Authorities Move to Stop Protestant Christmas Events


Apparent central government crackdown puts halt to Yuletide celebrations in five areas.

HANOI, Vietnam, December 20 (CDN) — In what appeared to be part of a central government crackdown on Protestant Christianity in Vietnam, hundreds of Christians from 10 northern provinces were locked out of a Christmas celebration that was supposed to take place here yesterday.

The throngs who arrived at the National Convention Center (NCC) in the Tu Kiem district of Hanoi for the Christmas event found the doors locked and a phalanx of police trying to send them away, sources said. Deeply disappointed, some of the Christians began singing and praying in the square in front to the center, they said.

Police moved in, striking some Christians with fists and night sticks in the melee that followed. A number of video clips of the action were posted online by Monday morning (Dec. 20), Hanoi time. Christian leaders worked to calm the disappointed crowd, which eventually left, but not before at least six people – including the Rev. Nguyen Huu Bao, the scheduled speaker at the event – were arrested. They had not been released at press time.

Similar incidents occurred on Christmas Sunday (Dec. 19) in at least four other places throughout the country.

Unregistered house churches under the umbrella of the Hanoi Christian Fellowship rented the auditorium in the name of one of their members. A copy of the six-page contract obtained by Compass says the event was to be a reunion of Vietnamese who had worked in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Many of northern Vietnam’s house church leaders became Christians during their time there.

While it was understood that this was to be a Christmas event, the managers of the state-owned facility did not want to put this in writing. Organizers had hoped that some 4,000 people would come.

The contract called for at least five days’ written notice before the event if either side wanted to terminate the contract. According to one source, the NCC informed event organizers on Dec. 15, four days before the event, that the contract was voided but gave no reasons as the contract required. The organizers, having completed major preparations and distributed several thousand invitations, considered this a breach of contract and decided to try to go ahead.

When the first Christians arrived Sunday afternoon, they found the doors of the NCC locked. According to a source at the scene, a sign indicated a wedding was taking place. When more than 1,000 people had arrived, some decided to sing and pray in the square in front of the NCC. Police called for reinforcements.

One witness said “possibly hundreds” of uniformed and plainclothes personnel came to try to disperse the growing crowd. Reports from the scene and video clips on the Web show pushing and shoving, with some Christian leaders trying desperately to calm the agitated crowd. Some witnesses said officials punched some Christians, and others were struck hard with night sticks. Late police reinforcements carried electric cattle prods, according to one source. In one clip, people can be seen comforting an 86-year-old woman who was knocked down.

Gradually the Christians dispersed. For many Christians who tried to come – some from great distances and at great personal expense – this would have marked the first time they had ever worshipped in a large gathering.

Sources in Vietnam told Compass that similar stoppages also took place yesterday (Dec. 19) in Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and Quang Nam provinces, and in the city of Danang in central Vietnam.

In Thanh Hoa province, Christians of various house church denominations planned a joint celebration yesterday at the home of a woman identified only as Tuyet in Dong Phu commune. Pastor Ho Van Thom sent an appeal to the church worldwide asking for the prayers. He arrived at the scene to find some Christians had been beaten and wounded by police intent on preventing their Christmas worship.

In Danang city in central Vietnam, the Rev. Ho Tan Khoa, superintendent of the unregistered United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam, was invited to preach at a house church Christmas celebration yesterday. Pastor Khoa reported that a distraught church leader told him authorities had come that morning and, without a warrant, carted off the chairs, the pulpit and the sound system. They also tore down the Christmas decorations including a backdrop painstakingly decorated by church members, he said.

In Ho Chi Minh City, house churches have received permission for a public Christmas celebration both from authorities of the central government in Hanoi and of Ho Chi Minh City for an event on Dec. 26.  But church leaders say that potential venue owners, obviously under threat, will not dare rent to them.

Even those who closely follow Protestant church developments in Vietnam were somewhat surprised at the severity of the crackdown. One well-respected overseas Vietnam leader observed that it is now clear that this was a coordinated, well-planned and executed crackdown involving top Communist Party and government officials.

He noted that sometimes officials in remote areas of the country are excused when they persecute Christians on the grounds they do not yet know the new, more enlightened religion policies of the central government.

“In this case,” he said, “the strong actions against Christians are taking place in Vietnam’s three largest cities. They can’t use that excuse.”

Another observer said that authorities likely became alarmed at the size and attraction of the Christmas events in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi last Christmas. The events in those two cities attracted more than 50,000 people. They were organized by unregistered house churches that somehow obtained permission in spite of prohibitions of such events by Vietnam’s Decree 22, which governs religion.

One key church leader in Vietnam informed Compass that Directive No. 75, a secret Ministry of Interior document dated Oct. 15, ordered the crackdown on unregistered groups.

Unregistered groups are caught in limbo. Denominations with a history before the 1975 communist takeover of Vietnam have now been registered, but many groups that began in the 1980s and later have tried but failed to register their congregations as provided by Vietnam’s regulations. Their requests have mostly been ignored or denied, leaving them vulnerable to capricious repression.

As Christmas Day draws near, it appears the 400,000 or so Protestants that belong to unregistered churches will be denied celebrating together.

Report from Compass Direct News

Church Registration in Vietnam Inches Along


Assemblies of God obtains ‘operating license,’ but quest for recognition continues.

HO CHI MINH CITY, October 23 (CDN) — The Assemblies of God (AoG) in Vietnam on Monday (Oct. 19) received an “operating license,” which the government described as “the first step . . . before becoming officially legal.”

This operating license gives permission for all of the congregations of the Vietnam AoG to “carry on religious activity” anywhere in the country for the next year. During this time the church body must prepare a doctrinal statement, a constitution and bylaws and a four-year working plan to be approved by the government before being allowed to hold an organizing assembly. These steps, AoG leaders hope, would lead to legal recognition.

The operating license is the first one granted since five were granted two years ago. The last of those five churches, the Christian Fellowship Church, was finally allowed to hold its organizing assembly in late September. According to an internal 2008 government Protestant Training Manual obtained by church leaders, this assembly was delayed because authorities observed large discrepancies between the number of followers the group claimed and the actual number, as well as other “instability.”

Vietnam News Service reported on Sept. 29 that the Christian Fellowship Church has “30,000 believers nationwide.”

Should the AoG achieve legal recognition, it would be the ninth among some 70 Protestant groups in Vietnam and the seventh since new religion legislation touted to expedite registration was introduced in 2004.

The AoG quest was typically long, and it is not yet over. Though started in the early 1970s before the communist era, the denomination was deemed dormant by authorities after the communist takeover and restarted in 1989. Strangely, the Vietnamese religion law requires a church organization to have 20 years of stable organization before it can even be considered for legal recognition.

Though the AoG had been trying for years to register, only this year did it fulfill the 20-year requirement in the eyes of the government. Sources said AoG’s resistance to strong pressure by the government to eliminate a middle or district level of administration may also have contributed to the delay.

Ironically, the official government news report credits the Vietnam AoG with 40,000 followers, while denominational General Superintendent Samuel Lam told Compass the number is 25,000. He also said he hoped the advantages of registration would outweigh the disadvantages.

With no more operating licenses being granted, the future of registration is in a kind of limbo. Sources said a lower level of registration in which local authorities are supposed to offer permission for local congregations to carry on religious activities while the more complicated higher levels are worked out has largely failed. Only about 10 percent of the many hundreds of applications have received a favorable reply, they said, leaving most house churches vulnerable to arbitrary harassment or worse.

Leaders of all Protestant groups say that they continue to experience government resistance, as well as social pressure, whenever they preach Christ in new areas. They added that evidence is strong that the government’s aim is to contain Protestant growth.

Hmong Christians who fled the Northwest Mountainous Region for the Central Highlands a decade ago, developing very poor land in places such as Dak Nong, reported to Compass that they were singled out for land confiscation just when their fields became productive. They said ethnic Vietnamese made these land grabs with the complicity of the authorities, sometimes multiple times.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Oct. 19 that Vietnam has experienced a “sharp backsliding on religious freedom.” Among other incidents, HRW cited the late September crackdown on followers of Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Some 150 monks were forcibly evicted from his sect’s Bat Nha Monastery in Lam Dong province on Sept. 27, and 200 nuns fled in fear the next day. As in recent land disputes with Roman Catholics involving thousands of demonstrators, authorities hired local and imported thugs to do the deed to present the image that ordinary local people were upset with the religion.

After a visit to Vietnam in May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States reinstate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the blacklist of religious liberty offenders. Vietnam had been on the list from 2004 until 2006.

The USCIRF, which experienced less government cooperation that on some previous visits,  observed that “Vietnam’s overall human rights record remains poor, and has deteriorated since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007.”

Some key Protestant leaders describe themselves as weary and frustrated at what they termed the government’s lack of sincerity, extreme tardiness and outright duplicity regarding religious freedom. They too said they believe that the lifting of Vietnam’s CPC status was premature and resulted in the loss of a major incentive for Vietnam to improve religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News 

MISSIONARIES EVACUATED FROM MADAGASCAR


Assemblies of God World Missions has evacuated its missionaries from troubled Madagascar, an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

Following months of threats and infighting for political position, Madagascar experienced a coup on March 17, as President Marc Ravalomanana apparently chose to step down.

“The military is divided as to who they are going to support,” explains Africa Regional Director Mike McClaflin. “The American Embassy very strongly urged American citizens to evacuate the island . . . and now the American Embassy has evacuated its staff.”

McClaflin says that Assemblies of God World Missions (AGWM) leadership made the decision on March 14, at the recommendation of the U.S State Department, to take AG missionaries in Madagascar out of harm’s way and moved them to Nairobi, Kenya, for the time being.

“With missionaries now in 212 countries and territories of the world, almost no civil uprising, conflict or disaster takes place in the world that does not touch the lives of some of our missionaries,” states AGWM Communications Director Randy Hurst. “The unrest and government takeover in Madagascar affects four missionary families and well as one single missionary.”

Included in the list of missionaries evacuated are the families of Nate and Tammy Lashway, Jay and Carey Rostorfer, and Aaron and Heather Santmyire, Zach and Shellie Maddox, missionaries from East Africa who were visiting the Santmyires, along with short-term MAPS worker Ashley Masten, were also evacuated. The Manny Prabhudas family, who also serve in Madagascar, are currently in the United States on their itineration cycle.

Hurst adds that “Madagascar is an example of how so many of the crises in our world today demand that we as a church must commit ourselves increasingly to intercessory prayer for our missionaries and fellow believers around the world.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

BURMA: AUTHORITIES CLAMP DOWN ON CHRISTIANS


Churches ordered to cease services, stop meeting in ‘unauthorized’ venues.

DUBLIN, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Burmese authorities last week increased restrictions on Christian activity in the capital city of Rangoon and surrounding areas, including the closure of several churches, Compass sources confirmed yesterday.

Orders issued on Jan. 5 had already forced many Christians meeting in residential homes or apartments to cease gathering for worship. Officials last week ordered several major Rangoon churches, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and the Assemblies of God Church, to cease holding services and continued enforcing the Jan. 5 ban on meetings held in unauthorized facilities.

In the late 1990s authorities stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings, according to the Burmese news agency Mizzima.

The Kyauktada Township Peace and Development Council on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were told to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches. About 50 pastors attended, according to Mizzima.

The documents threatened punishment, including potential jail terms and the sealing of church facilities, for pastors who refused to obey the closure orders.

Another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma, claimed officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs had summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Mizzima quoted an unnamed Burmese Christian who claimed that 80 percent of churches in Rangoon were affected by the order.

 

History of Religious Repression

Some local Christians and international observers say the crackdown is related to Christian involvement in relief efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008.

Despite widespread devastation and loss of life, Burma’s reclusive government initially banned foreign aid but finally accepted it on condition that Burmese officials would distribute it. Christians, however, had responded immediately to the crisis, gathering relief supplies and transporting them to the Irrawaddy Delta region. Police or army officials stopped some groups, but many were allowed to proceed. At least one such group told Compass that officials likely feared the conversion of Buddhists who accepted aid from Christians.

The military junta ruling Burma promotes Buddhism at the expense of other minority religions, according to Paul A. Marshall’s 2008 Religious Freedom in the World. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. Burma ranks high on lists of religious and human rights violators at several watch organizations, including the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Open Doors.

Documents declaring the government’s intention to “stamp out” Christianity have circulated for some time. Rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide drew attention to one such document in a 2007 report entitled, “Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma.” The report summarized a 17-point document allegedly produced by an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Affairs entitled, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma.”

The first point in this document declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

A military dictatorship has ruled Burma since 1962. Following the takeover, the government renamed Burma as the Union of Myanmar and the capital city as Yangon, but many news agencies and government bodies continue to use the original names. When elections were held in 1988, with the opposing National League for Democracy clearly in the majority, the generals rejected the popular vote and used brute military force to cement their power throughout Burma. A similar show of force met hundreds of Buddhist monks who initiated mass anti-government protest rallies on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007.

While almost all Burmese citizens suffer under the regime, Christians are often singled out for specific attack or repression because of their perceived connections with the West.

Reports from various mission groups suggest Christianity is flourishing under the regime, but believers must be creative with their worship – particularly in rural areas. In reports confirmed by Compass, Christians in one state began photocopying Bibles to overcome restrictions on religious publications. Others baptized new Christians during the annual water festival, where citizens douse each other with buckets of water, ceremonially washing away the “sins” of the past year.

 

Heightened Security, Control

Rangoon residents say a much heavier security presence has been evident in the city since early January, when political activists began distributing anti-government leaflets, The Irrawaddy newspaper reported on Jan. 13. The leaflet drops may have contributed to the current crackdown on church gatherings, as generals suspect all organized groups of having a political agenda.

At a graduation of military students in Rangoon on Jan. 9, Vice-Senior Gen. Maung Aye, who is commander-in-chief of the army and deputy commander-in-chief of Defense Services, warned students to steadfastly uphold the country’s “Three Main National Causes” to prevent “recurrences of past bitter experiences.” The causes were listed as non-disintegration of the Union of Myanmar, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty.

The New Light of Myanmar, a government newspaper, reported the general as saying that, “You will have learned bitter lessons from a number of world events, in which certain States have become weaker … owing to external intervention in their conflicts.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

LAOS: CHRISTIANS PRESSURED TO RENOUNCE FAITH


Provincial official claims local authorities “misunderstood” religious freedom regulations.

DUBLIN, September 18 (Compass Direct News) – Confronted with evidence of rights abuses yesterday, an official in Champasak province, Laos, said district officials had “misunderstood” religious freedom regulations when they arrested and detained two men for converting to Christianity, according to Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

District police officers in cooperation with the chief of Jick village in Phonthong district arrested Khambarn Kuakham and Phoun Koonlamit on Sept. 8, accusing them of “believing in Christianity, a foreign religion,” HRWLRF reported.

Both men were placed in criminal detention for five days and ordered to renounce their faith, the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) confirmed.

Officials warned Kuakham that he had violated the terms of his employment by having contact with Christians and converting to the Christian faith. He must renounce his faith in order to return to his teaching position, they said. If he refused, he would face a lengthy detention.

When challenged by local Christians, the head of Champasak province’s National Front for Reconstruction – a religious affairs body – claimed that according to a government decree issued in 2002 the men should have sought prior approval to convert. The Decree on Management and Protection of Religious Activities states that if there were no Christians in a village prior to the Communist takeover in 1975, potential converts in the village or town must seek permission to convert to Christianity.

Local Christians argued that since Kuakham attended worship services in another village with an existing Christian presence, he had not violated the decree.

They also pointed to Article 3 of the same decree, which states that “all Lao citizens are equal before the law in believing or not believing religions as provided by the Constitution and laws of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.”

The official then said district authorities had “misunderstood” the situation, and that he would caution them to respect the believers’ freedom to worship.

Still, the men were released after five days with the understanding that if they continued to practice their faith, then they would be arrested and detained again. At press time, Kuakham was back in his teaching position and had no intention of renouncing his faith.

 

Christians Held in Stocks

In Boukham village, Savannakhet, three Christians remain in detention for their faith, HRWLRF reported yesterday. Officials have kept pastor Sompong Supatto, 32, Boot Chanthaleuxay, 18, and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay, 18, in handcuffs and foot stocks since their arrest on Aug. 3, causing considerable pain.

Released from the stocks only for toilet breaks, both Boot Chanthaleuxay and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay were suffering from loss of feeling and infection in their legs and feet due to lack of blood circulation.

Supatto, who had been nursing a sick family member before he was detained, learned last week that the family member had died. Despite hardships caused to the family, both Supatto and his wife are adamant that they will not forsake Christianity.

Authorities have said they will release the men only if they renounce their faith.

 

Livestock Seized

Several sources have confirmed that authorities are still targeting Tah Oih tribal Christians in Saravan province.

On Sept. 8, provincial and district authorities held a meeting in Katin village, claiming the Lao central government had ordered them to do so in response to international inquiries about religious freedom abuses in the village. Officials talked to leaders and residents about the 2002 decree and asked all parties to respect the religious laws of the nation, HRWLRF reported on Tuesday (Sept. 16).

They also cautioned Christians that their right to faith would stand only if they cooperated with village activities and if they were not bribed or paid to believe in Christianity.

On Friday (Sept. 12), however, village authorities seized a buffalo belonging to a Christian villager identified only as Bounchu and informed him that the animal would only be returned if he renounced his faith. The buffalo, worth about US$350 and vital for agricultural activity, was a prized family asset.

When Bounchu refused, officials on Saturday (Sept. 13) slaughtered the buffalo in the village square and distributed the meat to all non-Christian families in the village. They also warned all Christian residents that they would continue to take possession of their livestock until they renounced their faith.

Residents of Katin village had earlier killed a Christian villager on July 21. Officials arrested a total of 80 Christians on July 25 and detained them in a local school compound, denying them food for three days in an attempt to force the adults to sign documents renouncing their faith. (See Compass Direct News, “Authorities Arrest 90 Christians in Three Lao Provinces,” Aug. 8.)

 

More Intervention

Several aspects of the 2002 decree need to be addressed, a spokesman from HRWLRF told Compass today.

“From this and other incidents of persecution in Saravan and Savannakhet provinces, it appears that district and local authorities have been misinterpreting the decree, either intentionally or in ignorance,” he said.

International advocacy efforts were helpful in addressing these issues, he added. For example in Champasak, there was some evidence that provincial officials were embarrassed by negative publicity generated over the arrest of Kuakham and Koonlamit.

The LMHR issued a press release on Sept. 10 pointing to an upsurge in arrests and religious freedom abuses in Laos and calling for intervention from international governments and Non-Governmental Organizations.

Report from Compass Direct News