Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say


Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Governor outlaws Christianity, arrests believers in Colombia


28 indigenous Colombian Christians have been imprisoned since October for refusing to denounce their faith, reports MNN.

Logan Maurer with International Christian Concern says the central government gave local governors relative autonomy. "They have devolved power to a governor there who has outlawed Christianity. He has said that if anybody there is a Christian, they’re going to go to prison."

With that announcement, the local governor over the Kogui (ko-gee) called the Christians together on October 27th. "He was holding a meeting to discuss this issue," said Maurer, "and he surprised these Christians by saying, ‘You’re all under arrest.’"

The governor wants them to maintain more of the traditional identity to the tribal region, which includes animism. The group is still being held because they refuse to reconvert.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide says at last report, two of the kidnapped infants were seriously ill. The governor and his allies also humiliated non-Christian leaders who had supported the Christians in the community and protected them from being expelled.

What’s especially odd about this case is that the Colombian government has apparently refused to act on behalf of the Christians. That’s prompting outcry from human rights watchdog groups. Maurer adds that the Colombian government is "willing to ignore its own Constitution and its international agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR, the ICSECR, and the American Convention on Human Rights–all of which explicitly protect the right of individuals to choose their own faith and to convert of their own free will."

ICC remains concerned about what this means for other believers. Maurer explains, "There’s over 100 individuals that consider themselves Christians and would be affected. If this governor continues to imprison men, women and children, as he has done, you could be looking at up to 100 people in prison for their faith."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

US religious freedom panel denied visas to visit India


Indian government officials have denied visas to commissioners of a U.S. religious freedom watchdog panel for the second time since 2000, reports Ecumenical News International.

Members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom were forced to cancel their plans to assess religious freedom in India. Panellists, who were scheduled to leave on 12 June, have been trying to obtain Indian visas for the past seven years.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

CHINA PASTOR RELEASED FROM PRISON AFTER INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION


A Chinese human rights watchdog organization says a Christian House Church leader has been freed by government authorities as the result of international pressure.

In a media release ChinaAid says that

at 6 p.m. on April 24, Pastor Lou Yuanqi of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was released from prison under the provision of “bailed out waiting for trial, ” a legal procedure called “qu bao hou shen.”

ChinaAid said: “Though this provision allows for future arrest and prosecution, Pastor Lou was released and permitted to return home. The provision’s purpose is also to prevent Pastor Lou or his family from filing an administrative lawsuit against the state for compensation for illegal detention time.”

The media release explains that Xinjiang authorities could not find evidence sufficient to continue his prosecution and indictment. According to family members, Pastor Lou looked fragile, because of the horrible conditions he suffered in prison. He suffers from hepatitis B, and is in great need of medical attention.

It adds: “Pastor Lou’s faith is very strong, and he, his wife Wang Wenxiu and their three children are overwhelmed by the response from the international community.”

According to ChinaAid, Pastor Lou was first detained on May 17, 2008 at 1 p.m. in Qingshuihe town, Huocheng county of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Pastor Lou stood trial on December 15, 2008 on charges of “utilizing superstition to undermine the law.”

ChinaAid stated: “Those close to the case say the authorities’ motivation for the charge was to stop Lou’s house church from meeting in his home. Immediately after Lou’s trial, his daughter, Lou Tiantian, 18, was beaten by court police when she tried to speak with her father as he was being put into a police car.”

ChinaAid says that later, the court issued a statement, declaring “the facts [in Pastor Lou’s case] unclear and the evidence insufficient.” Despite this ruling, Pastor Lou continued to be imprisoned until his release on April 24.

Two other Xinjiang Christians, Alimujiang Yimiti and Wusiman Yiming, are currently suffering in prison for their faith, according to the ChinaAid media release.

Alimujiang Yimiti, a Uyghur Christian, was first detained on the charge of “endangering the security of the state,” then was officially arrested on February 20, 2008 for “suspicion of inciting secession and organizing people in stealing, spying, buying and illegally providing state secrets or intelligence to overseas organizations.”

However, ChinaAid says sources say the real reason for his detention is because of his Christian faith and witness among the Uyghur people. Alimujiang was seen March 31 around 10 a.m. (local time) at Nongsanshi (Military Farm) Hospital in Kashgar. His hands were bound and he was observed being roughly escorted by police and a prison doctor while repeatedly crying out to onlookers in Chinese, “I’m sick. Tell my lawyer to come quickly to see me.”

Wusiman Yiming, another Uyghur Christian, was sentenced to two years of re-education through labor in September 2007 for “revealing state secrets” and “illegal proselytizing.”

ChinaAid sources say that he was, in fact, sentenced because of his boldness as a Christian and a leader in the Uyghur church. Sources report that he has aged dramatically in the labor camp and his health is deteriorating due to harsh conditions.

“We welcome the release of this innocent pastor who has been arbitrarily detained for more than a year simply for his Christian faith related activities,” said ChinaAid’s Bob Fu.

“We urge the Xinjiang authorities to release other innocent people of faith such as Alimujiang Yimiti and Wusiman Yiming.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

TURKEY: CHRISTIAN BOOKSHOP IN ADANA VANDALIZED


Second attack within one week follows threats from Muslim nationalists.

ISTANBUL, February 17 (Compass Direct News) – Following threats from Muslim nationalists, a Turkish Bible Society bookshop in the southern city of Adana was vandalized for the second time in a week on Thursday (Feb. 12).

Security camera footage shows two youths attacking the storefront of the Soz Kitapevi bookshop, kicking and smashing glass in both the window and the door. The door frame was also damaged.

Bookshop employee Dogan Simsek discovered the damage when he arrived to open the shop. He described security footage of the attack, which took place at 8:19 a.m., to Compass.

“They came at it like a target,” he said. “They attacked in a very cold-blooded manner, and then they walked away as if nothing had happened.”

The security camera did not clearly capture the faces of either youth, and police are still attempting to identify the perpetrators.

During the first attack on Feb. 7, the glass of the front door was smashed and the security camera mangled. Both have since been repaired.

Simsek told the Turkish national daily Milliyet that these are the first such incidents he has witnessed in the 10 years he has worked there.

“We sit and drink tea with our neighbors and those around us; there are no problems in that regard,” said Simsek, though he did acknowledge that local opinion is not all favorable. “This is a Muslim neighborhood, and many have told us not to sell these books.”

The bookshop has received threats from both Muslim hardliners and nationalists. Last November, a man entered the shop and began making accusations that the Soz Kitapevi bookshop was in league with the CIA, saying, “You work with them killing people in Muslim countries, harming Muslim countries.”

 

Systemic Prejudice

The attacks are another example of the animosity that Turkish Christians have faced recently, especially the small Protestant community. The Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey released its annual Rights Violations Summary last month, detailing some of the abuses faced by Protestant congregations in 2008.

The report makes it clear that violent attacks, threats and accusations are symptoms arising from an anti-Christian milieu of distrust and misinformation that the Turkish state allows to exist.

The report cites both negative portrayal in the media and state bodies or officials that “have created a ‘crime’ entitled ‘missionary activities,’ identifying it with a certain faith community” as being primarily responsible for the enmity felt towards Christians.

It urges the government to develop effective media watchdog mechanisms to ensure the absence of intolerant or inflammatory programs, and that the state help make the public aware of the rights of Turkish citizens of all faiths.

Report from Compass Direct News