SAN JOSE — Plastered with red, white and blue posters, the outside of the Vietnamese Catholic mission in east San Jose looks more like a campaign headquarters than a church.
In fact, religious ceremonies have not been held there since a group of Vietnamese Catholic dissidents began occupying it in July. Immediately after the takeover, the tabernacle was locked and formal services were suspended.
But the core group of 150 dissidents who hold nightly strategy meetings in one of the mission's classrooms gather first in the chapel to pray. On Monday night their prayers were for a nonviolent resolution of the conflict that has fractured Santa Clara County's Vietnamese Catholic community of 7,000 since July.
The dissidents are demanding that San Jose Roman Catholic Bishop Pierre DuMaine elevate Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church from a mission to a "personal parish," a parish based on a common national identity instead of the traditional geographic boundaries. They also protest DuMaine's appointment of Father Paul Luu Dinh Duong as their pastor because he supports the bishop's decision not to establish a Vietnamese parish at this time.
To prevent Duong from serving as their pastor, the group, which claims to represent the majority of Vietnamese Catholics, took over the mission. Day and night ever since, five men have guarded the single-story building that is decorated with posters stating, "Yes personal parish."and "No Father Duong."
In the meantime, Vietnamese Catholics who support the bishop have formed a committee to oppose the dissidents, and both factions publish magazines in an effort to persuade the county's estimated 70,000 Vietnamese to take their side in the controversy.
The first violent clash in the three-month-long dispute occurred Sunday at St. Lucy's Church in nearby Campbell. Two women sustained minor injuries in a scuffle, which broke out halfway through the Mass when a dissident attempted to speak into the microphone in front of the congregation. Police were called to restore peace.
Members of the group that supports the bishop said they were not surprised that the situation turned ugly.
"We call the mission, 'terrorist headquarters,' " said Van Vo, 37, spokesman for the Movement for the Defense of the Catholic Faith.
Huy Nguyen, a 20-year-old student who sides with the dissidents, said he harbors no violent feelings toward the members of the rival group, some of whom are his relatives.
"My family is splitting up over the whole thing," he said. "It's ridiculous. We just don't get along anymore."
Conflicts like this are nothing new in U.S. history, said Jay P. Dolan, director of the University of Notre Dame's research center on American Catholicism. Dolan said immigrant groups have challenged the authority of bishops ever since the first national parish, as personal parishes were once called, was set up in 1787 for the German community of Philadelphia.
"This is just another chapter in the saga of strong national feeling," Dolan said. "The Vietnamese are no crazier than the Polish, the Germans and the Italians or any other group. It's a situation that has often worked itself out over time."
But Bai An Tran, a real estate broker who was a Supreme Court justice in Vietnam before he fled in 1975, said the Vietnamese community is different from other immigrant groups. The loss of their homeland has strengthened their resolve to have a parish based on nationality, he said.
"We have an expression in my country that means 'When you lose your country you lose everything,' " he said. "I will fight for a personal parish to replace my country until I die. And if I die, take my blood and use it to write a petition to the bishop."
DuMaine excommunicated Bai An Tran and another of the dissidents' leaders, Thien Cong Tran, 50, in August for allegedly inciting the group to disrupt two Masses and for refusing to accept Luu as their pastor. About 1,000 dissidents disrupted Luu's installation ceremony in August, waving posters and chanting "No Father Duong!"
In 1984, Duong refused to add his name to a petition signed by 2,000 Vietnamese Catholics requesting that DuMaine elevate the mission to a personal parish. Under the status the dissidents are seeking, Vietnamese from throughout the San Jose diocese would be able to affiliate with this parish.
"A mission is a temporary institution, and they can eliminate it anytime," said Bai An Tran. "We want to have a permanent church for the next generation." DuMaine rejected the request, although he said he is not opposed to eventually designating the mission as a personal parish when the Vietnamese community meets the proper criteria.
'We Are Frustrated'
"We've already waited more than two years," said Dung Lam, 24, a mental health counselor who attends the dissidents' meetings every night with her husband. "We are frustrated. We need a place to pray that is ours alone."