Religious Groups Vexed in Vietnam

Christians Still Have a Hard Time

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WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 24, 2005 ( Despite recent improvements, religious believers in Vietnam still face government persecution. A June 23 article in the Washington Post noted some progress for the country’s Catholic population.

The article cited the case of Father Joseph Tran Van Khoa, who is now able to celebrate Mass openly, after many years of being forced to conduct the sacraments in secret. Yet, the government still obliges the Church to submit for its review the names of bishops who will guide the country’s 5 million to 8 million Catholics, the Post observed.

Priests are also in short supply, due to government restrictions on seminaries. And Catholic schools that were closed in the south of the country with the arrival of the communists remain closed.

More recent events show that authorities are still determined to keep a firm control over religious activities. According to a report published Monday by Compass Direct, a Baptist minister, the Reverend Than Van Truong, was allowed to return to his family Sept. 17 after being confined in the Bien Hoa Mental Hospital, in Dong Nai province, for nearly a year. He was diagnosed as being «delusional» for believing in God.

Truong, formerly an army officer, converted to Christianity and several years ago sent Bibles to some of Vietnam’s leaders. A first arrest came in May 2003, when he was held without charges for nine months. After a brief period of freedom he was arrested again in June 2004, and later sent to the mental hospital.

On Tuesday, AsiaNews reported another example of persecution. In late July, authorities in the Son Tinh district of Quang Nai province destroyed the homes of 10 evangelical Christian families. The families had reportedly refused to deny their faith, after being told that Christianity is America’s religion and not allowed in Vietnam.

AsiaNews also reported that on Aug. 21 a mob in the Son Ha District, incited by authorities, burned down the house of Dinh Van Hoang, described as an «evangelist,» because he would not sign a paper denying his Christian faith. This is the third time his home has been torched in the last few years.

U.S. agreement

Officials from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have expressed concern over the situation in Vietnam. In a June 22 press release the commission called upon the State Department to publish the details of a U.S.-Vietnamese agreement on religion.

The previous day, President George Bush announced that the two countries had reached a «landmark agreement that will make it easier for people to worship freely in Vietnam.» Details of the accord were not made public, however.

On June 20, the USCIRF’s vice chair, Nina Shea, gave testimony before the U.S. House International Relations Committee Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations. Referring to the situation in Vietnam complained about the lack of respect for human rights and religious freedom in the country.

Over the last 15 years the government has allowed what she termed a «zone of toleration» for approved religious practice. «However,» she observed, «at the same time, it has actively repressed, and targeted as subversive, religious activity it cannot control or that which refuses government oversight.»

«Religious prisoners remain behind bars, churches remain closed, and restrictions and harassment on all of Vietnam’s diverse religious communities continue,» Shea told the congressional committee.

She said that there are an estimated 100 religious prisoners in jail or under some form of house arrest for religious activity. In addition, hundreds of churches, home worship centers, and meeting places remain closed. And regarding the Catholic Church she noted that the government continues to impose limits on the number of seminarians, as well as controlling appointment and promotion of clergy.

Among others who gave testimony to the hearings were three home church leaders. The Reverend Tran Mai, Evangelist Truong Tri Hien and the Reverend Pham Dinh Nhan submitted written testimony on June 20, according to press release issued the next day by Compass Direct.

Hien, a Mennonite, described in a 14-page document 77 separate actions taken by government authorities against his denomination from June 2004 to May 2005. Tactics included forcibly breaking up meetings, harassment of church members, inciting neighbors against the Mennonites, and attacks in the state-owned media.

Montagnards targeted

Other victims of government persecution are members of the Montagnards, an indigenous group located in the mountain region of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. On May 13 the New York-based group Human Rights Watch published a report, affirming that security forces continue to mistreat and detain the Christian Montagnards.

According to the report, those who follow the so-called Dega Christianity, an unsanctioned form of evangelical Christianity, are at the greatest risk. The government has banned this group, charging that it is not a religion but a separatist political movement.

«Montagnards who attempt to practice their religion independently still face assaults and live in fear,» said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. «The persecution of Montagnards for their religious beliefs and for their claims to ancestral lands continues unabated.»

The government did change some regulations on religious activities earlier this year, making it easier for some churches. But Human Rights Watch cited recent eyewitness accounts of instances where local authorities in the Central Highlands have used the new regulations as grounds to arrest Montagnards.

As well, in March and April, security forces in some areas ransacked the homes of Christian communities. During these operations some women and their children were beaten. According to what Human Rights Watch termed «credible eyewitness accounts,» some of those arrested in this crackdown were beaten or tortured while in detention.

Other groups suffer

Hmong Christians are another ethnic group that suffers at the hands of the government. On April 29 Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom denounced what it described as a «stepping up» of its persecution of minority Christians.

The center said it had received information from sources in Vietnam describing the persecution against Hmong Christians, including beatings, torture and death threats. The action has obliged many Hmongs to leave the country in recent months. Hmong Christians, noted the center, have suffered from discrimination at the hands of the Vietnamese government for over two decades.

Mennonites are another group of believers who have been a frequent target of repression. According to an Aug. 31 press release by the group International Christian Concern, a prominent Mennonite church leader was released the previous day. Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang was arrested in March 2004 and sentenced in November to three years of imprisonment. The press release credited international pressure for the early release.

On Sept. 2 another report by International Christian Concern communicated the plea by officials of the Mennonite church in Vietnam for the release of another member, Pham Ngoc Thach, the last of six church leaders still being held after a wave of arrests in March 2004. Real freedom of religion in Vietnam still remains a distant goal for many.

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