Vietnam: Ethnic Christian Dies from Torture Injuries

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cause of death confirmed as Vietnamese president faces human rights criticisms in U.S.

HO CHI MINH CITY, June 26 (Compass Direct News) -- A young Hroi ethnic minority man who refused to recant his Christian faith died from injuries received while under official interrogation, Compass confirmed as Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet met with U.S. officials. Triet met with President Bush in Washington, D.C. on Friday (June 22) amid some protests over Vietnam’s human rights violations.

In his early 20s, Vin Y Het died on April 20, leaving a pregnant wife and two small children.

From Son Hoa district in the costal province of Phu Yen in south-central Vietnam, Het died from internal injuries suffered when officials beat him several months earlier for refusing to deny his Christian faith, Compass has confirmed.

Het, of Krong Ba Commune, became a Christian in September 2006. Not long after that, local government officials summoned him to their offices and pressured him to sign a document denying his faith. When he refused, they had him savagely beaten.

The young Hroi man suffered internal injuries that caused severe swelling in various parts of his body. Officials released him with threats of further abuse or worse unless he recanted.

Het reported what had happened to him to the Rev. Dinh Thong, long-time pastor of the Tuy Hoa City church in Phu Yen Province, and chief provincial representative of the legally-recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), or ECVN (S). Rev. Thong wrote a letter to provincial authorities describing the abuse and asking for an investigation.

The province sent a team to the commune to investigate. The brief “investigation” yielded a paper signed by Het saying that he had not been beaten. The investigators also accused Rev. Thong of making a false report.

Vietnamese authorities previously have investigated such deaths following expressions of strong foreign concern. But church sources in Vietnam said that these investigations thus far have produced only cover-ups; no perpetrators have ever been prosecuted.

For many years, church leaders have told authorities that government sincerity about better policies for religious believers could be easily demonstrated by prosecuting officials who persecute Christians for religious reasons. In the case of Het, even the report of a reputable pastor within the legally-recognized ECVN (S) went unheeded.

Facing the Heat

A recent crackdown on human rights activists in Vietnam threatened to scuttle Triet’s visit, but it went ahead on a somewhat downgraded basis.

Before Triet’s historic meeting with Bush, he met with evangelical leaders at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Thursday (June 21). The unprecedented meeting followed Triet’s testy meeting with U.S. congressional leaders earlier in the day.

In Vietnam, state media such as Thanh Nien Daily highlighted the business dimension of Triet’s visit with headlines trumpeting the $11 billion in commercial deals he secured, but the Vietnamese president did not escape human rights and religious freedom criticisms while in Washington.

The Vietnam president met with carping from Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., and Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., both with large ethnic Vietnamese populations in their constituencies. They pressed him hard on the crackdown on peaceful rights advocates, which has seen religious leaders such a Father Nguyen Van Ly and Christian lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan sentenced to prison for calling for more religious freedom and democratic reform.

In advance of the visit, President Bush hosted four prominent overseas Vietnamese spokespersons for human rights to show disapproval of the crackdown.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., held a bipartisan press conference in connection with the Vietnam president’s visit. One speaker was Mike Benge, an aid worker in Vietnam during the Vietnam War who has been a leading advocate for Vietnam’s minorities in the Central Highlands.

Benge appealed for justice for several hundred chiefly Christian Montagnards who remain in prison for demonstrating for religious freedom and against confiscation of their ancestral lands in 2001 and 2004, or for fleeing to Cambodia in the aftermath.

Under pressure on the human rights front, Vietnam did release three dissidents in advance of Triet’s U.S. trip. According to a report by the Vietnam Study Group, some 38 dissidents have been arrested since August 2006, and since March 30, 2007, 20 of them have received sentences totalling 80 years.

Asked about the crackdown during meetings, however, the president could do no better than repeat the communist mantra that all the dissidents were simply lawbreakers – without any discussion of whether Vietnam’s laws violate international human rights standards.

Evangelical Concerns

Regarding Triet’s meeting with evangelicals, the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) released a statement yesterday (June 25) calling it “unprecedented in Vietnam’s diplomatic history, allowing evangelicals a rare opportunity to speak openly with the President about issues of religious freedom.”

IGE President Chris Seiple, who has been constructively engaging Vietnam officials on religious freedom issues for more than five years, raised three issues: the need to accelerate church registrations; the need to train local government officials in Vietnam’s new religion policy; and the need to expand theological training as a means to prevent anti-state theologies from developing.

Bob Roberts, senior pastor of NorthWood Church near Dallas, Texas, which has participated in numerous humanitarian missions to Vietnam for over a decade, told Triet that efforts to change perceptions of Vietnam in his congregation were complicated by “what has happened to Father Ly.”

The delegation also included overseas Vietnamese Pastor Phuc Dang, and Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The latter hopes to go to Vietnam in January to witness the long-promised legal recognition of the dozen or so small congregations related to the SBC, which have been considered illegal since 1975.

Church leaders of both unregistered and legally recognized groups in Vietnam, contacted on the eve of their president’s visit to Washington, unanimously called on their government to resume and accelerate the registration of congregations and move toward “regularizing” religion.

This process slowed considerably after Vietnam fulfilled its wish list from the United States – removal from the U.S. religious liberty blacklist, a state visit by President Bush, and U.S. support for membership in the World Trade Organization. Hundreds of applications by local congregations for registration, all carefully following government protocol, have gone unanswered in spite of legislative promises to reply within a set time.

The situation remains particularly hard for ethnic minority churches along the borders of Laos and China in Vietnam’s northwest provinces. In these remote places, lack of registration is still used as an excuse to break up or to prevent regular worship services.

The Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) has submitted requests for well over 600 churches, and the Northwest Highlands reports only 31 church registrations. Only 13 of the 31 church registrations came after Vietnam’s status as a Country of Particular Concern was lifted last November.

The U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom is pressing for further registrations in the Northwest Highlands.

Disappearance of Church Leader

Some mystery surrounded the whereabouts of the president of the ECVN (N), the Rev. Phung Quang Huyen, during Triet’s U.S. visit.

One of his colleagues in Hanoi reported to friends in the United States that Rev. Huyen had been secretly invited to accompany the country’s president on his U.S. visit as the only religious representative. His name was even confirmed in Washington as being on the official delegation list.

He was not present at the meeting with evangelical pastors in Washington on June 21, and another church leader in Hanoi informed Compass that people were confused when Rev. Huyen had gone to China with Vietnam’s Bureau of Religious Affairs at the same time the presidential delegation left for the United States.

Rev. Huyen has extensive knowledge of the continuing difficulties faced by ethnic minority Christians in Vietnam’s northwest provinces.

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