Vietnam's Rocky Road for Religion

Persecution Taking a Turn for the Worst

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NEW YORK, JULY 5, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Recent reports are confirming the long-standing worries over religious liberty in Vietnam. The just-released "Violence Against Christians in the Year 2002," published by Aid to the Church in Need, contained detailed information on the plight of Vietnam's citizens.



The report accused the Hanoi government of "misleading the international community by pretending to be making improvements in human rights and religious freedom." In fact, authorities have been intensifying the anti-Christian campaign, notes Aid to the Church in Need. People who convert to Christianity face discrimination and government surveillance, and risk losing their jobs. Their children might be banned from schools.

Hardest hit are the Hmong of the Chinese border region, the report said. They number about 600,000. Part of the difficulties stem from long-standing animosities between the Hmong, who fought as U.S. allies during the Vietnam War, and the Communists. Many of the Hmong Christian pastors have been hauled from their homes at night and imprisoned in forced-labor camps.

In Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), police halted the construction of a church building, the organization Compass Direct reported on June 30. It was the authorities' second such intervention against the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) in three years.

About 200 police arrived at the site June 9 to halt construction, eventually taking away all the building materials. Authorities destroyed a similar church construction site in July 2000. Following that first incident, the congregation applied for official government approval for the project, which was granted in April 2001.

A positive outcome of the latest incident was that two Catholic priests stepped forward to give support to the evangelical group. Compass Direct reported that on June 24, Fathers Peter Nguyen Huu Giai and Peter Phan Van Loi published an unprecedented "Letter of Solidarity with the Protestant Church in Vietnam." The two are also supporters of Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a well-known priest who was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for saying Vietnam lacked religious liberty.

In their letter of solidarity, the priests thanked one of the pastors, Nguyen Hong Quang, for his courageous support of Father Ly's three relatives who are charged with treason. They also expressed strong support for the persecuted Montagnard Protestants and for the Christians involved in the church building project.

Beatings and detentions

Other groups have assailed the lack of freedom in Vietnam. Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2003, commented: "Despite promises by the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) to accelerate the process of reform and promote democracy, Vietnam's human rights record continued to deteriorate during 2002."

It observed that officials continue to suppress and control the activities of religious groups, including ethnic minority Christians in the northern and central highlands, members of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, and Hoa Hao Buddhists in the south. Evangelical Protestants, particularly those worshipping in house churches, remain under official surveillance. Human Rights Watch also noted that ethnic Hmong and Tai Christians in the north, particularly in Lai Chau and Lao Cai provinces, were beaten, detained and pressured by authorities to renounce their religion.

On April 15, Amnesty International USA in a press release took note of Father Ly's prison sentence. It noted the irony of the timing of the persecution: close to Easter, a time of resurrection. It reported that all religious organizations must be approved by the state and affiliated with the Communist Party's Fatherland Front. Members of groups that are not affiliated are pressured with harassment and even imprisonment. There are about 8 million Catholics in Vietnam, the release said.

Amnesty explained that Father Ly was "unjustly imprisoned for publicly criticizing government policy on human rights and religious freedoms." Moreover, the government has brought an espionage case against his nephews and niece. The charges, which can result in the death penalty, are part of a "vindictive attempt to further punish this family for providing information about their imprisoned uncle to the outside world," Amnesty said.

Father Ly was first arrested in 1977 after he distributed copies of a bishop's letter criticizing the religious intolerance in the country and the arrests of Buddhist monks. The second arrest occurred in 1982, when he led a pilgrimage to a site venerated by Vietnamese Catholics. His most recent arrest occurred on May 17, 2001, when local police arrested him during Mass. In February 2001, Father Ly had submitted testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in which he stated, "In the realm of religion, the control of the Communist government has stripped all churches of their independence and freedom."

Oppressing the Hmong

Government opposition to religion extends to the minority Hmong Christians too. In an April 28 press release, the Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom expressed shock at reports that the Hanoi government continues to violently persecute the Hmong.

"The Vietnamese authorities are continuing to persecute tribal Christians in ways not only brutal, but bizarre," said Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Freedom House center, citing what he contended were reliable sources. "The U.S. government should continue to raise these issues until the Vietnam government allows general religious freedom."

The reports fit a pattern of official Vietnamese repression of minority faiths, the press release said. Last November, Freedom House had reported on the beating death of Mua Bua Senh, a young Hmong Christian.

Similarly, the group International Christian Concern reported March 18 on the findings of a team of its members to Vietnam. They visited 10 cities and spoke with 21 of the country's 54 ethnic groups.

Christians in the central highlands indicated that persecution is worse than it was at the end of 2002. For example, in Dac Lac, out of a total 417 house churches, only two remain open. Police frequently interrogate Protestant pastors and even target their wives.

The team from International Christian Concern was able to confirm reports that the government continues to deny jobs to believers as well as cutting off benefits to the elderly and disabled who are Christians. Converts are even beaten to the point of requiring medical care.

And things could get worse. On Jan. 28, Compass Direct reported that authorities are determined to intensify their campaign against believers. The 7th Plenum of the Central Committee of Vietnam's Communist Party, held Jan. 13-21, passed a resolution calling for the establishment of cells of Communist Party members within the approved religious organizations.

The government also called on religious believers to "volunteer" in the struggle "to foil hostile forces who abuse religious and ethnic minority issues to sabotage the great national unity and act against the political regime." Religious believers have a lot to pray about.