A ban was placed on renting buses to Catholics, documents and driving licenses confiscated, and check posts set up to block buses. But the faithful made it through, including a female musical band, along with their instruments.

The all female brass band from Thai Thuy
Hanoi (AsiaNews) – In the end they made it through, despite police attempts to stop the faithful from Thai Binh diocese 110 km south of the capital Hanoi, from travelling to the parish of Thai Ha, for celebrations to mark the Golden Jubilee of the Redemptorists. The authorities had threatened bus rental companies not to rent to Catholics, they had created dozens of check points along the road, forced other vehicles to turn around, sequestered driving licenses and forced the pilgrims to walk the last 30 km to the parish. But they arrived, including 16 girls who make up a band (see photo) and their instruments.

The episode – which risks judicial “revenge” – all began with the decision of parishioners belonging to Thai Binh diocese to take part in the May 1st celebration to mark 80 years of the Redemptorists in Hanoi. However, police in their home towns applied various measures to deter Catholics from leaving for the capital, citing security reasons. In reality they feared the pilgrims would join the Thai Ha protest against the media defamation of the Redemptorists. Police has also accused Bishop Francis Nguyen Van Sang of being behind the protest and asked him to cancel the pilgrimage, because they believed it to be politically motivated. The bishop rejected all accusations, saying instead that the pilgrimage was exclusively religious and that he would lodge an official complaint against the police. “The announcement I made [to the faithful] about the pilgrimage was legal in the eye of the law and the Church” he said. In fact the pilgrimage was planned months before hand when the Holy See gave its’ permission to the Redemptorists to celebrate their Golden Jubilee.

In the most populated Catholic areas such as Cam Chau, Chau Nhai, and Bong Tien, police threatened bus rental agencies not to allow Catholics to rent their buses. "Police made diligent effort to prevent our leaving. They confiscated all legal documents necessary for bus rental agencies to rent out their vehicles to customers,” said the pastor of Bong Tien parish.

Pilgrims succeeded in finding buses to transport them however they report that on the road to Hanoi via Nam Dinh, police set up dozens of checkpoints where all leaving the province buses were searched for people with rosary beads or any signs showing their Catholic identity. On Friday, at least 20 buses packed with pilgrims had been forced to return to Thai Binh. In a threatening tactic, driver licenses of these buses’ drivers were confiscated and only returned to them on Monday.

Other pilgrims chose to leave on Friday night, by another road via Hung Yen, under less police patrolling, but an extra 60km to the destination. But just short of their destination at around 1:30 am on Saturday, they were stopped outside the capital by police who forced the bus drivers to turn around. Again driver licenses were confiscated returned only after the buses were removed to within 30km from Hanoi city limits. Despite being put under scrutiny, the pilgrims insisted to go on with their trip. They got off their buses to continue the journey on foot and the driver licenses were returned to buses’ drivers after police had pocketed about 30 US dollars in bribes money.

The exhausted pilgrims, most of them were women, helped each other walk all the way back to the city. Some even had to carry elders on their shoulders. Police kept watch preventing any buses on the way to Hanoi from picking them up. Local Catholics on the outskirts of Hanoi were soon informed by passers-by. On their motor bikes and even bicycles they rushed to bring the pilgrims safe and sound to Thai Ha in time for the opening ceremony.

One remarkable story that has emerged from this episode is the story of the all female brass band from Thai Thuy district. Like the rest of Thai Binh pilgrims, all 16 of the brave musicians were on their way to Thai Ha to donate their time and talent to the Golden Jubilee celebration when they were stopped and ordered to go back by the police. They too, had refused and therefore been dumped at a site 16 km from Thai Ha. But this was not enough to deter them and on foot they set off carrying their instruments. Fellow Catholics from nearby parishes on hearing of their plight sent taxis to collect them and their instruments in time for their music to delight the congregation during ceremonies. Their story touched the entire congregation in a profound way for their love of God and His Church.

Their heroic action and their unwavering determination, however, didn't escape the authorities. As the female brass band was still in Hanoi playing music at the celebration, police of Thai Thuy district, their hometown, sent an “urgent summoning order” to the director of the band, Tran Thi Cat. She is now expected to go undergo days of intense interrogation. Also, rumours report that the local police are waiting to confiscate the band's musical instruments when they return home. This would drastically reduce their income, with devastating consequences during this period of economic crisis.