The following article reports on the forced closure of a church in Azerbaijan.
Local officials prevent events featuring U.S. evangelist Luis Palau.
HANOI, Vietnam, April 18 (CDN) — Authorities in Vietnam prevented much-anticipated public Easter celebrations in Hanoi planned for Friday and Saturday (April 15-16) after giving a verbal promise to organizers that the events would proceed.
An interchurch organizing committee had submitted a request for permission well in advance and had made elaborate preparations for the special events featuring renowned evangelist Luis Palau.
The organizers said they were disappointed but not entirely surprised by the Communist government’s action.
“The authorities have clearly demonstrated to the world what we experience regularly – that their promises, whether verbal or written, cannot be trusted,” said one church leader who requested anonymity.
Asked to speculate on the reasons for the government’s ultimate refusal, another key church leader said, “I don’t know why, but it almost seems as if the government is deliberately damaging its own reputation.”
Shortly after 1 p.m. on Friday (April 15), after long negotiations, authorities gave verbal assent for the events to proceed, promising the required written permission would be issued imminently. The government-approved venue was the Dien Kinh My Dinh Sports Complex, a state-of-the-art indoor track and field stadium in Hanoi’s Tu Liem district. It reportedly holds 3,100 people; organizers had requested a place with considerably larger capacity.
After receiving the verbal promise, organizers said they went directly to the sports complex hoping to begin preparing the sound and lighting systems. They were not given access.
When no written permission was forthcoming by the scheduled start at 7 p.m., organizers said they were forced to turn away many hundreds of people arriving from the provinces by chartered buses. They urged the people to return home quietly and to pray for the event scheduled for the next evening, they said.
Very late Friday evening, the organizing committee received written permission from the Hanoi People’s Committee to hold what was to have been the second night of the event on Saturday (April 16). They immediately posted the document on Vietnam’s most popular Christian website http://www.hoithanh.com, they said.
Apparently, however, public security and city authorities quietly overrode the reluctant permission granted by Vietnam’s religion bureaucracy. Organizers told Compass that even with the official letter from the People’s Committee, several hurdles had remained. They had still needed to secure a contract from the sports complex on Saturday morning for use of the facilities, and they had yet to request the Committee for Religious Affairs for permission for Palau to speak.
Early on Saturday, Pastor Nguyen Huu Mac, president of the registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), or ECVN(N), who had signed the request, went with colleagues from unregistered house churches to the sports complex to pursue the contract. When they were told that Saturday was not a work day, they went to the Tu Liem district office.
There they were stalled for several more hours by fruitless discussion. District officials eventually told them that although the sports complex was in their area of the city, it was owned and managed by another entity over which they had no control.
Finally, at 1 p.m., the manager of the sports complex arrived. He proceeded to give the organizing committee what Christian leaders described as unreasonable conditions for a contract. For instance, the manager said they could not enter the complex to prepare until 4:30 p.m. – hardly enough time for the scheduled 7 p.m. start. Organizers said he further told them that the sports complex would retain control over who and how many entered the building; he said they would not honor the tickets/invitations that had been widely distributed by the event organizers but would distribute their own and count every head.
The organizers sensed trouble.
Faced with such government duplicity and control over their event and without enough time to set up properly, church leaders said, they unanimously decided they could not proceed with integrity. Shortly after 4 p.m., they issued an indefinite postponement notice.
Reached by Compass late Saturday Hanoi time, a Luis Palau Association spokesman reported that the evangelist had just spent significant time encouraging the tired organizers. Palau told them that the Lord would bless them for their diligence and predicted that they would soon reap a great spiritual harvest. In a few years, he said, they would look on the disappointments of this weekend as insignificant, according to the spokesman.
Despite their disappointment, church leaders took note of gains: The effort to stage the events, they said, marked unprecedented cooperation among various groups, with the ECVN(N), the only registered church based in the north, applying for the permission document on behalf of all groups. Cooperating in the organizing were northern house churches belonging to the Hanoi Christian Fellowship and southern-based house churches belonging to the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship, as well as some smaller groups.
Together, the church leaders said, they determined not to bow to government manipulation and pressure.
“Clearly someone at the top disallowed these events and then left it to clumsy underlings to create bureaucratic obstacles,” said a long-time overseas Vietnam analyst. “Most people will see through this ruse and recognize simple lack of religious freedom.”
In Ho Chi Minh City, similar Easter celebrations were given last-minute approval and went ahead the previous weekend with considerable response to Palau’s messages.
It is not known if or how the cancellation of the events in Hanoi will affect plans for the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, both the northern and southern entities, to include Palau in their June centennial celebrations in Danang, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City.
Permission has been long requested, but so far the government has only given general verbal approval.
Report from Compass Direct News
Evicted from one site and denied others, unregistered congregation resorts to open air.
LOS ANGELES, April 7 (CDN) — One of the largest unregistered Protestant churches in Beijing plans to risk arrest by worshipping in the open air this Sunday (April 10) after eviction from the restaurant where they have met for the past year.
The owner of the Old Story Club restaurant issued repeated requests for the Shouwang Church to find another worship venue, and authorities have pressured other prospective landlords to close their facilities to the 1,000-member congregation, sources said. Unwilling to subject themselves to the controls and restrictions of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the congregation has held three services each Sunday in the restaurant for more than a year.
Church members have said they are not opposed to the government and are not politically active, but they fear authorities could find their open-air worship threatening.
“Normal” (state-sanctioned) religious assembly outdoors is legal in China, and even unregistered church activity is usually tolerated if no more than 50 people gather, especially if the people are related and can cite the gathering as a family get-together, said a source in China who requested anonymity. Although the congregation technically risks arrest as an unregistered church, the primary danger is being viewed as politically active, the source said.
“For a larger group of Christians to meet in any ‘unregistered’ location led by an ‘unregistered’ leader is illegal,” he said. “The sensitivity of meeting in a park is not being illegal, but being so highly visible. Being ‘visible’ ends up giving an impression of being a political ‘protest.’”
The congregation believes China’s Department of Religious Affairs has overstepped its jurisdiction in issuing regulations limiting unregistered church activity, according to a statement church leaders issued this week.
“Out of respect for both the Chinese Constitution [whose Article 36 stipulates freedom of worship] and Christian conscience, we cannot actively endorse and submit to the regulations which bid us to cease all Sunday worship activities outside of [the] ‘Three-Self Patriotic Movement’ – the only state-sanctioned church,” according to the statement. “Of course, we still must follow the teachings of the Bible, which is for everyone to submit to and respect the governing authorities. We are willing to submit to the regulations with passivity and all the while shoulder all the consequences which . . . continuing to worship outside of what is sanctioned by these regulations will bring us.”
The church decided to resort to open-air worship after a prospective landlord backed out of a contractual agreement to allow the congregation to meet at the Xihua Business Hotel, the church said in its statement.
“They had signed another rental contract with another property facility and announced during the March 22 service that they were to move in two weeks,” the source said. “In spite of the fact that they had signed a formal contract, the new landlord suddenly called them on March 22 and refused to let them use the facility.”
The landlord offered various excuses for reneging on the contract, according to church leaders, and that disappointment came after 15 months of trying to obtain the key to another property the church had purchased.
“The space in Daheng New Epoch Technology building, which the church had spent over 27.5 million RMB [US$4.2 million] to purchase, has failed to hand the key over to the church for the past year and three months because of government intervention,” the church said in its statement. “For the past year, our church has not had a settled meeting place.”
Beginning as a house church in 1993, the Shouwang Church has been evicted from several rented locations. It also met outside after its last displacement in 2009. The congregation does not believe its calling is to split up into smaller units.
“For the past several years the church has been given a vision from God to be ‘the city on a hill,’” the source said. “Especially since 2009, when they officially began the church building purchase, they have been trying to become a more officially established status. At this point, they feel that they have not completed the journey in obedience to God.”
The number of Protestant house church Christians is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute. Yu and others have concluded that house churches are a positive influence on society, but the government is wary of such influence.
Yu estimated another 18 to 30 million people attend government-approved churches – potentially putting the number of Christians higher than that of Communist Party members, which number around 74 million.
The government-commissioned study by Yu and associates suggested that officials should seek to integrate house churches and no longer regard them as enemies of the state. The study employed a combination of interviews, field surveys and policy reviews to gather information on house churches in several provinces from October 2007 to November 2008.
Yu’s team found that most house or “family” churches fit into one of three broad categories: traditional house churches, open house churches or urban emerging churches. Traditional house churches were generally smaller, family-based churches, meeting in relative secrecy. Though not a Christian himself, Yu attended some of these meetings and noted that the focus was not on democracy or human rights but rather on spiritual life and community.
The “open” house churches were less secretive and had more members, sometimes advertising their services and holding public gatherings, he found. Urban emerging churches functioned openly but independently of TSPM churches. In some provinces such as Wenzhou, these churches had constructed their own buildings and operated without interference from local officials.
While some house churches actively seek registration with authorities to avoid arrests and harassment, they would like the option of registering outside the government-approved TSPM structure, as they disagree with TSPM beliefs and controls. Many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members or fear that it will control sermon content.
Report from Compass Direct News
Following attacks, Islamic Defenders Front’s Christmas gesture rings hollow.
DUBLIN, December 21 (CDN) — In the wake of several attacks on worship services by Indonesia’s notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), several Jakarta area church leaders rejected the FPI’s offer to help protect them over Christmas.
FPI leader Rizieq Shihab made the offer last week, saying he was working in cooperation with the Indonesian Communion of Churches and the Indonesian Bishops Conference. But several churches publicly rejected the offer, with online forums comparing FPI church protection to “foxes protecting a chicken coop.”
Jakarta’s police chief on Friday (Dec. 18) promised protection for every “registered” church in the area, The Jakarta Globe reported. Many Indonesian churches are unregistered, however, since they fail to meet the strict conditions of a Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) governing places of worship.
The Indonesian public has harshly criticized FPI members for their role in multiple church attacks over the past year and faulted police and politicians for failing to intervene.
The most recent attack occurred last Sunday (Dec. 19), when more than 100 Islamists gathered outside the sealed home of the Rev. Badia Hutagalung of Huria Kristan Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Rancaekek to disrupt worship services, sources said.
Another attack on Sept. 12 led to the arrest and detention of 13 FPI members, including Murhali Barda, leader of the FPI’s Bekasi branch. During the attack, assailants stabbed and critically wounded church elder Hasian Sihombing and beat the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak over the head with a wooden beam. (See, “Indonesian Church Leaders Wounded in Attack,” Sept. 15.)
‘Christians Should Not Provoke Us’
After making the offer of FPI assistance at the Jakarta police headquarters on Dec. 14, Shihab told The Jakarta Post that “Islam is not allowed to disrupt other religions worship,” but he added the warning that “Christians should not provoke us.”
His offer came just two days after some 300 Islamists from FPI, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement, together with civil service police officers, raided and forcibly closed seven churches in Rancaekek. (See "Islamists Raid House Churches in West Java," Dec. 17.)
Sub-district head Meman Nurjaman on Nov. 16 had sent out a decree ordering 11 churches in Rancaekek to close, citing protests from the local community. Nurjaman later admitted that he had acted under pressure from Muslim hardliners living outside the housing estate, according to a Compass source, who added that Nurjaman had no legal authority to issue the decree.
During the Dec. 12 raid, Islamists forcibly removed at least 100 worshipers from a residential building used by the HKBP Bethania church and several other churches, and they urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was not a registered place of worship.
Hutagalung said the congregation only worshipped there because they could not meet the terms of the SKB, which requires proof of at least 90 church members, signatures of approval from at least 60 local residents, and approval from village officials and a local interfaith forum.
The mob also attacked six other house churches in Rancaekek on Dec. 12, forcing five of the seven to close.
A day after the raids, Adj. Sr. Comr. Hendro Pandowo, the Bandung police chief, said Christians in Bandung should refrain from putting themselves in harm’s way.
“If they pray in churches, I will protect them if anybody disturbs them,” he told the The Jakarta Globe. “If they pray in places they are not allowed to, they are breaking rules, so why would I protect them?”
Readers posting comments to the Globe article online said it was almost impossible for congregations to obtain a building permit under existing regulations, leaving them no option but to worship in private homes or empty building sites.
One reader, identified only by the log-in name of Aki-Amani, wrote, “Thank you Chief Hendro for your promise of protection – if we follow your dictates. However, don’t be surprised if we are found anywhere, everywhere … praying as we go about our daily activities at home and in the market place, whether you approve and will protect us or not.”
Jakarta police on Friday (Dec. 18) met with leaders representing 1,600 churches in greater Jakarta to discuss security measures for the Christmas season.
Jakarta Police Chief Insp. Gen. Sutarman, identified only by a single name, said at least 9,000 security personnel would be deployed in and around churches in greater Jakarta as part of a total 87,000 security personnel stationed at houses of worship throughout Indonesia over the Christmas and New Year season, the Globe reported.
Police began providing Christmas security for churches after a series of 38 coordinated church bombings on Dec. 24, 2000, left at least 18 people dead and dozens injured across the nation. The bombings were organized by Jemaah Islamiyah, a local Islamic terrorist group.
“The Jakarta police guarantee that celebrations will be conducted peacefully across all churches registered with us in the city,” Sutarman reportedly said.
What that implies for unregistered churches remains to be seen.
Spokesmen from two unregistered churches told the Globe they would meet this Christmas despite explicit threats from the FPI to ransack “controversial” Christmas celebrations.
The congregation of HKBP Filadelfia in Bekasi will meet in a tent on the street next to their sealed church, despite the risk of further aggression or physical harm from the FPI, sources said.
Members of Gereja Kristen Indonesia Yasmin in Bogor, however, reportedly said they will break open the seals on their partially-constructed church, closed in September due to pressure from the FPI and other hard-line groups despite having a legal permit.
“We want to celebrate religious freedom in our church,” spokesman Bona Sigalingging told reporters, adding that police would not be asked to provide security.
Report from Compass Direct News
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
Long-harassed Mennonite leader fought expropriation; 20 Bible students arrested, sent home.
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, December 17 (CDN) — An estimated 500 soldiers and police here cordoned off the church headquarters and home of the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang on Tuesday (Dec. 14), and then heavy equipment operators quickly demolished the two-story building, sources said.
Mennonite Pastor Quang and his followers did not interfere with the demolition, the local sources said, but an altercation occurred away from the scene in which authorities knocked him unconscious after he objected to the arrest of some 20 Bible school students. Though police tried hard to confiscate cameras and cell phones, the demolition and the church’s version of events made it onto videos available online.
The demolition was the culmination an expropriation battle over the property. The area of the city where the Mennonite center was located, Thu Thiem in District 2, has been zoned for urban development, and the government has been expropriating land for this purpose. Those who had built before 1992 got a set price per meter, and those like Pastor Quang who built after the government purportedly announced development plans were offered only half that amount.
Pastor Quang, who has legal training, appealed and helped a number of neighbors to do so as well.
Victims of the Mennonite church expropriation said the government was using legal means as a pretext for suppressing their church.
“They are always looking for such excuses to suppress us,” said one leader who requested anonymity. “This event was carefully planned since at least September, when they started slandering Pastor Quang in the newspapers.”
Prior to the demolition, he said, various officials barged into the center and “terrorized” Pastor Quang’s family.
“The demolition itself, involving hundreds of government people, was pulled off with great precision,” he said. “During the demolition, they not only cordoned off the site, but we hear they also disabled the cell phones of some other church leaders in the city.”
With a history of confronting government injustices and providing moral support to dissident groups, Pastor Quang has long been the object of official resentment. He and other Mennonites were arrested in 2004, and several spent time in prison for “resisting an officer doing his duty.” Strong international advocacy secured an early release for him.
On Tuesday (Dec. 14) he was moving 20 or so resident Bible school students to a place he had rented nearby in the event of heavy-handed action by the government. He peacefully objected to the arrest of the students, sources said, but police punched him and knocked him unconscious. He was taken to a nearby police lockup and released later that day.
Pastor Quang reluctantly accepted a key to a run-down apartment in a government resettlement block in order to provide shelter for his family. Authorities put the students on buses to their homes and warned them not to return to Ho Chi Minh City.
This year officials decided to attack Pastor Quang first with a smear campaign. Since September the state media, including the Saigon Giai Phong (Liberation) newspaper, have run articles falsely accusing him of sexual misconduct, including names of his alleged partners, among other allegations. They falsely accused him of being a counterfeit pastor who ordained himself and ran what appears to be a fabricated “testimony” of a Christian who condemns Pastor Quang’s character.
One article in Saigon Giai Phong quotes Pastor Nguyen Quang Trung, the leader of another Vietnam Mennonite church group officially recognized in 2007, as saying Pastor Quang was expelled from the denomination for misconduct. Sources said this was false, but that five years ago the two men had a falling-out that resulted in a split into two Vietnam Mennonite Churches. A member of Pastor Quang’s leadership committee told Compass that their group has more than 5,000 Christians in six districts around the country.
Rumors of the demolition circulated for a couple of days before the event took place, allowing the Mennonites to safely take away some but not all of their documents and equipment.
Today (Dec. 16) Saigon Giai Phong and other newspapers ran long, detailed articles on the “forced expropriation” event, portraying it only as a land issue and citing the relevant laws and the court documents. The description of the events surrounding the demolition differs radically from church accounts posted on the Web and verbal accounts given to Compass. The state media account says Pastor Quang fell, knocking himself out. Christians who witnessed the event said he was brutally punched.
“Apart from the malicious slandering of Pastor Quang in the state media, the authorities in this case were very clever in trying to stay within Vietnamese ‘law’ to take action against him,” said one house church leader. “And it is no accident that the Mennonite center was the first place targeted for forced demolition, even though other property owners are also appealing.”
Some Mennonites managed to contact a foreign embassy during the demolition. Embassy staff members contacted city officials who told them it was an action of the local District 2 and they could do nothing about it.
A leader of an unregistered house church denomination told Compass that Pastor Quang draws mistreatment by being too confrontational with officials on justice issues. Pastor Quang has long tried to help Vietnam’s powerless ethnic minority Stieng people, for example; his research showed their land was illegally taken by greedy officials.
After his release from prison in 2005, Pastor Quang had several confrontations with authorities over alleged violation of building codes, and sources said it was not surprising that authorities were deeply irritated when he appealed the expropriation offer and helped neighbors to do so as well. Authorities at one point dismantled part of the improvements he had made to his property, though Pastor Quang had argued that he had done no differently than all his neighbors who erected and improved their homes at a time when regulations were not clear.
Pastor Quang does not believe Mennonite leaders should be involved in politics per se. On Nov. 9 he published a statement called, “Basic Principles Guiding the Conduct of Mennonite Pastors,” in which he eschews involvement in politics and strongly reiterates the Mennonite position of nonviolence but affirms defending basic human rights and justice.
Mennonite leaders admit to being discouraged at receiving the “Christmas gift” of the demolition but said they would regroup as soon as possible to carry on their work.
Report from Compass Direct News
Youths smash walls, rant against evangelist for building home for worship services.
HO CHI MINH CITY, July 23 (CDN) — A gang of youths on Sunday (July 18) attacked a house church as the congregation worshiped in Xi Thoai village in Phu Yen Province on Vietnam’s south central coast, Christian sources said.
The local youths smashed the walls of the home and wreaked havoc within as they railed against evangelist Mang Vuong for being a Christian and for building his home to be a house church, the sources said. The sources noted that on the night of June 10 the same youths, spurred by local authorities, broke into Vuong’s home in Xuan Lanh Commune, Dong Xuan district, stole more than $3,000 and destroyed household furnishings, utensils and books.
Since then this same gang of local youths has been harassing and threatening Vuong, sources said. The pastor reported death threats.
Vuong, of the Hroi ethnic minority, is a worker for the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), or ECVN(S), Vietnam’s largest government-registered denomination. When the Hroi church at Soi Nga some six kilometers (nearly four miles) away became full, leaders decided to start a congregation in Xi Thoai village where a number of Hroi Christians lived.
In Vietnam, a common approach for church expansion is to build a roomy home for an evangelist to serve also as a meeting place. The evangelist’s house in Xi Thoai was nearly completed when it was first attacked last month.
According to a petition the evangelist sent to commune, district and provincial officials on June 12, it was village officials who assembled young people for a meeting on June 9 and plied them with liquor. Very late at night the youths, including several sons of commune officials, attacked the evangelist’s house.
The petition blames village Chief La Mo Duc, Deputy Chief Le Minh Dien and others for inciting the young people. These two officials are also the local Communist Party leaders.
The gang stole 60 million dong (US$3,091), which had just been borrowed to pay the house contractor, according to the petition. They burned Christian books and either stole or destroyed everything else in the house, including new building materials and the contractor’s tools.
Police from local to provincial levels came to the area several times to “investigate,” visits that village Christians said were attempts to identify the Christians in the village. In the next six weeks, sources said, authorities did nothing to address the crime, and local officials did nothing to stop the daylight raid on Sunday (July 18).
“There was no other reason for this – it is religious persecution, pure and simple, incited and allowed by local government officials,” said one prominent ECVN(S) leader. “The inaction of higher officials casts into doubt our country’s claim to uphold religious freedom.”
A provincial ECVN(S) leader, Pastor Vo Thanh Phe, said that for six weeks he had been urging local and provincial officials to take action, without success. Recently a top national leader of the ECVN(S) visited the village to encourage the beleaguered evangelist and Christians. He informed the provincial ECVN(S) leaders that, having personally verified the facts, he would petition the prime minister.
A source said the ECVN(S) leader needed to make the personal visit as it was assumed that the government had tapped the phones of the local Christians.
Christian groups in Vietnam have found that such petitions rarely accomplish anything. Sources said often the petitions are simply referred back down to local officials, who make life harder on those who have complained.
Phu Yen Province has been the site of other recent abuses. Two ethnic minority Ede evangelists, Y Co and Y Du of the unregistered Vietnam Good News Mission Church, were arrested in January and remain in Phu Lam Prison without charge or trial. This is contrary to Vietnamese law (see http://www.compassdirect.org, “Vietnamese Christian, Family Forced into Hiding,” April 1).
Their wives reported that officials told them their husbands would be freed if the prisoners renounced their faith.
A government seminar in May on national religion policy in Phu Yen Province has apparently had little effect on some local officials.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, visiting Hanoi on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the normalization of US-Vietnam relations, raised the issue of human rights and religious freedom with Vietnam’s leaders yesterday (July 22). She had been pressed by human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers to raise the cases of jailed democracy and religious rights activists with Vietnam.
Clinton said the U.S. side wanted to work with Vietnam “to support efforts to pursue reforms and protect basic rights and freedoms,” The Associated Press reported yesterday. When the sensitive subject of human rights came up, Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem described it simply as “a difference between Vietnam and the U.S.”
“Since Vietnam achieved its goal of obtaining U.S. trade privileges in 2006 and acceded to the World Trade Organization in 2007, it has hardened its treatment of democracy, rights and religious freedom activists,” said one long-time observer. “Some keen observers of the Vietnam scene do not foresee any positive changes in Vietnam’s human rights record at least until after next January’s five-yearly Communist Party Congress. In preparation for the congress, for which all major decisions are made in advance, no party factions can be seen to be weak on perceived threats to the revolution.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Church likely to face another harsh year, report says.
DUBLIN, April 9 (CDN) — Christian human rights activist Gao Zhisheng, kidnapped by state security agents on Feb. 4, 2009, has been released, though he appears unable to move or speak freely.
On Tuesday (April 6) Gao told Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based China Aid Association (CAA), by telephone that he had just returned to his Beijing apartment from his guarded location in Shanxi Province.
“Gao Zhisheng and his family have suffered deeply from the long separation,” Fu stated on CAA’s website. “Despite the persecution, he continues to trust the Lord.”
On Jan. 9, 2009, less than a month before Gao was abducted in his home village in Shaanxi Province, his family members began their escape from China. His wife, Geng He, along with then 16-year-old daughter Geng Ge and then 5-year-old son Gao Tianyu, arrived on foot to Thailand and eventually reached New York City on March 14, 2009.
With Fu and with reporters from The Associated Press (AP) this week, Gao declined to discuss his physical condition or how he was treated during his captivity. He told the AP that by leaving his role as a critic of human rights violations in China, he hopes to be re-united with his family.
“Gao is still not able to speak or move freely,” Fu said on the CAA website. “We urge the Chinese government now to allow Gao Zhisheng to be reunited with his family. It is his right, according the Chinese law, to be able to see them, since he has broken no laws during his time of probation.”
Gao’s disappearance had drawn protests from international human rights groups, U.S. and British officials and the United Nations. He had defended house church Christians and coal miners as well as members of the banned Falun Gong, which fuses Buddhist-inspired teachings with forms of meditation. In 1999 Beijing banned it as an “evil cult.”
Early in 2009, Gao authorized CAA to release his account of 50 days of torture by state-sponsored thugs in September and October of 2007. Gao had written the account in November 2007 while under house arrest in Beijing after prolonged beatings and electric shocks on his mouth and genitals.
Gao’s suffering in the fall of 2007 followed an open letter he wrote to the U.S. Congress describing China’s torture of Falun Gong members and other human rights abuses.
Another Harsh Year Expected
Chinese Christians can expect more attacks on large urban churches, more harsh punishments for house church leaders and tighter control of registered churches this year, according to CAA.
In a report summarizing persecution it monitored in 2009, CAA identified five key trends in China’s management of Protestant Christianity.
Authorities last year specifically targeted house church leaders, sometimes handing out harsh sentences and fines; carried out violent raids on large urban churches; attempted to disrupt regular worship meetings and tightened control of churches registered with the government-approved Three-Self Protestant Movement (TSPM).
In response, some urban churches engaged in a “power encounter” with local governments, refusing to quietly allow officials to close or destroy their meeting places, CAA noted. For example, almost 1,000 members of Beijing Shouwang church on Nov. 1 worshiped in Haidian Park during a snowstorm after officials pressured Huajie Plaza managers not to renew the church rental contract.
These trends were confirmed by a Chinese House Church Alliance (CHCA) report, released in December, which described harassment and arrest of church leaders, violent raids on house churches and the oppression of TSPM churches.
While CAA reported only 77 incidents in 2009, these occurred throughout China, giving a broad indication of the status of Protestant Christians, particularly those in unregistered churches. A total of 2,935 people were affected in these incidents, a 44.8 percent increase from 2008. Of these, 389 were arrested, a decrease in arrests of 49 percent; and 23 were sentenced to prison, a decline of 34 percent.
Of the 389 people arrested, 211 were church leaders. Several received harsh prison sentences and fines, including Beijing bookstore owner and church leader Shi Weihan, who on June 12 was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 150,000 RMB (US$21,945). Xinjiang officials on Aug. 6 sentenced Uyghur church leader Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) to 15 years in prison, while a day later, officials in Inner Mongolia sentenced church leaders Li Ming-shun and Zhang Yong-hu to 10 and seven years respectively, with fines of 30,000 (US$4,390) and 20,000 (US$2,925) RMB.
A court in Shanxi Province in November awarded five Linfen church pastors sentences ranging from three to seven years, with fines ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 RMB (US$1,462 to US$7,315). A further five pastors were sentenced to two years in labor camp.
At least 400 paramilitary police violently raided the Fushan county branch of Linfen church on Sept. 13, injuring a few dozen church members, confiscating Bibles and money and damaging church property. A similar raid was carried out on another large church in Shanxi Province in November.
Authorities also sealed or destroyed both house church and TSPM church buildings. In one prominent case last June, officials in Chengdu city, Sichuan Province declared Quiyu church to be an illegal organization, forcing the church to close and confiscating church property.
Officials in Rizhao city, Shandong province, raided a training event at a TSPM church and de-registered two church meeting places, CAA reported, while CHCA reported that officials tore down the meeting place of Changchun church in Ninan city, Shandong Province, giving only token compensation.
Churches in ‘Grey’ Zone
Chinese scholar and former policy writer Liu Peng believes the government is attempting to remove the “grey” zone in Protestant Christianity, where some churches operate openly without legal status.
China now permits churches to bypass joining the TSPM when registering, but many house church groups reject this solution. Leaders would prefer churches to be in one camp or the other, Liu said in a December interview with the China Daily.
In predicting harsher treatment this year, CAA quoted Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, who in January told Oriental Outlook that the “reluctance, intimidation and inability” of local governments to deal with religious issues must be addressed.
If these words represent China’s religious policy direction in 2010, churches are likely to be targets of greater persecution, CAA concluded.
Report from Compass Direct News