VIETNAM: ATTACK ON CATHOLIC CHAPEL SHOWS AUTHORITIES’ FEAR OF RELIGION


On same day, Mennonite denomination receives legal recognition; pastors wary.

LOS ANGELES, November 20 (Compass Direct News) – At a chapel on the remaining patch of Thai Ha Redemptorist property in Hanoi that the Vietnamese government had yet to confiscate, at 10 p.m. on Saturday night (Nov. 15) an official came to summon the priests to an “urgent meeting.” According to Vietcatholic.net website and other church sources, it proved to be a ruse to draw them away from the property while government-inspired gangs attacked St. Gerardo Chapel.

As the gangs ravaged the chapel, Father Joseph Dinh told Independent Catholic News, some people at the church began ringing the church bells to signal for help while others sent urgent e-mail and text messages asking Catholics to defend it.

Hundreds of police with stun guns tried to keep the arriving faithful from entering the chapel to stop the destruction. The hundreds of Catholics who arrived eventually overwhelmed officers, going past police to scare off the attackers. Witnesses reportedly said that government, police and security officials had stood by doing nothing to protect the chapel.

They also said that fleeing gang members shouted obscenities threatening to kill the priests and the faithful, as well as the archbishop.

“It is significant that the government attack against the monastery came on the eve of the celebration of the Feast of Vietnamese Martyrs,” a local priest told Vietcatholic.net. “This attack reminds people that since the outset, the seed of faith in Vietnam’s soil was mixed with the abundant blood of Catholic martyrs from all walks of life – from courageous missionaries to local clergy and the Christian faithful.”

The priest concluded by decrying the deterioration of conditions for Vietnamese Catholics.

A government spokesman later denied that the Vietnamese forces or authorities were involved in the attack.

As the government had achieved its objective of taking over the contested land, the well-coordinated attack came as a surprise to many. In September, Vietnam had resorted to force to answer months of growing but peaceful prayer vigils over long-confiscated Catholic properties in Hanoi, reneging on a promise to negotiate a settlement. Unilaterally, the government quickly turned the papal nunciature and the rest of the Thai Ha Redemptorist property into public parks.

The solidarity demonstrated by Catholics throughout the country appeared to have alarmed authorities. They reverted to classic attacks of disinformation and slander against Catholic leaders, and even after they had halted the prayer vigils, taken the contested land and allowed previous gangs to ransack the Redemptorist chapel, authorities demanded the removal of the archbishop of Hanoi, Ngo Quang Kiet, whom they accused of inciting riots against the state.

A Protestant pastor in Hanoi said the government’s recent conflict with Catholics has had a ripple affect on other churches and religions.

“Though it is the Catholics who are being most lambasted in the state media, Protestants are also maligned along with Catholics by government propaganda,” he said. “Secondly, all religious leaders are again subject to closer surveillance.”

 

Mennonite Church Recognized

Ironically, only a few hours earlier on the same day the chapel was attacked, the Vietnam Mennonite Church was allowed to hold its organizing general assembly in Ho Chi Minh City, becoming the fifth smaller church body to receive full legal recognition in 2008.

While registration can mark an improvement in the way the government treats a church, it is not to be confused with full religious freedom, church leaders said, as it is sometimes used as a means of control. The dubious benefits of registration have led many Protestant groups to simply quit seeking it.

Other Protestant groups to receive legal recognition in 2008 were the Grace Baptist Church, the Vietnam Presbyterian Church, the Vietnam Baptist Church, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. This brought the total number of fully recognized Protestant denominations to eight. Two of the eight bodies, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), received legal recognition before the new religion legislation initiated in late 2004.

None of the 24 house church organizations of the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF), however, has received even the lower-level “national registration to carry out religious activity.” Only one in seven of its congregations even have permission to operate locally.

Of the total 2,148 VEF congregations, 1,498 have applied for local permission to carry out religious activity, but only 334 have received it. Another house church organization has had 80 congregations apply for local permission to operate and has received only refusals or no answer at all. Other groups report a similar experience.

A hint of the government’s attitude toward registered churches, pastors said, was evident in its official news release on the Vietnam Mennonite Church general assembly. The Vietnam News Agency release of Nov. 15 enjoining the church to “serve both God and the nation” and to “unite with other people in the course of national reconstruction” struck some church leaders as an expectation that their congregations will serve political ends.

Christian leaders detected government fear of churches’ international connections in the official claim that, “For more than three decades, the Vietnam Mennonite Church has operated independently from foreign Mennonite churches.”

As is customary, the ceremony included an address by a representative of the Bureau of Religious Affairs. Nguyen Thanh Xuan said he expects the Mennonite Church “to bring into full play good characteristics of Protestantism, uphold the tradition of charity, and join hands with other religious and non-religious people to build a country of stability and prosperity.”

The heavy-handed treatment of Catholics over the disputed property and the offering of legal registration to more Protestant groups does not present the contrast it may first appear, said one long-time observer.

“Catholics outnumber Protestants about five to one and are a much more formidable and unified organization than Vietnam’s fractured Protestants,” he said. “Alarmed at the largest countrywide Catholic solidarity ever demonstrated, nonplussed security authorities ordered a classic, harsh crackdown and incited ‘punishment’ disguised as citizens’ outrage.”

Protestants, he said, are less numerous, more divided and rarely capable of joint action, so they do not pose a serious threat.

“For example, the oft-repeated requests and ultimatums by the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) on their 265 confiscated properties are simply ignored,” he said. “And don’t forget that the majority of Protestants are ethnic minorities in remote areas who remain closely watched by the government.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

ERITREA: CHRISTIANS LANGUISH IN ERITREAN PRISONS


Evangelist fears he will die in confinement.

LOS ANGELES, September 24 (Compass Direct News) – An evangelist imprisoned since 2006 for his Christian activities is receiving especially harsh treatment because of his ministry to inmates.

Sources said Teame Weldegebriel is on the brink of despair as he languishes at the Mai Sirwa Maximum Security Confinement prison.

“It seems that hell has broken loose on me,” Weldegebriel told Compass sources. “Please tell the brethren to continue praying for me. I am not sure I will see them again.”

Prison authorities consider Weldegebriel dangerous because of his boldness in sharing his faith. The Rhema Church evangelist has been proclaiming Christ to other prisoners, and many have converted to Christianity.

“This has made him to be in bad books with the prison wardens,” one source said.

Weldegebriel’s family is worried about his health after trying repeatedly, without success, to get permission to visit him.

Inmates at the prison often go hungry and are said to be feeding on leaves.

In Eritrea, a nation with a government of Marxist roots where about half of the people are Muslim, two or more people gathered in Jesus’ name can be imprisoned for not practicing their faith in one of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim bodies.

More than 2,000 Christians in Eritrea are imprisoned for their faith, including a Christian from a Full Gospel Church who was arrested in 2001. His wife last saw him in June 2007. She and her two minor children were rounded up from a prayer meeting in mid-July and placed in a metal shipping container until their release last month, she said.

“I was arrested with my children while having a prayer meeting with 20 other Christians,” said the woman, who requested anonymity for security reasons. “They locked us up at a military concentration camp, inside metal ship containers. I remember the horrible ordeal I went through with the children. After three weeks I was released with my two children, while the other Christian soldiers remained locked in the prison cells.”

The government views leaders of large unregistered bodies like the Full Gospel Church and Rhema Church as threats, according to Christian sources in the country. Eritrean officials fear the church leaders will expose the abuses and conditions in the prisons. Hence it is extremely difficult for relatives to see those in prison, and inmates are not allowed to send or receive letters.

“The government has been transferring them from one prison cell after another,” said one Christian source in Asmara.

In May 2002 the government criminalized all independent churches not operating under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholic, and Muslim religious structures.

 

Arrested for Talking

In the seaport city of Massawa, police in June arrested a man and a woman, both Christians, who were talking to Muslims about Christ. Members of Kale Hiwot Church, the two were discussing their Christian faith when four plainclothes policemen arrested them.

“It took about 30 minutes talking about Jesus before they were both arrested by the police – they had witnessed about Jesus and the faith for a long time to some Muslims,” another source told Compass. “I watched the two Christians whisked away by the police. They were taken to join more than 100 Christians imprisoned in Waire prison about 25 kilometers [16 miles] from Massawa.”

A previously imprisoned evangelist with the Full Gospel Church in Asmara who requested anonymity told Compass that God is at work in Eritrea, with many people converting to Christ and receiving divine healing.

“For sure Christians are getting imprisoned, but God’s word cannot be imprisoned,” he said. “I am ready for any eventuality, including being imprisoned again. On several occasions, prison wardens warned me to stop preaching, though they still loved me. Indeed Jesus loved me. They saw God in me.”

The U.S. Department of State notes in its 2008 International Religious Freedom Report that Eritrea has not implemented its 1997 constitution, which provides for religious freedom. The state department has designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern, a list of the worst violators of religious freedom, since 2004.

Many of the more than 2,000 Christians under arrest in police stations, military camps and jails across Eritrea because of their religious beliefs have been incarcerated for years. No one has been charged officially or given access to judicial processes.

Reliable statistics are not available, but the state department estimates that 50 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, 30 percent is Orthodox Christian, and 13 percent is Roman Catholic. Protestants and Seventh-day Adventists along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is make up less than 5 percent of the population.

Report from Compass Direct News