Vietnam Government Razes Portion of Mennonite Church

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Destroyed section includes apartment of pastor’s family.

Special to Compass Direct

HO CHI MINH CITY, July 20 (Compass) -- On Tuesday morning, July 19, about 200 officials cordoned off the Vietnam Mennonite Church center in this city’s District 2 and sent in a large work force that tore down the rear 8.8 meters of the 4.5 meter-wide building -- including the home of Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang and his family.

Rev. Quang is in prison for allegedly resisting an officer. His wife, Le Thi Phu Dung, was home alone with two of her three small children when authorities arrived. Her cell phone was jammed so she could not alert people. She and her children could only watch and pray in aguish.

It was 8:00 a.m. when authorities surrounded the area of Vietnam Mennonite Church in Binh Khanh ward of District 2 in Ho Chi Minh City. They sent an estimated 70 workers with sledge hammers and electric saws to tear down a four-meter addition to the main center, charging that it had been built without a permit -- a technicality rarely required in Vietnam. The swarm of workers went on to destroy an additional 4.8-meter (16 feet) portion, including the church meeting hall and the apartment of the Quang family above it. They left at 12:40 p.m. leaving a pile of cement, rebar and wood.

The meeting hall and apartment section had never been contested, but a District 2 official had ordered the hired workers to tear down parts of the center beyond the four-meter addition.

Quang appealed to the workers not to destroy the church. One said to her, “Please sympathize with us, we are only hired hands and are only doing this because we need to put food on our tables. We don’t want to destroy the church, and we’ll be very careful not to destroy any of the church’s moveable property.”

The Mennonites purchased and first built on the land in 1995. The church expanded its building to accommodate growth in 1999. In July 2002, the fellowship added the four-meter section to the rear of the building, including a baptismal tank. Local officials who have brought repressive actions against the Mennonite church 77 times during the past year charged some building irregularities. The Mennonites stated their case in a petition, but the government never answered.

Later, officials tried using a new zoning bylaw retroactively against the church. They further charged that the new portion of the center was too close to a drainage ditch and ordered it dismantled. They informed Quang last month that if she did not dismantle the section by the end of June, they would do so in July. They showed up in force to keep their promise.

Notified of the event afterwards, a stream of Christian visitors came to comfort Quang. Some helped her clear some of the debri. A U.S. diplomat came to investigate and offered assurances to her. Today (July 20) a delegation of the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship led by the Rev. Pham Dinh Nhan went to visit and comfort Quang and her children.

With three young children, Mrs. Quang, 31, was elected president of the Vietnam Mennonite Church in June. Her husband, serving a three-year sentence for allegedly “resisting an officer doing his duty,” was recently moved to a prison in distant Dak Lak province requiring two days and nights for a visit. Quang reports that her husband is in failing health, suffering under gruelling forced labor.

Rev. Quang has a history of high blood pressure and gastrointestinal problems. He has passed out several times while at work, unable to get enough nourishment and rest during a 30-minute break at midday.

The relentless pressure on the Vietnam Mennonite Church, a house-church organization, continues unabated despite supposedly liberalized legislation on religion. Quang has written two appeals to Prime Minister Phan Van Khai asking how the Mennonite Church might become legal; she has received no answer. Police regularly raid small, quiet prayer and Bible study sessions at the Mennonite center and forcibly escort participants to the police station for hours of interrogation.

In testimony submitted to the House Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Vietnam on June 20, Mennonite missionary Truong Tri Hien, who fled Vietnam last year, documented how local officials have consistently abused administrative powers to harass the Mennonite church. He told Compass, “This razing of the Mennonite center is another clear example of this administrative abuse.”

House church leaders in Vietnam informed Compass that they remain “highly skeptical” of Vietnam’s supposedly liberalized religion laws inviting unofficial churches to register. Since the announcing the Ordinance on Religion in November 2004, no churches have accepted the invitation to register. Among the signals they are waiting for is a cessation of repressive actions such as those taken against the Mennonite church.

They also question whether the U.S.-Vietnam agreement in May on improving religious freedom will produce any benefits for Vietnam’s large and growing house church movement.