HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (UCAN) -- Catholics in southern Vietnam say God answered prayers for the release of eight Catholic defendants tried on charges related to a Church-government land dispute in Ha Noi.

On Dec. 14, about 3,000 Catholics gathered at Redemptorist-run Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Ho Chi Minh City, 1,710 kilometers south of Ha Noi, to thank God for the freedom of their northern brothers and sisters in faith.

Visiting Father Pierre Nguyen Van Khai and 22 local Redemptorists concelebrated the special two-hour liturgy.

Before the Mass, people clapped loudly when photos of the defendants' Dec. 8 trial at the hall of the People's Committee of O Cho Dua ward in Ha Noi were shown on a screen. The eight Catholics, aged 21-63, were found guilty of disturbing public order and damaging public property. Seven were given suspended sentences of 12-17 months while the youngest was let off with a warning.

The defendants were among hundreds of Catholics who occupied a former plot of Church land near the Redemptorist-run Thai Ha Church in the capital on Aug. 15. They placed crosses and Marian statues on the plot, which the government had confiscated in the early 1960s.

During the trial, about 2,000 supporters from the capital and neighboring provinces sat on sidewalks, prayed and sang hymns in front of the heavily guarded trial building. They held cycad leaves -- a traditional symbol of martyrdom -- crosses, Marian images and placards.

"I am very happy about the defendants' freedom," Marie Minh An told UCA News in Ho Chi Minh City after the Mass. "Now I feel the strength of prayers that Catholics throughout the country offered for them."

Jail sentences would have been hard to avoid in the past, said An, who had attended previous gatherings to pray for the defendants. She added that the local Redemptorists should have done something more to protect the defendants instead of just holding prayer gatherings.

Maria Phung Buu Van, 24, claimed God had answered her prayers for the defendants to be tried fairly and returned to their families quickly. In her view, the Mass was an opportunity for local Catholics to express their deep gratitude to God for what he had done for the local Church.

In the homily, Father Khai, who is stationed in Thai Ha, said the prayers of Catholics throughout the country brought spiritual strength to the defendants at the trial.

Father Khai, 38, the only priest allowed to attend the seven-hour trial, recalled supporters sang hymns and said prayers so loudly outside that security officers had to close the windows and doors of the trial hall on the fourth floor of the building. The defendants bravely witnessed to truth and justice, and denied the prosecution's charges, he added.

Among the 120 people present at the trial, he continued, 10 were relatives of the defendants and the others were government officials. "The defendants did not fear the judges, and they told me, 'Don't worry about us,'" he said.

Lawyer Le Tran Luat, who represented one of the defendants and who attended the recent Mass, agreed that prayers helped the defendants win, but added that the sentences are still unjust.

Father Joseph Cao Dinh Tri, Redemptorist vice provincial, said the same during the Mass. He asked people to continue praying for justice and peace in the country.

Meanwhile, Nguyen The Thao, head of the People's Committee of Ha Noi, wrote a letter dated Dec. 12 to Bishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon, head of the Vietnam Bishop's Conference, and Father Vincent Pham Trung Thanh, Redemptorist provincial superior.

In the letter, Thao asked the two Church leaders to transfer Father Khai and three other Redemptorists to places outside the capital. He accused these priests of provoking people to break the law and of slandering the government on the day of the trial.