Vietnam closes 350-plus churches; provincial leaders jailed or missing

HO CHI MINH CITY (BP)--Information has been pouring out of Vietnam about a recent wave of government repression against Montagnard evangelicals in Vietnam's Central Highlands, Compass Direct news service reported Nov. 13.

Documents acquired in October by religious and human rights workers in this Southeast Asian country and correspondence received in recent days confirm that by the end of September, 354 of 412 churches had been forcibly disbanded in Dak Lak province alone. By mid-October, about 50 Christian pastors and elders in the province had been arrested or had "disappeared."

It is expected that the remaining 58 churches in the province will soon be closed.

Montagnard churches -- "Montagnard" means "mountain people" and is a collective name for Vietnam's many minority tribal groups inhabiting the Central Highlands -- were historically part of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South). Last year, 26 years after the country was reunified under communism, the ECVN(S) was granted legal recognition. However, only a handful of the many hundreds of Montagnard churches were allowed to identify with the ECVN(S).

On Nov. 7, meanwhile, Freedom House released news of ongoing persecution of Hmong Christians in Vietnam's northwest provinces, including the story and photo of a 36-year-old Hmong Christian man who died from beatings by police and officials because he was a believer. Also, Vietnam's normally cautious Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops recently released a letter decrying the persecution of Catholic Montagnards.

Reports from the affected churches reveal a pattern, Compass Direct observed. Beginning in late summer, leaders of the predominantly Ede minority churches were summoned by local authorities, told their churches were illegal and ordered to disband their church organizations. Many were threatened with dire consequences if they did not comply.

In addition, church leaders were specifically prohibited from any further religious activity outside their own homes with their own families, the Compass Direct account continued. All communal activities of the churches -- worship, teaching, prayer for the sick, observing holy days, administering sacraments, performing baptisms, weddings and funerals -- were forbidden. Leaders were forced to sign statements of compliance.

Government authorities had reluctantly tolerated the existence of Montagnard churches for nearly 20 years, although there were frequent problems and many restrictions. In February 2001, however, several thousand Montagnards surprised local authorities by demonstrating against the illegal loss of their lands to ethnic Vietnamese settlers and against the lack of religious freedom.

Waves of heavy-handed crackdowns followed, along with brutal campaigns to force Christians to sign documents agreeing to give up their faith, Compass Direct reported. Many fled into the forest or to Cambodia.

However, this latest move against churches in Dak Lak is the most severe persecution since 1975, when churches were closed and church leaders put in re-education camps for years, the news service noted.

The ECVN(S), which has usually been very cautious about speaking out against abuses, went public this time. The ECVN(S) president, Duong Thanh, has written a frank and detailed letter to Vietnam's prime minister and to other relevant government agencies. According to Compass Direct, the letter describes the persecution and points out how government actions are contrary to the constitution and to specific promises made by Vietnam's Religious Affairs Bureau.

The constitutional provision for religious freedom and the promises of the bureau are quoted in the letter, along with a warning that it will be impossible to contain this news in Vietnam. The letter concludes by asking the prime minister and relevant government bodies for immediate redress.

Earlier complaints addressed to local authorities by the legally recognized provincial committee of the ECVN(S) resulted in increased pressure and persecution, Compass Direct reported. Authorities seized church leaders at will and took them to unknown destinations. They confiscated church furniture, Christian books, Bibles and musical instruments, and then sealed off or took over the simple chapels where Christians met. Officials have entered chapels while Christians were worshiping and harangued Christians to give up their faith.

Local Dak Lak television is reported by many to have broadcast "Ceremonies of Voluntarily Renouncing Christianity" and has shown pictures of Christians "voluntarily" giving their Bibles and songbooks to be burned.

"All the Christians I met greeted me with tears, asked me to pray with them and then hurried me on my way lest something untoward happen to me," said a recent visitor to the area. "Even some sympathetic government officials received me with tears, recognizing the overwhelming sadness of what is happening."

He added, "Many of the churches in Vietnam are praying night and day for this 'national tragedy.' Please pass this sad news to churches overseas as well so that they may participate in earnest prayer, beseeching the Lord to deliver us from this distress. There are many other heart-rending stories which I cannot tell you now."

The United States Commission on International Religion Freedom in September recommended that the U.S. State Department name Vietnam as a "country of particular concern" -- the worst category for abusers of religious freedom. Yet even seasoned observers of the religious liberty abuses in communist Vietnam are surprised at the ferocity in the latest persecution of Christians.

"Besides visiting gratuitous suffering on innocent people, Vietnam is badly hurting itself in the eyes of the international community," said one longtime observer.


Copyright 2002 Compass Direct. Used by permission.

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