Authorities Move to Stop Protestant Christmas Events

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

Iraqis Mourn Victims of Massive Attack on Church

Islamic extremist assault, security force operation leave at least 58 dead.

ISTANBUL, November 2 (CDN) — Amid questions about lax security, mourners gathered in Iraq today to bury the victims of Sunday’s (Oct. 31) Islamic extremist assault on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s dwindling Christian community.

Seven or eight Islamic militants stormed into Our Lady of Salvation church during evening mass after detonating bombs in the neighborhood, gunning down two policemen at the stock exchange across the street, and blowing up their own car, according to The Associated Press (AP). More than 100 people were reportedly attending mass.

A militant organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which has links to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, claimed responsibility for the attack. The militants sprayed the sanctuary with bullets and ordered a priest to call the Vatican to demand the release of Muslim women whom they claimed were held hostage by the Coptic Church in Egypt, according to the AP. The militants also reportedly demanded the release of al Qaeda prisoners.

“It appears to be a well-planned and strategic attack aiming at the church,” said a local source for ministry organization Open Doors.

About four hours after the siege, Iraqi security forces launched an assault on the church building, and the Islamic assailants blew themselves up. It was unclear how many of the 58 people dead had been killed by Iraqi security personnel, but the militants reportedly began killing hostages when the security force assault began. All who did not die from gunshots and blasts were wounded.

The dead included 12 policemen, three priests and five bystanders from the car bombing and other blasts outside the church. The Open Doors source reported that the priests killed were the Rev. Saad Abdal Tha’ir, the Rev. Waseem Tabeeh and the Rev. Raphael Qatin, with the latter not succumbing until he had been taken to a hospital.

Bishop Georges Casmoussa told Compass that today Iraqi Christians not only mourned lost brothers and sisters but were tempted to lose hope.

“It’s a personal loss and a Christian loss,” said Casmoussa. “It’s not just people they kill. They also kill hope. We want to look at the future. They want to kill the Christian presence here, where we have so much history.”

Casmoussa, who knew the priests who died, said that this attack will surely drive more Christians away from the country or to Kurdish administrated northern Iraq.

“Those who are wounded know that it is by the grace of God they are alive, but some of them don’t know exactly what happened,” said Casmoussa. “There is one hurt man who doesn’t know if his son is still alive. This is the drama. There are families that lost two and three members. Do I have the right to tell them to not leave?”

The attack was the deadliest one against the country’s Christians since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003.

“It was the hardest hit against the Christians in Iraq,” said Casmoussa, noting that no single act of violence had led to more casualties among Christians. “We never had such an attack against a church or Christian community.”

Memorials were held today in Baghdad, Mosul and surrounding towns, said Casmoussa, who attended the funeral of 13 deceased Christians including the dead priests.

“At the funeral there was the Shiite leader, the official spokesperson of the government ministers,” Casmoussa said. “All the discussion was flippant – ‘We are with you, we are all suffering,’ etcetera, but we have demanded a serious investigation. We can’t count on good words anymore. It’s all air. We’ve heard enough.”

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East told Compass that Iraqi Christians have been systematically driven out over the last five years. He said this attack came as no surprise to him.

“I’m not surprised, in that this is not the first time,” said Youkhana. “In the last five years, there has been a systematic terrorist campaign to kick out the Christians from the country. [They are saying] you are not accepted in this country. Christians should leave this country.”

Youkhana said that in the same way that the Jewish community has disappeared from Iraq, the Iraqi Christians, or Medians as they are called, “are in their last stage of existence” in Iraq.

The Iraqi government is to blame due to its lax security measures, Youkhana said.

“I’m ashamed of the minister of defense, who came on TV and said it was a successful and professional operation – 50 percent of the [congregation] was massacred,” said Youkhana of the assault on the Islamic terrorists by Iraqi security forces.

He said that in order for Christians to have any hope of staying in Iraq, the government must come up with a political solution and set up an independent administrative area, like that of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.

“Just now I was watching on TV the coverage of the funeral,” Youkhana said. “All the politicians are there to condemn the act. So what? Is the condemnation enough to give confidence to the people? No!”

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country since 2003. There are nearly 600,000 Christians left in Iraq.

“More people will leave, and this is the intention of the terrorists: to claim Iraq as a pure Islamic state,” said Youkhana. “Our people are so peaceful and weak; they cannot confront the terrorists. So they are fleeing out of the country and to the north. This is why we say there should be political recognition.”

Five suspects were arrested in connection with the attack – some of them were not Iraqi, and today an Iraqi police commander was detained for questioning in connection to the attack, according to the AP.

“We can’t make political demands,” said Casmoussa. “We are making a civic and humanitarian demand: That we can live in peace.”

Following the funerals today, a series of at least 13 bombings and mortar strikes in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad reportedly killed 76 people and wounded nearly 200.

Report from Compass Direct News