Vietnam’s Temporary Release of Priest Goes against Trend

Government granting leave to Father Ly is said to be tightening control overall.

DUBLIN, March 30 (CDN) — Vietnamese officials have in recent months tightened control over those they regard as dissidents, and the temporary release of Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen van Ly on March 15 was a rare exception, according to Amnesty International (AI).

Officials on March 15 released Ly, now 63, from prison for one year so that he could receive medical treatment.

An outspoken advocate for religious freedom, Ly was sentenced to eight years in prison in March 2007 for “spreading propaganda” against the state. He had previously received 10- and 15-year sentences on similar charges.

“The release of Father Ly appears to be a one-off, related to his health,” Brittis Edman, Asia researcher for AI, told Compass by phone.

Human rights lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan was released on March 6 after serving a three years in prison.  Officials have sentenced 16 other “perceived dissidents” since last September.

“Those 16 are people whose names are in the public domain,” Edman added. “There are probably others we’re not aware of.”

Edman confirmed that Ly was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, although few details are available on the prognosis or the availability of treatment. Fellow priests told the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) that Ly had suffered three strokes in May, September and November of last year, partially paralyzing his right arm and leg and making it difficult for him to walk, write or feed himself.

Following urgent requests from diocesan priests and family members, officials on March 14 granted Ly one year’s reprieve from his jail sentence. On March 15 they transported him by ambulance from Ba Sao prison camp in northern Ha Nam province to a home for retired priests in Hue, central Vietnam.

Under pressure from international advocacy groups including AI, the government may have granted Ly’s release to ward off potential embarrassment should he die in prison, Edman said.

“He’s a very public figure, and the Vietnamese government is not comfortable with being criticized.”

Religious Rights Campaigner

Ly was first jailed for one year in 1977 when he distributed a Church statement decrying the arrest of Buddhist monks and the treatment of Catholics in Vietnam, according to an AI report.

This was followed in December 1983 by a 10-year sentence served from the time of his arrest in May 1983 until his early release in July 1992. Prior to his arrest, Ly wrote a seven-point document urging officials to cease harassing Christians and announced that he was willing to be martyred for his faith.

In November 1994 Ly issued a “Ten Point Statement on the State of the Catholic Church in the Hue Diocese,” criticizing the lack of adequate training for would-be priests, the state’s interference in church teachings and its appropriation of church property.

He also became an advisory board member of the U.S.-based Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam (CRFV), according to AI.

In 1999, authorities objected when Ly coordinated relief projects for flood victims in partnership with CRFV. In November 2000, while U.S. President Bill Clinton and a CRFV delegation were in Vietnam, Ly reissued his ten-point statement and later made further appeals for religious freedom.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in February 2001 invited Ly to address a hearing on Vietnam. Though unable to attend, Ly submitted written testimony stating that the Vietnamese government had “stripped all churches of their independence and freedom” and urging that the U.S. Congress not ratify a long-negotiated U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement.

State-owned media then accused Ly of inviting “foreign hostile forces to intervene in Vietnam’s internal affairs” and inciting Catholic followers against the state.

Officials in May 2001 seized Ly during a church service and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for allegedly spreading anti-government propaganda. He was released under house arrest in February 2005 but arrested again in February 2007 and sentenced to eight years for organizing a pro-democracy event.

When the government released over 5,000 prisoners to mark Vietnam’s National Day last Sept. 2, Ly was omitted from the list despite vigorous international campaigns for his release. In a state media report quoted by UCAN, Vice Minister of Public Security Le The Tiem declared that the priest was “still in good enough health to serve his sentence.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


House churches asked not to meet during Games; new crackdown planned for October.

DUBLIN, August 20 (Compass Direct News) – As the Olympics draw to a close, new evidence of religious freedom abuses offers a stark contrast to China’s efforts to provide religious services for athletes and visitors during the Games.

China hired religious clerics to provide these services and published a special bilingual edition of the Bible for distribution to athletes and official churches during the event. Simultaneously, officials asked house church leaders in Beijing to sign documents agreeing not to hold services during the Games, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported on August 13.

More ominously, China has planned a new crackdown on four “troublesome elements,” including house church leaders, for October, when most Olympic athletes, tourists and journalists will have left the country, CAA reported on Monday (August 18).


Positive Steps

A British-based Christian charity, the Bible Society, provided funding for a special bilingual Olympic edition of 30,000 full Bibles and 10,000 New Testaments for distribution in the Olympic Village and to registered churches in the Olympic cities, the Catholic News Agency reported in June. The Amity Printing Press, China’s only government-approved Bible publisher, printed the books in a new multimillion dollar facility that opened in Nanjing in May.

The Chinese government claims that Amity produces more than enough Bibles to meet the needs of the Chinese church, a claim many religious freedom organizations dispute. Amity also prints Bibles for export internationally.

A report circulating before the Games declared that China had banned Bibles from the Olympic Village, but this report proved false.

Officials also hired religious clerics from the five government-approved faiths to provide services for athletes and tourists during the Games. The five groups are Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Protestants and Catholics; each one answers to a specific religious institution appointed to oversee their activities.


Restrictions in Place

In the lead-up to the Games, officials asked a number of house church pastors to sign a document agreeing to forego any activities at “Christian gathering sites” or meeting points while the Games took place, according to CAA.

Under this agreement, house churches were banned from gathering from July 15 to October 15, a total of 17 weeks. Those who broke the agreement would face “disciplinary action.”

The agreement asked that house churches “refrain from organizing and joining illegal gatherings and refrain from receiving donations, sermons and preaching from overseas religious organizations and groups that have a purpose.”

The Union of Catholic Asian News confirmed in a report on August 7 that officials had forbidden bishops and priests in unregistered Catholic churches to administer sacraments or do pastoral work during the Games.

Officials placed several underground bishops under house arrest and forbade them to contact their priests, the report added.

In Wuqiu village of Jinxian county, Hebei, police erected a small “house” in front of the cathedral presided over by underground Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo in order to provide a facility for 24-hour monitoring of the bishop.

Additionally, Bishop Joseph Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar in northeast China received phone calls from government officials asking if he planned to hold any religious gatherings during the Olympics. Wei said he would stay at home and pray for the success of the Games.

Prior to the Games, police banned several Christians from meeting with visiting U.S. government officials and asked others to leave Beijing for the duration of the event.

Police in July repeatedly asked house church pastor Zhang Mingxuan and his wife Xie Fenlang to leave Beijing. When they refused, police on July 18 entered a guesthouse where they were staying and drove them to Yanjiao in neighboring Hebei province.

When Zhang granted an interview to BBC journalist John Simpson, police detained Zhang and Xie before the interview could take place. (See Compass Direct News, “Chinese House Church Pastor Detained,” August 7.)

On August 10, police seized house church pastor and activist Hua Huiqi when he attempted to participate in a service at the government-approved Juanjie Protestant church in Beijing, where U.S. President George Bush was scheduled to appear.

Hua, still in hiding, wrote a letter to Bush later that day, pleading for prayer for his personal safety and for freedom of belief for all Chinese people. (See Compass Direct News, “Chinese Christians Plead for Relief as Olympics Continue,” August 13.)


October Crackdown

More prayer may be requested in coming months. China’s Communist Party (CPC) will launch a nationwide crackdown on four “unstable social elements” in October, CAA reported on Monday (August 18).

These elements were listed as illegal Christian house church leaders, petitioners, human rights defenders and political dissidents.

Outlined in a secret government directive passed to CAA, the crackdown is designed to coincide with a new campaign for “20 more years of political and social stability” in China.

In a speech on June 16, Zhou Yongkang, head of the Political and Legal Committee of the Central Committee of the CPC, called for “extraordinary measures” to be taken against these elements in order to protect the CPC’s continuous rule and reform programs.

The Beijing Municipal State Security Bureau has also begun a new citizen informant initiative, requiring ordinary citizens to report individuals and organizations posing a threat to national security, including those who “engage in activities that endanger state security by utilizing religions,” according to CAA.

Report from Compass Direct News