Vietnamese Protestants try to normalize relations with state

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21 February 2000 (Newsroom) — Vietnamese Communist authorities are negotiating with Protestant church leaders to normalize relations, reports the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF). If successful, the talks could pave the way for recognition of house churches that existed before the Communists took control in 1975, according to some Protestant leaders.

However, WEF also says that it has received new reports of the persecution of unregistered Protestant believers, substantiated by government documents.

Pastors of the southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) have been meeting with government officials, including Nguyen Chinh, the deputy director of the Bureau of Religious Affairs (BRA), to allow ECVN leaders to hold a full national assembly. WEF says that some church leaders are optimistic that an assembly could be held this year. Many Protestant leaders in Vietnam, however, are “highly doubtful” about the success of the talks, WEF said, and are upset that the BRA insists on publicizing the list of leaders who can participate. The current negotiations exclude house church denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptists.

Nevertheless, there are signs of hope. Until now, authorities did not want an official reorganization of the ECVN to include ethnic minority Christians, who comprise 75 percent of ECVN members. However, permission to include two minority pastors on the steering committee list “indicates a major shift on the part of the authorities,” WEF said.

WEF says that a three-step plan apparently has been approved to normalize government relations with Protestants. The first step, which could happen as early as March, calls for a meeting of some 25 selected ECVN leaders as a steering committee to map out future steps. If that step goes well, authorities may then allow some 65 ECVN leaders to write a new constitution for the church. WEF says that “in the unlikely event that goes smoothly,” authorities could permit a full national assembly of the ECVN.

Meanwhile, WEF’s Southeast Asia correspondent reports that he recently has collected 74 pages of official documents that contain information about the persecution of Vietnamese minority Christians, including the Hmong, Ede, Jerai, Hroi, Hre, Steing, and Mnong peoples. “There are countless stories of intimidation, beatings, fines, forced labor, confiscation of property, and discrimination based on religion,” he said.

One report recounts the brutal beating of three evangelists in the house church movement after their arrests on December 22. Tran Ngoc An, Nguyen Khanh Tung, and Tran Van Chinh were arrested when a war widow who had converted to Christianity requested that they remove from her home an altar to her deceased husband. The evangelists were charged with destroying an altar of a martyr of the revolution.

Tran Ngoc An passed out after being hung by his feet and beaten during interrogation, WEF said. Fearful that he would die, police called An’s family to retrieve him, and he was released on December 31. The other two evangelists also were beaten during interrogation and are being held for up to four months for investigation before being tried.

An, who is a former captain and war hero in the North Vietnamese Army, has become an evangelist in the province of Bac Lieu where many retired officers and government officials have been settled. He is part of a house church movement in the province that has grown from two groups to 102 within two years.

WEF also reported that house church leader Nguyen thi Thuy has filed the first known legal appeal for the sentencing of a Protestant prisoner of conscience. Mrs. Thuy was sentenced to 12 months in prison on December 27 for “obstructing an officer of the law doing his duty.” WEF’s correspondent says that it is unusual for such a prisoner to find legal representation. “Most lawyers in Vietnam’s fledgling jurisprudence system would have nothing to do with the case when they found it involved religion,” he said.

According to the trial record, which WEF has obtained, police came to Thuy’s house because neighbors complained that the Christian group meeting there were singing too loudly. The court record concludes that Thuy is guilty of obstructing the officers who came to investigate and deserves a serious sentence so that she may be “reformed in her thinking” and become a useful citizen.

Allowed minimal contact with her family after the trial, she said only: “I am the victim of a great injustice. There was no truth in the courtroom today.” Thuy and her husband Thang, a factory worker, have a 21-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son.

Copyright © 2000 Newsroom.
Used with permission.

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