By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
HANOI, VIETNAM (BosNewsLife)– More than 60 Christian pastors and church leaders remained locked in “deplorable conditions” in four prison camps around Vietnam Monday, October 14, just days after religious leaders accused authorities of “attempting to destroy religions” in the Communist-run nation, activists and Christians told BosNewsLife.
Nearly all of the 63 known prisoners on a list are members of ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, according to investigators.
“Due to their status as a member of an ethnic minority and their adherence to a faith still seen as an American import, these Christians face a level of discrimination and oppression far higher than most Vietnamese,” said International Christian Concern (ICC) a major advocacy group.
“Living far from major urban areas and the reach of most international news agencies, they also have little hope of assistance,” added ICC which has been active in the area.
Some of those imprisoned are likely the result of protests in 2004 during which Vietnamese authorities violently cracked down on the Christian community, ICC said.
Local Christians say that minority Christians suffer “unreasonable restrictions” as part of a government efforts to contain the spreading evangelical Protestant movement.
Even official churches in some parts of the country are facing persecution, Christians claim.
In Binh Phuoc province, local authorities are reportedly insisting on the dismantling of 116 chapels of the Stieng minority group belonging to the legally-registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South).
House groups and other unregistered churches already face regular harassment, including raids, according to Christians with close knowledge about the situation.
The harassment of imprisoned pastors and church leaders extends even to their families, reported Radio Free Asia. It said the wife and five children of imprisoned pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh had been arbitrarily locked up in their own
home, with police sealing the gates of the house with wire and setting up a checkpoint outside.
Chinh’s wife, Tran Thi Hong, said she was unable to even take one of her children to see a doctor.
She believes the authorities may be trying to prevent her from visiting Pastor Chinh, who is serving an 11-year sentence.
The latest developments come after leaders from Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao Buddhist and Cao Dai religious groups accused the government in a daring statement of attempting destroy religions, “using both force and administrative measures”.
They accuse the Vietnamese regime of having “threatened, harassed, assaulted, detained, or placed under restricted movement status many adherents, clergy members, and members of religious orders who tried to conduct legitimate religious activities.”
The leaders said that introduced religious legislation has been used “not to protect religious freedom but to control all religious life” and “to use religions and their organisations for propaganda purposes.”
It is also meant to “stifle criticism of the government by religious organisations, and to prevent these organisations from contributing to civil society,” they added.
Religious leaders suggest that large-scale celebrations, which also included visits by American evangelist Luis Palau, and places of worship “are not necessarily indicators of genuine religious freedom” which can only exist “when a government
truly acknowledges the fundamental rights of religious organisations”.
The authors call for the release all prisoners of conscience, operational independence and freedom from government interference for religious organisations, and the return of “tangible property and other assets.”
Mervyn Thomas, the chief executive of advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) told BosNewsLife in a statement that he welcomes “efforts of different religious groups” to protest against a perceived crackdown on freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam.
He said his group has urged Vietnam’s government “to thoroughly and impartially investigate the issues raised by these religious organisations” and “to revise regulations and directives” which restrict religious activities.
Yet ICC said there was is still hope that the “generally awful state of human rights, and the right to religious freedom along with it, will improve in the years to come.”
It noted that on August 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2013, stipulating that any non-humanitarian aid provided to Vietnam must be withheld until “certain human rights conditions” were met.
“If the bill were to pass the Senate and come into effect, the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in financial assistance, as well as the damage to Vietnam’s international reputation, may be just what it takes to finally move the nation’s authoritarian leaders towards a much greater respect for personal freedoms,” ICC said.
“In the meantime, we can only continue to pray for the strength and the fortitude of the dozens of Christian pastors and church leaders locked up in Vietnam on behalf of their faith in Christ,” the group added.
Vietnam’s government has denied human rights abuses and has in the past denied reports of a crackdown on Christian minorities in the Central Highlands.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
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