Dong Hoi, Vietnam, Jul 30, 2009 / 01:51 am (CNA).- Anti-Catholic violence and police raids at several Catholics’ homes in the Vietnamese coastal city of Dong Hoi have prompted many parishioners to flee for their own safety. Local government officials reportedly wants to create a “No Catholic Zone.”

Police and gangs on the city streets have stopped anyone who wears any Catholic religious symbol in order to beat them savagely.

Those arrested include Nguyen Cong Ly, whose house was used by parishioners of Tam Toa for worship services. During the police search at Ly’s home, a gang of thugs surrounded his house and yelled anti-Catholic slogans suggesting his death, Fr. J.B. An Dang tells CNA.

Tam Toa is the only church in Dong Hoi, a city of 103,000 in the Quang Binh province. Its origins can be traced back to 1631.

The church almost totally collapsed after U.S. air raids in the Vietnam War.

Last week Catholics tried to erect a cross and build an altar on the church grounds, which had been confiscated by the Vietnamese government as a declared war memorial site. Those Catholics were attacked with tear gas, stun guns and batons, wounding many priests and lay people.

According to Fr. An Dang, authorities in Dong Hoi have not been shy about their desire to transform the city into a “No Catholic Zone” like in Son La and several other towns in the Central Highlands. Local authorities deny the existence of Catholics, who live there in the thousands.

Hundreds of Catholic families have reportedly left the city to take refuge in Ha Tinh and Nghe An, both provinces in the Diocese of Vinh.

Fr. Anthony Pham Dinh Phung, chief secretary of the Bishop of Vinh’s office, on Tuesday asked local authorities of Quang Binh to show self-restraint and to behave within the laws.

Though the situation in Dong Hoi is “spinning out of control,” Fr. An Dang tells CNA, the government has not taken any action to restore order or end police brutality against unarmed victims.

“To make matters worse, state media keep urging severe punishments against Tam Toa's Catholics by publishing articles full of the distortion of truth, the defamation of religion, and the instigation of hatred between Catholics and non-Catholics,” Fr. An Dang adds.

All of the more than 600 media outlets in Vietnam are state owned, while the Catholic Church and other religions have no media outlets of their own. The Vietnamese public must rely on independent news sources on the internet, but their access is limited by robust firewalls.

Catholic protests in the Diocese of Vinh continue with parades and meetings which draw tens of thousands of Catholics. Candlelight vigils have sprung up throughout Vietnam, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

“This has been a tremendous source of encouragement to the lonely diocese in its moment of despair and suffering,” Fr. An Dang informs CNA.

Though the Vietnamese government keeps “bragging” internationally about its religious freedom policy, on the other hand it continues to ban Catholic pastoral work in numerous parts of the country, he adds.