Persecuted Catholics 'honoured' to glimpse Pope Francis in Thailand

Joe Freeman
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Ko Sa is one of just a handful of Vietnamese Catholic refugees registered to attend the mass by Pope Francis in Thailand

Ko Sa is one of just a handful of Vietnamese Catholic refugees registered to attend the mass by Pope Francis in Thailand (AFP Photo/Lillian SUWANRUMPHA)

Bangkok (AFP) - Clutching her entrance badge to see the Pope, Vietnamese Catholic refugee Ko Sa says attending the pontiff's mass this week is a great honour -- a rare bright spot in her "miserable" life in limbo as an asylum seeker in Bangkok.

Ko Sa is one of just a handful of Vietnamese Catholic refugees registered to attend the mass by Pope Francis, who arrives in Thailand on Wednesday carrying a message of peace and religious tolerance.

The four-day jaunt is the Pope's first trip to Thailand, where about 1,400 Vietnamese Christians and ethnic minorities have settled, many fearing religious persecution in communist Vietnam.

Like Ko Sa, they are unable to legally settle in Thailand since the government has not signed on to UN conventions protecting refugees.

Many live in fear of arrest and long detention in immigration centres while they scrape by on under-the-table jobs for a few dollars a day. Some wait years for resettlement in a third country.

The chance to glimpse the Pope at the Thursday mass is a welcome respite.

"It's difficult to describe the feeling... It is a great honour for us to see him," said 34-year-old Ko Sa, sitting on a mattress on the floor of a rented house where she lives with eight other people.

Her UN refugee ID does not shield her from police, and she has had to move several times to avoid immigration crackdowns.

Though she's now fully free to practise her religion, she worries about the future.

"When I think of how miserable my life is here I just cry," added Ko Sa, who works as a cleaner for $5 a day.


- 'Forgotten people' -

She arrived in Thailand seven years ago, hiding in a truck to cross the Cambodian border during a three-day journey.

She fled Vietnam after she was accused of helping hide a relative who got caught up with police.

As a Catholic and a member of the vulnerable K'Ho ethnic minority, she feared repercussions from authorities in the one-party state where religion is tightly controlled.

The US State Department lists Vietnam as a "country of particular concern" on its religious freedom index, accusing the government of targeting people because of their beliefs or religious freedom advocacy.

Some prominent activists are Catholic -- a denomination comprising seven percent of the population -- and the communist government has long had an uneasy relationship with organised religion.

Today all religions in Buddhist-majority Vietnam are controlled by the state and any practitioners operating without official registration could face jail time.

Vietnam broke off official ties with the Vatican in 1975, but relations have eased in recent years.

It is not clear if the Pope will address Vietnam's Catholics this week, though his trip is raising hopes he could speak about the plight of refugees as he has since the migrant crisis of 2015.

"This pope in particular also wants to encourage the awareness of the people who are forgotten, like refugees," said Puttipong Puttansri, a Thai historian of the Catholic Church.

- 'I can't sleep' -

Any mention of refugees would be a boon for Chu Manh Son, a Vietnamese Catholic activist living in Thailand since 2017.

He was among many Catholics who voiced anger over a 2016 toxic spill by a Taiwanese steel firm that killed tonnes of fish and decimated livelihoods.

Son says he was imprisoned, beaten and forbidden from travelling for speaking out on the environmental disaster.

He and his wife paid traffickers $600 to sneak them through the jungle where they at one point ran out of food and ate plants.

They eventually made it to Bangkok where they attended a local church frequented by migrant labourers.

Like Ko Sa, he used his UN refugee agency card as ID when parishes announced registration for the pontiff's visit.

While he knows venturing out can be risky, his spirits were lifted when he saw his name on the list.

"It also strengthens my faith," he said, adding that he would ask the Pope to "pray for refugees".

Francis will hold two masses and meet with the Catholic community and top officials before jetting on Saturday to Japan, where he will visit Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the sites of the world's only atomic attacks.

Some 50,000 people from Thailand and all over Southeast Asia are signed up for the Pope's first mass on November 21 in Bangkok.

Ko Sa is attending with two relatives, one of whom is her niece Lo Mu, who made the journey to Thailand with her.

"Knowing that I'm going to see him, I can't sleep," Lo Mu said.