Vietnam’s Two Faces
By Jeremy Reynalds, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service (firstname.lastname@example.org)
VIETNAM (ANS. MAY 9) Vietnam celebrates 40 years since the end of what is commonly known elsewhere as the “Vietnam War,” while its government faces accusations of failing to ensure the rights of its citizens to religious freedom.
“In Vietnam, we still have a government that shows two faces – the friendly and welcoming face on one side and the oppressive face on the other.”
These words, according to a story by Steve Dew-Jones for the World Watch Monitor (WWM) and attributed by Open Doors to a Vietnamese Christian whose name was withheld, provide an insight into a country which, on the one hand, is reportedly close to making positive reforms to its laws on religious practice.
On the other hand, it is accused by the UN of “gross violation” of religious freedom “in the face of constant surveillance, intimidation, harassment and persecution.”
Where Vietnam is concerned, religious freedom is rarely black and white.
Consider the “cautious optimism” of Nigel Cory, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who suggests “the space for religious freedom (in Vietnam) seems to be growing”.
Cory says the appointment by Pope Francis of a Vietnamese archbishop, Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon, as a new cardinal was a “boon to the Catholic community in Vietnam.”
WWM says he also references the formal “restarting” of 115 new Catholic and Protestant churches in 2013, up from 20 in 2012 and five in 2011, and Vietnam’s approval in 2014 of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, seems to agree in part, when, in his January report, he acknowledges “positive development.” However, WWM comments, his other comments are less complimentary.
Of his visit to the country in July 2014, Bielefeldt says “some individuals whom I wanted to meet with had been either under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, harassed or prevented from traveling by the police. Even those who successfully met with me were not free from a certain degree of police surveillance or questioning.
“Moreover, I was closely monitored … by undeclared ‘security or police agents’, while the privacy and confidentiality of some meetings could have been compromised. All these incidents are in clear violation of the terms of reference of any country visit.”
Or take Open Doors’ analyst Thomas Müller’s assessment, “Though it is not clear why the government steps up its actions against the Christian minority right now, the spike in attacks is remarkable – attacks across all types of Christianity.”
WWM says these hardly sound like reasons for optimism.
Müller references the “more than 70 Montagnard Christians from the Central Highlands” who “fled to Cambodia” only for “most of them to be sent back to Vietnam … and handed over to the authorities.”
Surveillance, raids, beatings, and arrests
Open Doors reported the surveillance and subsequent arrest, in March 2015, of two leaders of a “house church” (a gathering of Christians at a private home) in Vietnam’s Yen Bai province in the northeast.
Also in March, Open Doors reported a raid on a different house church, during which the 80 Christians were “ordered to stop their worship service.”
That while the owner of the house was taken to the police station and forced to sign a document making it illegal for him to conduct church activities at his home.
“The Christians are not allowed to meet anywhere residential,” one Vietnamese Christian, quoted under the pseudonym of Lee, explained. “The village chief also summoned the pastor and warned him that he cannot start a church in that village. The pastor is now anxious and does not know how to proceed.”
WWM said Open Doors also reported a brutal February attack by police on Christians in the northern Dien Bien Province.
“The authorities beat up the Christians, targeting their internal organs,” said a Christian quoted under the pseudonym of Duonh. “One believer was so severely beaten that her face was bloodied and she almost became deaf.”
Scared, the Christians fled the village.
“The village government threatened to beat them again if they return,” WWM said Duonh explained.
So what to make of Fides’s report that Vietnam’s government is “considering the possibility of reforming the law regulating religious communities in the country” for a “more open approach” which would “reduce restrictions which are currently in force”?
“Several changes” were promised by Vietnam’s Government Committee for Religious Affairs at a meeting with religious scholars and officials on April 15.
“According to some forecasts,” WWM said Fides noted, “the new law, considered a significant step of reform, could be completed in May and … enacted in (the) autumn.”
This would be earlier than the time frame predicted in Bielefeldt’s 2014 report (and repeated in his report of this year), in which the Vietnamese government claimed to be drafting a Law on Belief and Religion “expected to be adopted in 2016.”
In its comments in the 2014 report, WWM said the Vietnamese government said that it “deeply regrets that the contents of the draft report are seriously unbalanced and discriminatory.” There was no comment from the Vietnamese government in the 2015 report.
WWM said whenever the new version of the law does surface, and whatever the finished version looks like, there will be a range of interpretations, while consequences may not be immediately apparent.
Vietnam is No. 16 on Open Doors’ 2015 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which life as a Christian is most difficult.
For more information visit www.worldwatchmonitor.org
About the writer: Jeremy Reynalds is Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, a freelance writer and also the founder and CEO of Joy Junction, New Mexico’s largest emergency homeless shelter, http://www.joyjunction.org. He has a master’s degree in communication from the University of New Mexico, and a Ph.D. in intercultural education from Biola University in Los Angeles. His newest book is “From Destitute to Ph.D.” Additional details on “From Destitute to Ph.D.” are available at http://www.myhomelessjourney.com. Reynalds lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife, Elma.
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