Vietnam: Pastor Visits Jailed Christian Lawyers

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Controversial Rev. Quang baptizes attorney charged with ‘threatening national security.’

HO CHI MINH CITY (Compass Direct News) -- Imprisoned Christian lawyers Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, their sentences reduced by one year due to international pressure, received a rarely granted visit from non-family members when four pastors managed to see them on January 31.

Leading the visit was Nguyen Van Quang, a controversial former prisoner-of-conscience himself who pastors a Ho Chi Minh City church to which the government has denied registration. He and three ethnic minority Montagnard pastors were allowed a Lunar New Year visit with lawyers Dai and Nhan at the Nam Ha prison in Nam Dinh, south of Hanoi.

The case of the two lawyers, charged last year with “threatening national security,” is of high interest to international watchdog groups. In an appeal to Vietnam’s Supreme Court in November 2007, their convictions for “propagandizing against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” were upheld but international exposure was said to contribute to the decision to reduce their sentences by one year.

After a trial of only four hours on May 11, 2007, the 38-year-old Dai was originally sentenced to five years in prison and four years of probationary detention (house arrest). Nhan, 28, received a four-year prison term and three years of probationary detention. The two lawyers deny any wrongdoing.

State media accused Dai of compiling “evidence of Vietnam’s suppression of the Protestant religion.”

According to Rev. Quang, authorities initially objected to his request, saying that visits were for family members only. Rev. Quang argued that foreigners had been allowed a visit, referring to an unprecedented United States Commission for International Religious Freedom visit in October 2007. He also said that if denied he would consider joining the politically sensitive prayer vigils in Hanoi, where since mid-December hundreds of Catholics have been advocating the return of the papal delegate’s land and residence confiscated in 1954.

Surprisingly, Rev. Quang and the three other pastors were granted permission to visit the Christian lawyers. Rev. Quang reported that during the unprecedented visit they “ordained” Dai and baptized Nhan. She had studied doctrine in preparation for her baptism but her arrest denied her the opportunity.

“She is an amazing, strong and courageous woman,” Rev. Quang told an associate. “Her open witness in prison has earned her the opposition of some fellow prisoners.”

Rev. Quang, who has had considerable prison experience himself, said he advised her on how to deal with prison gang opposition. He served 15 months of a three-year sentence for “interfering” with police officers raiding his church before he was released in August 2005.

Rev. Quang said he did not ordain Dai as a Mennonite pastor but rather as a “minister of Christ.” One church leader in Vietnam told Compass that the occasion might have been more credibly presented “as a prayer to commission lawyer Dai for his witness in prison.”

Kinder, Gentler Quang

Many observers following Protestant developments in Vietnam expressed some surprise that Rev. Quang and colleagues were allowed the visit. Those who know him said that he has recovered from the severe depression and paranoia he suffered as a result of his imprisonment.

Rev. Quang has apparently softened his confrontational advocacy style, they said, and he has reconciled with some other house church leaders who had distanced themselves from him.

Yet he remains on the government watch list. Last week authorities sent word to a visiting former Mennonite missionary warning him not to contact Rev. Quang “to avoid misunderstanding” and “complications.”

The fact that the visit happened is seen as an indication that Vietnam is growing more sensitive to criticism of curtailing religious freedom. Regarding the confiscated land in Hanoi, Vietnam seems to be restraining its security forces in the biggest Catholic-Vietnam government confrontation in years, which both sides are now trying to contain.

Dai, however, remains a controversial figure in Vietnam Protestant circles. To the deep disappointment of many, the leaders of the Hanoi congregation where he came to faith and held membership took the side of the government and have effectively “excommunicated” him. But many evangelicals abroad and in Vietnam, especially those of the house churches, consider Dai and Nhan to be heroes in their fight for fundamental rights and freedoms.

Slow Progress

Religious freedom in Vietnam progresses slowly. While Vietnam was removed from the U.S. list of the world’s worst religious liberty offenders in November 2006, the United States and others have continued to criticize Vietnam for its tardiness in implementing more liberal religion regulation.

Since then, Vietnam has moved to grant various levels of registration to several Protestant groups. At the same time, it has sent a steady stream of news releases aimed at changing perception of religious repression.

The latest group to be recognized was the Grace Baptist Church organization. It completed the requirements for full legal recognition in January and now awaits a final government decision. With 11 congregations, the group is the smallest of three Baptist organizations that claim a relationship with the Southern Baptist denomination in the United States.

Some house church leaders in Vietnam expressed surprise and regret that U.S. Southern Baptist International Mission Board head Jerry Rankin’s praise at a Grace Baptist celebration service last month included the words, “They have led Vietnam to take a place of leadership in the economy and trade and human rights of the global community.”

One leader said that the statement attributing world leadership in human rights to Vietnam “was simply wrong, unhelpful and unnecessary.”

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