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


At least two killed today, another succumbed to axe injuries Wednesday; 400 houses burned.

NEW DELHI, October 3 (Compass Direct News) – At least two more Christians were killed today in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district after Hindu extremists this week set fire to nearly 400 homes there and in Boudh district. A third man succumbed to axe injuries on Wednesday (Oct. 1).

Weeks after Hindu extremist violence erupted against Christians, this morning tribal peoples in Sindhipankha village killed Dushashan Majhi, a local influential Christian, first shooting him and them cutting him to pieces. Local Christian leaders reported that Majhi was a government servant working in the treasury.

The mob then turned on Sanyasi Majhi, also said to be Christian, who was with Dushashan Majhi. There were unconfirmed reports that a third victim was killed along with the other two.

A local Christian who wished to remain unnamed told Compass that after killing the two men, the assailants massacred cattle belonging to village Christians and burned Christian-owned houses. Sindhipankha is about seven kilometers (four miles) from Tumudiband.

Local news reporter Lalit Jena told Compass from Kandhamal that the attacks – which have continued unabated since Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the death of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23 even though Maoist militants admitted murdering him – involve women first ransacking the Christian homes.

“The modus operandi of the tribal mob is such that women go first and attack the Christian houses,” he said. “They ransack and rob the household’s gold and other jewelry, TVs and all that is precious. The men then follow and burn the houses. Lately it has been reported that now they are fighting among themselves for the booty.”

Jena added that tribal peoples who lived in poverty before the violence now have obtained many heads of cattle, including goats and cows, within a short span, as well as household goods.

“They may have no electricity in their villages, but one can see lots of television sets, nearly all of it looted from the Christians,” he said.


Axe Murder

On Wednesday (Oct. 1), Lalji Nayak, believed to be about 80 years old, died from axe wounds after a Hindu extremist mob attacked his village of Hrudangia the previous day. Nayak and 14 others were wounded, with Nayak struck between his neck and chest.

While three of the wounded received first-aid at a health center in Kandhamal, eight others, including Nayak and his wife Mandaki, were admitted to MKCG Medical College in Berhampur. At press time Nayak’s widow, who received an axe blow just below the ear, remained in the medical center with a serious head injury.

Local Christians in Berhampur wanted to give Lalji Nayak a Christian burial, but police did not allow it. Utkal Christian Council members B.D. Das and J.R. Patro expressed strong objections to the police action.

Nayak’s brother, Junas Nayak, was taken to Cuttack Medical College for gunshot wounds. He remained in critical condition at press time with multiple gunshot wounds, and according to Jena has a total of 13 bullets in him.

“Seven are on his left thigh, and six in his right hand, but the doctors have so far done nothing to remove them from his body, even though he has been admitted in the hospital since September 30,” Jena told Compass. “We are concerned that he may develop septic [shock or infection] because of the delay.”

In the attacks, an 8-year-old boy miraculously survived after being hit by an axe in the middle of his skull.

Two pregnant Christian women, Archana and Geeta Sahu, this week were brought from Kandhamal to Berhampur hospital, where they gave birth and were said to be out of danger.


Houses Burned

Nearly 400 houses were burned or destroyed in Orissa state’s Boudh and Kandhamal districts this week.

On Wednesday (Oct. 1), mobs set fire to dozens of houses in the Raikia area of the Kandhamal district. Yesterday the violence crossed over to neighboring Boudh district as about 100 houses were torched by mobs in at least nine villages. Worst affected was the village of Kantamal.

The burning of houses continued this morning, with more than 400 houses reported to have been either burnt or destroyed in Boudh and Kandhamal districts.

Police have reportedly arrested five people so far in connection with the burning of the houses in Boudh district.

Additional District Magistrate Mihir Chandra Mallik told reporters, that unidentified people set fire to over a hundred houses of Dalit Hindus in at least nine villages in Boudh district.

“We have set up a relief camp at Kantamal town to provide food and shelter to the people who have lost their homes,” he added.

The administration said that the motive for burning these houses was ethnic, as Kandh tribal peoples attacked Dalit Pana homes.

Area church leaders confirmed this, but one said on condition of anonymity, “First they were targeting Christian Panas only, but now even Hindu Panas are not being spared. All Hindus who have not joined the mobs in attacking Christians are also being treated in the same way as Christians.”

Both Dalit Pana houses as well as homes belonging to the Christian Pana community have been targeted in Boudh district, he said.

In Barakhama village near Kandhamal, Christians may move to the safer Daringbadi. A local pastor told Compass that Barakhama was also targeted last December, when around 400 homes belonging to Christians were burned and demolished.

“The same continues now,” he said on condition of anonymity. “The Christians love their homes, but it is just not safe to live here anymore, for the government has failed to protect us. The Christians in Barakhama have almost decided to move collectively to Daringbadi, which is at least a bit safer.”

It is estimated that around 500 Christian families will leave the village.


Nun Raped

Police have finally confirmed the rape of a nun in Kandhamal two days after the death of Hindu leader Saraswati.

A mob of around 40 men attacked the nun at K. Nuagaon village, where she and a priest, Father Thomas Chellantharayil, had taken shelter after their center was attacked. The mob allegedly dragged her and the priest to a deserted office of a Non-Governmental Organization, where she was stripped and raped. The priest was reportedly doused with gas and beaten as he tried to stop the attack on her.

Police have arrested four suspects in the rape. Juria Pradhan, 52, his 22-year-old son Kartik Pradhan, Biren Sahu, 35, and 26-year-old Tapas Patnaik were arrested in connection with the assault and rape of the 29-year-old Catholic nun on Aug. 25.

The inspector-in-charge of Baliguda police station has since been suspended in connection with the incident. The Orissa government has also ordered a probe, 39 days after the initial complaint.

District Superintendent of Police S. Praveen Kumar this week told reporters that a medical examination report confirmed that the nun was raped.

The Hindustan Times reported today that although the report was filed weeks ago, police obtained the medical examination report only two days ago following media reports and the efforts of Sister Nirmala, Superior-General of the Missionaries of Charity, who wrote to the state seeking justice.

“A police official said they were busy in maintaining law and order and could not find time to look into the case,” the national daily reported.


Attempts at Law and Order

Since Wednesday (Oct. 1), 46 people have been arrested on charges of rioting in Kandhamal district. A police official said that they had arrested more than 300 people in the past month.

Christian leaders attributed the sudden arrest of 46 people in the last two days to new state Director General of Police (DGP) Manmohan Praharaj, who took over from Gopal Chandra Nanda, who retired on Tuesday (Sept. 30).

Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad International President Ashok Singhal did not take kindly to the latest arrests.

“The new DGP is indiscriminately arresting leaders of Hindu organizations that are not related to any case,” he told reporters this week.

Nearly 53 companies of paramilitary forces have been appointed in Kandhamal district, and curfew was still imposed. The central government sent 1,000 paramilitary personnel in the form of 10 Central Reserve Police Force companies on Wednesday (Oct. 1) to Kandhamal district. Local sources said 10 more companies were expected by Sunday (Oct. 5).

The central government has come down heavily on the Orissa state government. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil wrote a strongly worded letter to Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Wednesday (Oct. 3) asking him to take effective measures and provide security for the Christian community in the state.

“Merely continuing to ask for additional forces after every few days cannot be the solution,” Patil wrote. “The state government has to implement overall strategy for creating an environment of security.”

The letter came hours after the Union Cabinet expressed grave concern over the situation in the state, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh directing Patil to present a report on the situation at the next cabinet meeting.


Peace Rally in New Delhi

In New Delhi, nearly 15,000 Christians joined in a peace march in solidarity with the victims of the Orissa and Karnataka violence yesterday.

The peace march was the culmination of the week-long sit-in organized by the Christians of Delhi and NCR (National Capital Region) beginning Sept. 26 to protest atrocities on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. The peace march took place on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation.

Many national leaders, including central ministers Lalu Prasad Yadav and Oscar Fernandes, addressed the gathering at the Dharna (sit-in). Yadav, the union minister for Indian Railways, promised to personally meet with the prime minister and urgently discuss the matter. He said that he would “take up the anti-Christian violence in Parliament and debate the hatred of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] forces.”

Hindu leaders such as Swami Agnivesh addressed the peace march at Rajghat (Gandhi’s final resting place), saying that the “very killers of Mahatma Gandhi, are the same killers of Christians in Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of the country . . . The Hindutva fascists do not represent the peace-loving Hindu societies, rather they are damaging the Sanatam Dharma [eternal law] of Hinduism,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News