Christian Tract Distribution in Vietnam Brings Arrests

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Evangelists Beaten and Christian Leader Threatens Street Demonstrations

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 11 (Compass) -- News of clashes between Christians and public security police over the distribution of Christian tracts has been pouring out of Vietnam since the opening of the 22nd Southeast Asia Games (Seagames 22) on December 5. The house churches, often zealous in their evangelism, have apparently organized the distribution of Christian tracts and other literature featuring the testimonies of prominent Christian athletes, severely pushing the limits of religious freedom in this communist nation.

A December 8 Reuters news release from Hanoi told of the detention of seven Vietnamese students for the distribution of “flyers promoting Christianity” on December 4, the eve of the opening of the games. Authorities insisted the students were not arrested, only called in for questioning about causing disorder. Police said it was illegal to distribute literature without the authorization of the Seagames organizers and tried to find out where the materials came from.

Confrontations were more violent in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). On December 5, Ms. Le Thi Thanh Tuyen was arrested, bound and beaten in the Ben Nghe police station where she was held for 24 hours before being released.

On December 7, three women evangelists and a male evangelist, Dang Quoc Tuan, were arrested and beaten right on Dong Khoi Street, the heart of the tourist area, in Central Ho Chi Minh City. Mr. Tuan was stripped of his clothes and beaten on the street by about 10 policemen before being taken to the Ben Nghe police station. Christians of the Mennonite house churches came to the police station to plead for his release. He was released at 2 p.m. on December 8 and given an apology by Police Major Bui Thanh Son of the PA38 religion unit of Ho Chi Minh City, who also promised such things would not happen again. But this proved an empty promise.

At about 9 p.m. on the December 9, eight workers of the Vietnam Mission Alliance group were arrested in District 7 and are being held. Five of them are women. Three others, including two women of the Inter-Evangelistic Movement in Vietnam, were arrested in District 9. That same evening, their leader, the Rev. Tran Mai, went to intercede for them and was himself detained for 24 hours, as was a Nazarene church leader, the Rev. Le Quang Son. By noon on December 10, at least 18 Christians were known to be in detention over the literature distribution. Others were missing. Christian leaders are still gathering information to try to understand the extent of the crackdown.

At noon (Ho Chi Minh City local time) on Thursday, December 11, a prominent house church leader informed Compass that some had been released, but that at least 10 remained incarcerated and the whereabouts of two workers was unknown. Church leaders reported that many boxes of Christian tracts had been confiscated, but they were determined to continue distributing what remained.

In an incident apparently unrelated to the Christian literature, police staged a motorcycle “accident” on the evening of December 9 in what appears to have been an assassination attempt on the life of the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, a prominent house church leader and activist for religious freedom and other human rights. Quang had recently angered authorities when he became involved in trying to defend at trial the two nephews and niece of the famous prisoner-of-conscience and religious freedom activist, Father Nguyen Van Ly. Quang escaped the police attack and attempted arrest, but a colleague, Evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach, who was carrying the Rev. Quang on his motorbike, was captured by police, beaten, and taken to prison. Within hours, the Rev. Quang had organized a sit-in, hunger strike and prayer vigil with about 30 Christians at the police station. Evangelist Thach was released within 24 hours.

However, when the Rev. Quang learned of the arrest of many other workers over literature incidents, he continued the confrontation with the police, demanding the release of all taken into custody. He threatened to organize unprecedented street demonstrations if they were not released. Other leaders entered into quiet negotiations with authorities and secured the release of some. But with at least 10 still being held, the Rev. Quang is threatening street demonstrations that are sure to embarrass authorities and could bring further dangerous clashes.

Although Vietnam recognizes two Protestant groups, dozens of house church organizations representing hundreds of house churches and thousands of Christians remain illegal and subject to official abuse.