No Positive Change For Vietnam's Protestants

Tuesday, August 6, 2002

HO CHI MINH CITY (Compass) -- In April, 26 years after the communist takeover of Vietnam, authorities granted legal status to Protestants of the southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN). Optimists felt this might signal a change in the oppressive religious policy that has long marked Vietnamese communism, especially with the rise of "moderate" Nong Duc Manh to general secretary of the Communist Party.

The optimists must be discouraged.

Legal recognition has yet to benefit the Evangelical Church of Vietnam. And while the authorities are "considering" several requests from the ECVN, they are using their recognition of the southern ECVN as an excuse to increase pressure on the many house churches not a part of the ECVN.

Government officials are telling house church leaders that the only legal organization is the ECVN and, in a move reminiscent of China, have been pressuring them to join. They have also informed leaders of Vietnam's tribal minorities in the Western Highlands that legal recognition was intended only for the ethnic Vietnamese, according to sources who met with tribal leaders.

Along with the Hmong minority Christians in the Northwest provinces, minority Christians in the Western Highlands make up over two-thirds of Vietnam's evangelicals.

In July, the Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom (Freedom House) released a second trove of official Vietnamese documents containing precise details about implementing a plan to halt and eradicate Christianity among the Hmong minority Christians in Bao Thang district of northernmost Lao Cai province.

An earlier set of secret, internal Party and government documents about plans to control and stop the growth of Protestant Christianity was released in November 2000 by Freedom House on the eve of former U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to Vietnam. Presented with such evidence, the former president is said to have addressed the lack of religious freedom with Vietnamese authorities.

The latest set of documents, according to the Freedom House release, uses the language of "unreconstructed Stalinism." The documents include directives to ensure that:

>>> Christians sign pledges forswearing their faith.

>>> "Police take initiative in the class struggle to prevent illegal preaching."

>>> An extensive spy network is established to inform on Christians and their activities.

>>> Religion cadres provide detailed weekly and monthly reports on Christian manifestations.

>>> There is deliberate, state-sponsored discrimination against Christians through the increase of official positions for ethnic Hmong "who do not have religion or are people who once followed the religion but have since abandoned their faith."

Now Compass has learned of more documents -- some 90 pages in all -- giving evidence of the crackdown on Protestant Christians among the minority groups in the Central Highlands. The papers, carried out of Vietnam in July, are currently being analyzed.

The crackdown against minority peoples began with the demonstrations in the highland cities of Pleiku and Buonmathuot last February. Tribal people, who are predominately Christian, demonstrated over the loss of their traditional lands to Vietnamese settlers by illegal and deceptive means, against discrimination their children regularly face in public education and against long being denied freedom to worship and live according to their Christian faith.

Authorities were stunned by the uprising and responded with a massive military mobilization to the region and a police-state-style crackdown. In some areas, security cadres were sent to live for months in the communal living quarters of some of the tribes. Participants in the demonstrations and suspected organizers were hunted down, interrogated and often imprisoned. A common tactic was midnight abduction.

In Dak Lak province alone, about 100 people are reported incarcerated or their whereabouts are unknown. In the days after the demonstrations, authorities not only hunted those they had captured on video at the demonstrations, but also Christian pastors and elders, who had long spoken up for justice for their people and presented peaceful petitions to the government.

The latest documents include testimonies of the persecuted, government summons to appear for interrogation, official denials of land grievances, police charges against Christians for hosting Christian meetings in their homes, police records of confiscating "illegal" Bibles and religious materials, and records of fines and hard labor sentences for hosting Christian meetings in homes.

One testimony described how, in Ea Hleo, Dak Lak province, officials organized a ceremony of animal sacrifice and required Christians to participate by drinking the animal's blood mixed with liquor. Those who refused to drink were sentenced to many days of hard labor and were thereby prevented from looking after their own fields and crops. Preventing Christians from harvesting their crops is a common method of exerting pressure on Christian believers.

Pastors and evangelists are now prevented from moving about to perform baptisms, marriages, and to give Holy Communion. Pressure on Christians in the Cu Mgar area of Dak Lak province was so great that some 200 families succumbed to pressure to give up their faith. This sobering development has shaken the large Christian community of the Ede minority, where the number of Christians has increased tenfold to about 150,000 since the communist takeover in 1975.

Families of those who participated in the demonstrations or who have relatives who fled Vietnam are particularly vulnerable.

The home of Ama Dung in K'dun, Dak Lak province, who has a relative who fled Vietnam, was staked out by police and agents for weeks. They regularly harassed and threatened the family.

One day when the parents went to work their fields, leaving their five-year-old son at home, the police came in and ransacked the house. They warned the child not to tell who had done it. Naturally, the young child told his parents what had happened. Angered, the parents took their son to the police station to complain. The police denied it, but the child pointed to some of the perpetrators. Police officials said they would investigate.

Three days later Ama Dung simply disappeared. His frightened wife abandoned their home and took refuge with her parents. Such extra-judicial disappearances are a common way of dealing with "troublemakers."

The mid-2001 pressure on Hmong Christians in the far north, on various minorities in the Western Highlands and on ethnic Vietnamese house churches throughout the country clearly indicate the government is not softening toward religion.

On the contrary, it seems that Protestants are victims of a "strike hard" campaign much like that of their fellow believers in China. And like China, Vietnam can now point to the ECVN (south) and say there is a "legal church."

This means nothing for the majority of Vietnam's Protestant Christians. They are still illegal, harassed and persecuted.

Copyright 2001, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.