HA NOI (UCAN) -- A bishop of a northern diocese has strongly condemned recent police action against local pilgrims.

Bishop Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Sang of Thai Binh has sent a letter to the government Committee for Religious Affairs and authorities of the provinces of Thai Binh and Hung Yen. In the letter dated May 2, he complained that officials had threatened Catholics who were making a pilgrimage.

On May 2, thousands of Catholics from his diocese and Ha Noi archdiocese made a pilgrimage to the Our Lady of Perpetual Help shrine at Redemptorist-run Thai Ha church in Ha Noi.

Bishop Sang, joined by a dozen priests, presided over a special Mass at the site.

In his letter, Bishop Sang accused local security officials of using various means that "violated religious freedom of local people, especially women and children," in trying to dissuade them from making the pilgrimage.

He noted that although security officials had said there would be a huge demonstration at the shrine, the only public events were the Mass and his own preaching about ways of Marian devotion.

The bishop accused security officials from the districts of Kien Xuong,Tien Hai and Vu Thu of visiting local Catholic families and threatening them.

Police "also threatened and confiscated the driving licenses of drivers who drove pilgrims to the shrine," he said. He added that they had set up checkpoints on roads leading to the capital and asked Catholics, including women and children, to get out of buses at remote locations.

According to media reports, some had to walk up to 30 kilometers to the shrine.

After the pilgrimage, many local Catholics were questioned by the police, the bishop continued, asserting such actions "constitute religious discrimination."

He said he had "encouraged, not forced," Catholics to make Marian pilgrimages to Thai Ha church to obtain a plenary indulgence during the jubilee year marking the 80th anniversary of local Redemptorists.

"We ask authorities to stop causing problems for local Catholics," Bishop Sang said.

The letter, which was also signed by Thai Binh Vicar General Father Dominic Dang Van Cau, six priests of the diocesan advisory council and five priests heading deaneries, was also sent to Bishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon, head of the Vietnam Bishops' Conference, and Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Ha Noi.

After the May 2 Mass, pilgrims offered incense and flowers and prayed in front of the Marian statue in the compound of the Thai Ha church. They also marched in procession to a nearby plot of land, formerly owned by the Church but now the site of a government housing project, and prayed for the government to stop its construction work there.

In March, eight Catholics lost an appeal against convictions for causing social disturbance and damaging public property in protests against another project built on another a plot of land also owned by local Redemptorists. Government authorities built a public flower garden on the plot of land last year.

Seven of those charged were given suspended jail sentences ranging from 12 to 17 months. The eighth was let off with a warning.

Catholics from many parts of the country, some from ethnic minority groups, have been making pilgrimages to Our Lady of Perpetual Help at the Thai Ha church since Archbishop Kiet and local priests concelebrated a Mass on Jan. 31 to launch the jubilee year celebrations, which will end on May 7, 2010.