderly people and those with leprosy. Many villagers embrace Catholicism before their death.

She said their mission is to educate the youth and evangelize ethnic groups.

A family offered land, and Sister Rose bought materials for villagers to build a house. Security officers detained, questioned and then accused the landowner of receiving money from the nuns. He was asked to dismantle the house, but he denied the charge and said he built the structure as a coffee house.

After that, other villagers used the house to gather for daily prayer, and priests have started to come from other parts to offer liturgical services every week.

"We have built two chapels under such conditions," Sister Rose said. "We would not meet the local people's religious needs if we were not brave, patient and united with one another.

"God offers us health and cleverness to serve his people and teaches us how to deal with problems caused by the government," she added.

She also admitted that some officials appreciate the nuns' services and quietly help them to overcome difficulties.

The Central Highlands are home to dozens of ethnic minority groups and are considered one of the communist country's hot spots on religion.

Ethnic villagers, who survive mainly on agriculture and the forests, which have disappeared by excessive exploitation, live in poverty and have little access to education and health care. Growing divisions persist between ethnic people and the majority Kinh Vietnamese, who often cheat them at business and make them move to remoter areas.

Ethnic people implicitly trust missionaries who offer them hope, food, education and health care and who fight for their rights and interests.

For fear that ethnic groups will oppose them, authorities try to limit religious development by banning Christian ethnics from gathering for prayer and from building chapels. Missionaries are not allowed to work with people at many villages.

Many Christian ethnics, including pastors, have been harassed and imprisoned for struggling for religious freedom, and some 300 people fled to neighboring Cambodia for asylum last year.

However, I see that Catholic nuns do not fear challenges, but bravely, kindly and peacefully reach out to the poor and marginalized, improve their living conditions and bring hope to them as their form of witness.

This article was written by a freelancer for Global Sisters Report and is intentionally not identified.