Vietnamese Evangelists Severely Beaten in Police Custody

Monday, March 8, 2004

Ho Chi Minh City authorities continue to harass house church leaders.

Special to Compass Direct

HO CHI MINH CITY, March 8 (Compass) -- Law enforcement authorities in Vietnam are subjecting house church leaders who confront injustice to relentless harassment, according to sources in Ho Chi Minh City. The renewed pressure is thought to be retaliation for recent incidents where police have had to retreat from persecuting Christians because of effective local and international advocacy.

The latest incident began on the afternoon of March 2 at the Ho Chi Minh City home of Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, vice president and general secretary of the Mennonite Church, when Quang and evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach discovered two undercover security police spying on them from a stakeout about 200 feet from the Quang residence. The same pair of security police had recently accosted Rev. Nguyen Cong Chinh when he arrived at the Ho Chi Minh City bus station from Kontum province with three minority Christians seeking legal aid.

Quang and Thach took down the license number of the police motorbike and reported the presence of undercover agents to the head of their city ward. When Thach and a teacher named Mr. Hien went to take a picture of the motorbike for evidence, the policemen attacked them and a scuffle ensued. The two undercover agents fled so rapidly on their motorbike that it skidded and fell. When Thach and a co-worker, Ms. Lien, approached to see if the officers were hurt, the policemen struck both in the face.

About 30 minutes later, several dozen officers from Special Unit 113, the district police, undercover police and local defense forces arrived at the scene, along with the two officers involved in the scuffle. Armed with guns and electric cattle prods, they surrounded the Quang home and ordered the 12 Christian workers gathered there -- including Pastor Chinh who had just returned from Kontum -- to remain inside the house.

According to witnesses, police then tried to incite neighbors to attack the Christians. They also produced an unidentified woman to sign a bogus complaint against the Christians for “disturbing public order.”

Police officers then seized a church elder named Nghia and took him to the ward police station.

Later that night, three young evangelists, Pham Ngoc Thach, Nguyen Van Phuong and Nguyen Thanh Nhan, went to inquire about Elder Nghia. Authorities took the trio into custody.

Christians later learned that police beat Thach until he passed out. Afterward, several officers took turns kicking him in the chest, stomach and groin. They also beat Nhan into unconsciousness, attempting to justify their mistreatment of the young evangelists by charging them -- after the fact -- with “resisting an officer.”

According to reports, the three young men are still being held at the police station. It is believed they will not be released at least until their visible wounds, suffered in police beatings, have healed.

Sources say authorities had threatened the leaders of the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship with harsh treatment during a meeting on December 12, 2003.

“Any one of you who tries to arrest or identify one of our officers who is oppressing Christians will suffer heavy and swift punishment,” police allegedly announced.

In mid January, authorities in the Central Highlands province of Kontum destroyed a Mennonite chapel and three weeks later tried to prevent a Mennonite pastor from Canada from visiting Christians in the area. Kontum officials have accused Chinh, a leading Mennonite pastor in the province, of being an “anti-government activist.”

According to a church elder, on February 27 about 50 police officers and other officials raided the home of a Bahnar church leader, Brother Athe, while he was working in his fields. The intruders left rooms used for Christian worship in shambles.

Since the communist takeover of Vietnam in 1975, many American Mennonites who opposed the Vietnam War have avoided criticizing the government’s abysmal human rights record. However, sources have told Compass that some Mennonites outside the country are now considering raising the persecution issue with governments abroad.

For their part, Vietnam’s house church Christians are tired of the constant harassment and are eager to appeal to defenders of human rights in the world community to help achieve freedom to believe and practice their faith, despite the consequences.

For example, Rev. Pham Dinh Nhan, chairman of the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship, granted an interview late last year to Susan Yu of the Hong Kong-based Star TV, and spoke candidly on camera about religious liberty abuses routinely suffered by Vietnam’s minority Christians and house churches. The program was televised throughout Asia -- including Vietnam -- on January 18.

Since then, the Nhan Dan (People’s Daily) newspaper and Radio Hanoi have published blistering denials of all aspects of Nhan’s report, along with vicious attacks on journalist Yu.

However, authorities have yet to challenge Pastor Nhan on the interview. In fact, Nhan is considering going to communist officials himself to talk about the broadcast.

“If they would agree to use the text of the broadcast as the discussion topic, it would be they who would be embarrassed -- not me,” he said.