Oxford, England — Catholic martyrs from various nationalities have been beatified in Laos, in the first such gesture toward communist regime victims in Southeast Asia.
"The Catholic Church in Laos is very small, humble, almost hidden; its story is not well-known," Oblate Father Roland Jacques, vice postulator of the martyrs' cause, said in a commentary for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, to which six martyrs belonged.
"Planted with the sweat and blood of three generations of missionaries, it can rely today only on its own forces, supported by a handful of priests from Vietnam or Thailand. That goes to show how much this event was unique, unheard of for this small country and very young church."
The French priest was describing the Dec. 11 beatification Mass in Vientiane's Sacred Heart Cathedral, attended on the pope's behalf by Philippine Cardinal Orlando Quevedo as well as 15 bishops and 150 priests, mostly from neighboring countries, and 6,000 laypeople.
A website statement by the French-based order said all 17 martyrs had died at communist hands from 1954 to 1970 before Laos came under full control of the Maoist Pathet Lao regime in 1975.
Father Joseph Thao Tien of Houaphanh province, who became one of Laos' first native-born priests at his 1949 ordination, was taken prisoner when Pathet Lao guerrillas stormed the town of Sam Neua at Easter 1953. He was sentenced to death and shot outside a prison camp in 1954 after refusing to renounce his priesthood and vows of celibacy.
Father Jean-Baptiste Malo, a French member of the Paris Foreign Mission Society from La Grigonnais, France, had been imprisoned by communist partisans in 1951 while working in Guizhou, China. Expelled from China, he was detained and interrogated with the apostolic prefect and three religious companions by North Vietnamese army fighters at Pakse, Laos, and died of hunger and exhaustion during a 700-mile forced march to Vietnam.
Six other French missionaries were also beatified as martyrs.
Italian Oblate Father Mario Borzaga joined the order's first mission to Laos in 1958, teaching the catechism and helping the sick in villages on the Mekong River and later in the apostolic vicariate of Luang Prabang. Borzaga, whose seven books of letters and poems were later published, was believed shot and buried by the Pathet Lao at Kiu Kacham, Laos, near the Chinese border with an ethnic Hmong lay catechist, Paul Thoj Xyooj, who was also beatified.
Thoj Xyooj's nephew, Msgr. Tito Banchong Thopanhong, apostolic administrator of Luang Prabang, was one of several descendants attending the beatification.
Catholics, estimated at 60,000, make up just 1 percent of the traditionally Buddhist population of Laos.