Lao Catholics honor first lay martyr with new church

Catholic faithful in Laos joined clergy and religious to celebrate the dedication of a new church to the first layman of the ethnic Hmong community who was martyred for his faith six decades ago.

The church was dedicated to Blessed Paul Thoj Xyooj in Ban Nam Gnam village in Thulakhom district of Vientiane province, Fides news agency reports.

Born in 1941, Paul Thoj Xyooj was a Laotian teacher and catechist. He was killed by Communist guerrillas in 1960 along with Italian Oblate missionary Father Mario Borzaga.

Pope Francis proclaimed them martyrs in 2015. Both were beatified on December 11, 2016, along with 15 other martyrs by the pope’s special envoy, Oblate Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, Archbishop of Cotabato in the Philippines, in the Laotian capital Vientiane.

According to the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), communist forces killed 17 Catholics between 1954 and 1970: a young Laotian priest, five priests from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), six OMI priests (one Italian and five French) and five lay Laotians.

Italian Oblate Father Angelo Pelis, who served in Laos for years as a missionary, told Fides that the consecration of the new church was presided over by Cardinal Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, Apostolic Vicar of Vientiane. Catholic priests and Laotian Catholics also attended the ceremony.

In rural areas, Christians are regularly victims of their faith and the eviction of Christians by other villagers is common

Church leaders say the new church dedicated to a lay Catholic martyr has boosted the country’s small Catholic community.

Laos is a small, predominantly Buddhist communist nation in Southeast Asia with an estimated population of 7 million.

Christianity is a recognized religion in the country, but many Buddhists consider Christianity a foreign religion. In rural areas, Christians are regularly victims of their faith, and the eviction of Christians by other villagers is common.

Catholic missionaries, beginning with the Jesuits, made several attempts at evangelization in Laos from 1630. However, they failed to establish a local church.

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The MEP missionaries from France who came to Laos in 1878 had more success. They founded an indigenous church in Laos. They founded their first mission station on December 8, 1885, known as the foundation of the Catholic Church in Laos.

Oblate missionaries arrived in 1935 and concentrated their missionary work primarily in the mountainous northern tribal areas of the country.

There are around 60,000 Catholics in Laos, mostly ethnic Vietnamese and other ethnic groups like the Hmong, concentrated in the surrounding areas along the Mekong.

The Lao Church has four bishops but no dioceses. Catholics are divided into four apostolic vicariates.

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