Interview to Bishop Huynh Van Nghi
Bishop Nicolas Huynh Van Nghi of Phan Thiet diocese (Binh Thuan province) paid a visit to Japan last July 7 to 18. Bishop H.V. Nghi was ordained bishop in 1974 and since 1975 has administrated the diocese of Phan Thiet. Two years ago newly ordained bishop Nguyen Thanh Hoan was appointed his coadjutor. Our Tokyo center has been cooperating for several years in rural development programs of Binh Thuan, organized by that diocese, to promote not only pastoral activities, but especially to raise the living standards of the people. This is a short account of a gathering held with Bishop Huynh Van Nghi at St. Ignatius Church (Tokyo) last July 14.

The members of Japa Vietnam met bishop Nicolas for the first time in Tan Tao, a small village of Vietnam. The bishop led us to the back entrance of the village. "Could you help them to repair this bridge? This is vital to them, but it remains broken for many years", he said. The bridge was repaired and later on Japa Vietnam embarked on a number of programs in the rural areas of Binh Thuan province. Three big bridges were built on the advice of bishop Nicolas and these projects have become to us a symbol of the link built between Japan and Vietnam. Japa Vietnam went through a number of joyful experiences during the 12 years of cooperation with the diocese and, at the same time, we could learn much from the difficulties and painful efforts of priests and rural people there. (Greetings from Japa Vietnam representative, Ando Isamu)
"I feel very happy to be able to greet the members of Japa Vietnam gathered here. Before we could meet you in the past, we were able to just perform about 5% of all we desired, but after we met with you, we could accomplish as much as 20% of our plans, thanks to your help. The Phan Thiet diocese consists of 145,000 Christians. There are 73 priests and about 300 Sisters and 15 seminarians officially recognized by the government. But there are 36 more studying elsewhere and 40 candidates waiting for admission. The government only allows us to accept 5 seminarians, every two years. I would like to show my gratitude to you for your cooperation to the activities of Phan Thiet diocese.
Phan Thiet is the last of the 25 dioceses in Vietnam. It was established right after the war and consequently holds many social problems. Social infrastructure is often lacking, the wounds of the war are not yet cured and many people are in need of help.
The Gospel says that, "Jesus healed the sick, drove out the devil and spread the Good News". Following his steps we also try to heal people from the social evils, fight injustice and spread the Good News by building communities where the human person is respected. Social injustices are present in Vietnamese society and, because education opportunities as well as medical facilities are not enough, many people cannot grow, as human persons should. We are working to heal those suffering under such hardships.

We concentrate our efforts in educating those children that cannot attend school. We have literacy programs and provide scholarships to children of poor families to go to Primary School. It costs near 3,000 Yen for children in Elementary education (5 years). The Church is not officially allowed to run schools, but we get permission to run Charity classes. As a result, many churches organize classes for poor children unable to attend school and for the old ones whose age refrains them from attending school. We also provide them school supplies and uniforms. For instance, in the cap we give them it is written, "love each other". This is also a natural way to educate families.
The diocese has built 3 schools for the disabled during the last three years. Two are for the deaf and dumb (40 and 30 people each), and one for the blind (10 people). The government also built a similar school, but there are just a few students.

The diocese has organized volunteer activities for the disabled, under the name of "Therese" organization.
About 2,000 youth, from 18 to 30 years old, have received training as volunteers. They bring the disabled to school, hospitals and church. The Therese group lends the 50 wheelchairs donated by Japa Vietnam to those who need them. Those wheelchairs are made in Vietnam, but recently Vietnamese living in Japan have started to export old Japanese cars and have donated old Japanese wheelchairs that, after been repaired in Vietnam, are also used in our place. The name of "Therese" is taken from Catholic saint The Little Therese, and its members focusing on healthy people assisting the disabled try to foster a spirit of mutual help. The effects of this movement are felt not only among the disabled and their families but have also transcended the demarcation of the diocese, so much that non-Christians and government officials have shown their respect to it. Such wonderful volunteer activities of the youth attract people to the church.

We established credit unions among women's groups (about 16,000 people) in our diocese under the motto of Poverty Reduction. The capital consists of donations from Vietnamese aid organizations and former refugees. We lend short-term capital to buy seeds and fertilizers so that they return it back at the harvest time and although we are poor, we are much helped because they usually return the debts.
There is also a cow bank system for poor families. We lend the mother cow for 18 months and if the cow gives birth to 2 cows, they remain in the family and the mother is again lent to a different family. We started with 40 cows and at present the numbers grew to over 200. The young cows become the property of each family that uses them to work in the fields.

We run also housing projects for homeless families or poor families whose houses are broken. We ask the people whether they are able to afford the cost and if they can pay something, no matter how little, we demand some contribution from them. We don't take money from the very poor ones. When we build a house, labor costs are counted as a volunteer contribution. In our diocese, we built about 900 houses already. The capital needed for buying the building materials of a house, 4m x 6m is of about \40,000 ($330). That is the space needed for living. The families build by themselves the kitchen and the pigsty. They can build a bigger house provided they can afford the cost. We consider it important to build houses according to each one's possibilities and with the participation of the local people, and not through government's loans or inversions of big capital. The church lends also its hand.
Another activity concerns the improvement of the living conditions by building and repairing vital public road and bridges. Up to now we have built many kilometers of roads and several bridges. Since the government is not doing it we undertake such activities to do by ourselves what belongs to us in a spirit of self-support and solidarity. Among other tasks, we get prepared for the droughts building dams and water reservoirs to cultivate the fields.

We have tried to manifest the love of God with our actions. As a result, many local people have shown their understanding and cooperation and government has recognized us and cooperates with our programs. Local people frequent also our churches and become catholic. As you know, the church in Vietnam has restrictions imposed by the government, but we do not want to become isolated and think that we should look for possible ways to do gradually what we should do. The government does not penalize us and if they warn us for something we apologize but we always try to look for what to do next.
There are no restrictions on our religious activities concerning our pastoral work in our diocese and parishes. Each parish establish 4 groups, one for senior faithful, another for women, one for youth and a different one for children. There are Focolare and Legio Mariae groups. Similar to the Therese groups, they do not need official permission and act independently. We organize one or two public gatherings a year sometimes with 2,000 participants, but we need official permission for them.
The active participation in the activities of the 4 groups is astonishing. For instance, about 15,000 senior faithful participate in their programs and they themselves organize programs to improve their living environment. Those programs are not only directed to better their material standards but also include their spiritual environment. For instance, through getting rid of domestic violence, conflicts and gambling, such activities build gradually healthy environments. I am myself surprised and highly evaluate the content of such activities.

 Could you tell us your impressions of Japan?
 Japanese and Vietnamese have things in common in their human relationships. I think that Japan's economic growth is really wonderful. The way people keep order and the cleanliness of the streets are totally different from Vietnam. I imagine this is a result of long education. I am learning a lot here.
It is not only the economy, people have also grown. We Vietnamese accustomed to say "The Japanese are short," but you are getting taller and taller. Japanese have become very beautiful also.
Coming to Japan, I feel that there is a need to rebuild "the Third World." As you know, the Bible tells us first about the creation of the world. Afterwards, that Jesus came to rebuild the world. Right now, there is a need to rebuild the Third World. I will offer an example. The gap between countries as rich as Japan and as poor as Vietnam is excessively large. Thus, I think there is a need to rebuild the whole world and to redistribute and establish its order accordingly.
Every time I have to go abroad for a conference, I reflect on the pastoral tasks of the poor regions of Vietnam I spoke before, and this hurts me deeply. I cannot find an answer to my doubts: "Why such a gap?

 The family system in Japan now is broken and we are facing many different problems. How is it in Vietnam? Is the family healthy?
 Vietnamese Families are, traditionally, closely related among themselves. Certainly, in big cities family links are getting loosed, but in rural areas keep still strong.

 It seems that there are large numbers of handicapped people in Phan Thiet. Is there any reason for that?
 War, I think, is one reason. We find many cases where the defoliant has affected the next generations. There are cases of people stepping on unexploded bombs, and people, trying to take the powder that will sell for producing fire works, get hurt by accidents. We have many victims every year.
 I hear that many Japanese tourists visit Vietnam these days. What is the impression Vietnamese receive? Aren't they considered people who go there just to spend money?
 I do not have a bad image about them. I was born in South Vietnam. We are accustomed to treat guests. In the past, Japan's "Imperial Army" was stationed in Vietnam for two years and a half, but people today do not need to remember those times. I think that there is no need to keep hate.

 Were the parishes of Phan Thiet socially active from the beginning?
 There were first small programs, but once the official "Doi Moi" (Renewal) policies in 1990's took roots, parishes started to widen their activities.

 Japanese Catholics are not much socially involved, but most catholic Vietnamese parishes Japa Vietnam gets in contact with are very active in social action. Will this be a characteristic of the Catholic Church in Vietnam?
 There are some dioceses more active than others depending on places, or in other words, depending on different economic situations.

 I saw sometimes in churches of Ho Chi Minh City priests who came from rural areas to collect funds for rebuilding their churches. Is such collaboration among churches from different regions strong?
There are some dioceses more active than others depending on places, or in other words, depending on different economic situations.

 You have mentioned that family links still remain strong, what about faith customs? Are there special changes in faith customs as a result of the economic development?
 Considering the present strict situation where the activities of the church meet with much restriction, I think that the opposite is true: the manifestations of faith have become stronger.

 My Question deals with the projects supported by Japa Vietnam. First, we have assisted in the building of roads and bridges, works that, by its nature, belong to the government's administration. Villagers cooperate together to build them, but in spite of the efforts done, floods and other natural phenomena destroy them in a period of 2 or 3 years. Then, there is a need to repair them and they fill a new request to Japa Vietnam for new assistance. In such circumstances what do you advice us?
 In general, bridges and roads built with your support are well administrated by the people. Sometimes, natural disasters damage them. On the other hand, I think that people take better care of them than of roads and bridges built by the government. In some village where you assisted with building a bridge, heavy trucks started to damage them and the villagers closed them to trucks.

 I know that Vietnamese people are inventive and have a strong spirit of self-sufficiency to increase their incomes. For instance, since several years back, projects of fish ponds were started in the province of Binh Thuan, and recently they have begun projects of pigs' raising in the province of Nghe An. What concerns me is that wherever a project to raise pigs is successful nearby villages start the same project. But, what will happen when all villages try to do the same? It seems to me that they must come to a compromise by discussing the matter together. What is your opinion?
 Yes, this phenomenon is quite common in Vietnam but it goes over my capabilities to answer it. The principal reason lies with the free market system introduced by the government. Two problems are involved here. First, the free market started to function, following the foreign regulations of competition, without any training. Secondly, the official policies of fixed price regulations do not work any more. In both cases, there is nothing we can do.
(The interpreter Fr. Takayama Shin: Take, for instance, the case of coffee, one of the most important export items of Vietnam. After a series of negotiations with Indonesia, its main trade competitor, the Vietnamese government promised to reduce by 30 thousand hectare of coffee fields. In the case of Japan, the government will adopt policies to buy the excess of production, but in Vietnam, farmers will be bearing the whole burden.)
From now on, besides the big efforts undertaken to improve the physical environment (roads, bridges, dams, poverty reduction, etc.) we should pay increasing attention to improve the spiritual environment where people live. It is not enough to address the problems of gambling, prostitution and HIV. We should get deeply involved in rebuilding moral family values, in politics and economic activities, in basic moral issues. I don't mean by that to oppose official policies, rather, it is by addressing those moral issues left aside by the government that we would be able to cooperate with the government.
A person does not live by bread alone." affirms the Bible. We humans possess a deeper dimension and, thus, I want to make more efforts to improve the spiritual environment of my people.
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