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

Buddhists in India Assault Christian Aid Worker, Friend

Assailants, still at large, abduct and threaten blind volunteer, associate and pregnant wife.

NEW DELHI, September 6 (CDN) — A visually impaired Christian and his friend accused drunken Buddhists of abducting and assaulting them last week after the blind volunteer distributed relief material in a Buddhist-majority town in a region of India devastated by recent floods.

The attackers are still at large after the assault on Wednesday (Sept .1) in the town of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir state’s Ladakh region, where flooding and landslides destroyed hundreds of houses and killed around 200 people on Aug. 6.

The attackers, identified as members of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), one of the region’s largest and most influential Non-Governmental Organizations, abducted Ram Kumar Thapa, Stanzin Chosphel and his pregnant wife Putali Sherpa because of their Christian faith and beat the men, the victims said.

Thapa, a blind music teacher in his 30s, was abducted from Mahabodhi Gate in Choglamsar area in Leh, where he was distributing relief material, at around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the complaint he filed on Thursday (Sept. 2) with the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission.

LBA members were upset that Thapa was preaching Christianity to displaced residents, according to his complaint. The Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief, a Christian relief agency, is rebuilding homes for the displaced people, mostly Buddhists, in the area.

“I was attacked physically by several unknown assailants before other witnesses nearby,” Thapa stated in the complaint. “Then these men forced me into a vehicle and continued beating me all over my body as they spoke in Ladakhi to each other.”

Thapa, from the eastern state of West Bengal, also stated that the Buddhists contemplated killing him. “They discussed whether to take my life or return to the ‘office,’” he said.

The assailants took Thapa to the office of the LBA in Soma Monastery, where a Buddhist monk was also present, and beat him again, he stated. He was then moved to a room where he could hear the voice of his friend, Chosphel, with his pregnant wife.

Chosphel, a convert from Buddhism, is from Ladakh and his wife is from Nepal. The Buddhist assailants had taken them from their house in the Skalzaling area in Leh after Thapa, under pressure from the LBA members, identified them as his associates, according to the Christian victims.

The attackers showed Thapa’s bruised and bleeding face to Chosphel to warn him against continuing as a Christian, Thapa stated. He was then taken back to the vehicle.

“They placed a gunny sack with a rope onto my lap and explained that this would be my last bed … [after] they throw me into the Indus River and see if a blind man can swim and save himself,” Thapa stated. “I became terribly afraid, since I could smell alcohol on their breath as we sat in the vehicle.”

Thapa begged that his life be spared “so I could see my wife, who must be worried since it was late now.” The kidnappers replied, “Your wife will see you when she finds your body by the river bank,” he stated.

Thapa and his wife, also visually impaired, teach and live at Mahabodhi Residential School for handicapped children.

Thapa stated that when he asked what they wanted from him, “they said I had to leave Ladakh with my family within two days or else they would kill me and my family. It was around 1 a.m. when they dropped me back to my house, bruised and trembling.”

Thapa went to the Housing Colony Police Station on Thursday (Sept. 2) and found out that Chosphel also was there to file his complaint.

Chosphel confirmed that the “office” they were taken to belonged to the LBA. In his complaint to the commission, Chosphel said that around 15 “heavily drunken” men came to abduct him and his wife in their black Bolero, a mid-size SUV.

In the courtyard of the LBA facility, the Buddhists beat Chosphel before his wife, who pleaded for them to stop and asked why they were being assaulted.

“They threatened to beat her as well if she did not keep silent,” Chosphel stated. “Then they dragged me into a room and gagged my mouth so I could not cry out as they beat me with rubber pipes and rods and fists continuously. All along they kept telling me to leave my wife and also renounce my faith in Christianity and return to Buddhism.”

The men released the couple at around 12:30 a.m. after giving them two days to leave Leh or convert to Buddhism, Chosphel stated, “or else they will chop my wife into pieces and kill me and also kill my family … who are still practicing Buddhists.”

The attackers also confiscated their mobile phones.

The victims told Compass that they were still facing a threat on their lives even after filing complaints with police.

Additional Superintendent of Police Stanzin Nurboo told Compass that no one had been arrested because the victims could not name the accused.

Chosphel and his wife, however, told Compass that they would be able to identify the attackers if they saw their faces; at press time, however, they said police had not contacted any of them to do so.

Religious conversion is a sensitive issue in Leh, which borders Pakistan and Tibet, as it is seen as an attack on its distinct religious and cultural identity.

Citing religious and cultural differences with the otherwise Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state, some residents of Ladakh have been asking for union territory status for the region.

As a concession, the Ladakh region was bifurcated into Muslim-majority Kargil district and Buddhist-majority Leh district in 1979, and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was also created in 1995 to grant some autonomy to Leh and Kargil districts.

The government of Jammu and Kashmir continues to have responsibility for maintaining law and order and is in charge of the judicial system, communications and higher education.

Of the population of 117,232, over 80 percent of the people in Leh are Buddhist. Muslims make up around 15 percent of the population, Hindus 3 percent and Christians 0.2 percent.

Report from Compass Direct News