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

Sheikh Incites Muslims to Attack Christians in Egypt

Assault on community center, church, homes leaves 24 Copts wounded.

ISTANBUL, March 17 (CDN) — A mob of enraged Muslims attacked a Coptic Christian community in a coastal town in northern Egypt last weekend, wreaking havoc for hours and injuring 24 Copts before security forces contained them.

The violence erupted on Friday (March 12) afternoon after the sheikh of a neighborhood mosque incited Muslims over a loudspeaker, proclaiming jihad against Christians in Marsa Matrouh, in Reefiya district, 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Alexandria, according to reports.

The angry crowd hurled rocks at the district church, Christians and their properties, looted homes and set fires that evening. The mob was reportedly infuriated over the building of a wall around newly-bought land adjacent to the Reefiya Church building. The building, called al Malak al Khairy, translated Angel’s Charity, also houses a clinic and community center.

“I was very surprised by the degree of hatred that people had toward Christians,” said a reporter for online Coptic news source Theban Legion, who visited Reefiya after the attack. “The hate and the disgust were obvious.”

The attack was a rarity for a northern coastal resort town in Egypt; most tensions between Copts and Muslims erupt in southern towns of the country.

According to a worker building the wall around the newly-bought plot, local Sheikh Khamis along with a dozen “bearded” men accused the church and workers of blocking a road early on Friday, staff members of Watani newspaper said.

Worried that the dispute could erupt into violence, one of the priests ordered the workers to take the wall down.

The governor of Marsa Matrouh approved the building of the church center and granted a security permit to conduct religious services in 2009.

Following afternoon mosque prayers, Sheikh Khamis rallied neighborhood Muslims, gathering more than 300 people. The mob broke into groups, attacking the church and nearby houses of the Coptic Christian community. There are nearly 2,000 Coptic Christians in Reefiya.

Around 400 Copts fled into the church building while the rioting mob looted and destroyed 17 houses, 12 cars and two motorcycles, according to Watani.

Local security forces were unable to contain the attack and called-in back up from nearby Alexandria. At nearly 1:30 a.m. on Sunday (March 14) they managed to contain the crowd and let the Christians out of the church.

Police arrested 16 young Christian men among those who were inside the church building, according to Watani. Later, four of them who were released because they were underage told reporters that security forces beat them. Police also arrested 18 of the assailants.

Some of the attackers and security forces were also wounded in the altercation. Of the wounded Copts, two were reportedly rushed to a hospital in Alexandria in critical condition. Sobhy Girgis, 33, was taken to Alexandria’s Victoria Hospital for internal bleeding in the kidney from injuries sustained from rocks the crowd threw at him, and Mounir Naguib, 41, was treated for multiple stab wounds, according to Watani.

Naguib, a teacher, said he was accosted while on his way to the Angel’s Charity building, with a knife-wielding member of the mob asking him if he was a Christian. When he said he was, the Muslim told him to convert to Islam by pronouncing the two testimonies of the Muslim faith (that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger).

“When I refused, he stabbed me in the thigh and hit me on the head,” Naguib told Watani.

One Copt, Nabil Wahba, told of how his house was destroyed. Wahba said he came home at 6 p.m. to find around 40 men hurling stones at his house. At 9 p.m. they came back with clubs and iron pipes, ripping the windows open and throwing fireballs into the house.

“When we tried to put out the fire, they hurled stones at us, while others were pulling down the garden fence and setting the other side of the house aflame,” Wahba told Watani

Security forces pulled Wahba and his sister out of his blazing house.

On the same day that violence erupted in Marsa Matrouh, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a report denouncing Egypt’s legal system for not bringing people to justice for violent acts against Christians and their property.

According to the report, in the last year there have been more than a dozen incidents in which Coptic Christians have been targets of violence.

“This upsurge in violence and the failure to prosecute those responsible fosters a growing climate of impunity,” USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo states in the report.

Since 2002, Egypt has been on the USCIRF “Watch List” as a country with serious religious freedom violations, including widespread problems of discrimination, intolerance and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, according to the report.

Commenting on the Marsa Matrouh attack, the Theban Legion reporter stated that among the mob were members of Bedouin communities who are intolerant of plurality and diversity in society.

“The law of the land is supposed to be a civil law, and we would like to see a civil law applying to everybody,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians in Jos, Nigeria Fear Further Attacks

Churches burned following assault on Catholic church in volatile Plateau state.

LAGOS, Nigeria, January 19 (CDN) — Gunshots and smoke continued to alarm residents of Jos in central Nigeria today, with the Christian community fearing further violence from Muslim youths who on Sunday (Jan. 17) attacked a Catholic church and burned down several other church buildings.

A 24-hour curfew imposed yesterday in Jos and the suburb of Bukuru by the Plateau state government was extended through Wednesday. Police said continuing violence was initially triggered by Sunday’s unprovoked attack by Muslim youths on worshippers at the St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Nasarawa Gwong, in the Jos North Local Government Area.

Also burned were buildings of the Christ Apostolic Church, Assemblies of God Church, three branches of the Church of Christ in Nigeria and two buildings of the Evangelical Church of West Africa, Christian leaders said.

The number of casualties continued to grow, reportedly reaching more than 100 as security forces tried to rein in rioters, with both Christian and Muslim groups still counting their losses. Hundreds have reportedly been wounded.

“We have been witnessing sporadic shootings in the last two days,” said the Rev. Chuwang Avou, secretary of the state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria. “We see some residents shooting sporadically into the air. We have also seen individuals with machine guns on parade in the state.”

Avou said many of those who are shooting are civilians, not policemen, and that they have been mounting road blocks and causing chaos in the area. At least 35 people have been arrested.

“What we have witnessed only goes to show that the problem in the state is far from over,” he said. “Many families have been displaced. There are a number who are receiving treatment in the hospital. The dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed in the state has not solved any problem, as there is still tension in the land.”

Avou said the crisis broke out when Muslim youths pursued a woman into a church during worship on Sunday, wreaking havoc on the service.

“Some Muslim youths invaded some churches and started burning and destroying properties,” he said. “We were told that the youths pursued a lady to the church. Nobody knew what the lady did. What we just discovered was that the entire atmosphere was ignited and houses were being burned.”

A Muslim group in the area, however, dismissed claims that Muslim youths ignited the tensions. They accused Christian youths of stopping a Muslim from rebuilding his house.

State Commissioner of Police Greg Anyating stated that Muslim youths were to blame for setting off the violence.

As violence continued today, there was a mass movement of Christians and Muslims from areas where rampaging youths were unleashing mayhem on the city despite heavy security. The Nigerian army was reportedly summoned to try to restore order.

The Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, co-chairman of the state Inter-Religious Council and Catholic Archbishop of Jos, condemned the recurring civil disturbances in the state and called on all to “sheath their swords and be their brothers’ keepers.”

The secretary of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Pastor Wale Adefarasin, said attacks on Christians are a manifestation of terrorism in the country.

“What we should realize is that the government is not helping situations,” he said. “It is an illusion that Nigeria is safe.”

He added that terrorism affects both Christians and Muslims negatively, and that it is the duty of elected officials to ensure that terrorists are detected early and deterred.

“The Muslim fundamentalists want to take over Jos by all means,” Pastor Adefarasin said. “They claim that Jos is a Muslim state, which is not true.”

Violence hit the same area on Nov. 28-29, 2008, when murderous rioting sparked by Muslim attacks on Christians and their property left six pastors dead, at least 500 other people killed and 40 churches destroyed, according to church leaders. More than 25,000 persons were displaced in the two days of violence.

What began as outrage over suspected vote fraud in local elections quickly hit the religious fault line as angry Muslims took aim at Christian sites rather than at political targets. Police and troops reportedly killed about 400 rampaging Muslims in an effort to quell the unrest, and Islamists shot, slashed or stabbed to death more than 100 Christians.

The violence comes at a time of a leadership vacuum in Nigeria, with illness requiring Muslim President Umaru Yar’Adua to leave the country on Nov. 23 to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia.

Sectarian violence in Jos, a volatile mid-point where the predominantly Muslim north meets the mainly Christian south, left more than 1,000 people dead in 2001. Another 700 people were killed in sectarian outbreaks of violence in 2004. Located in Nigeria’s central region between the Muslim-majority north and the largely Christian south, Plateau state is home to various Christian ethnic groups co-existing uneasily with Muslim Hausa settlers. 

Report from Compass Direct News 


March 26, a severe storm swept through Northeast India, wreaking havoc on a Bible college supported by Gospel for Asia, reports MNN.

The majority of buildings on-campus were destroyed, but all students and staff emerged safely. Students spent the first night in temporary shelters and will finish their semester at the end of this month. The college’s principal requested prayer for wisdom for those involved with the center’s reconstruction plans, and for people in the surrounding community whose homes sustained significant damage.

According to GFA, the storm struck Assam, India last week at around 6:30 p.m. and caused severe damage throughout the area. The college’s dormitories, chapel, kitchen and offices sustained the brunt of damage from the storm. Tin roofs were ripped off of buildings; many portions of the walls and building frames were blown apart. Although students were badly shaken, they were able to gather for a worship service later that night, “thanking God for sparing their lives.”

Students have cleaned up what they could and plan to work with GFA Compassion Services teams to help others living in the surrounding area. In desperate situations, these disaster teams bring food, water, medical care, clothing and occasionally, shelter.

Final exams were administered Monday, and students will finish out their semester this month. Prayer was requested for those involved in planning campus reconstruction, and your prayers will also be needed for the students and GFA Compassion teams serving people affected by this severe storm.

Aside from disaster relief, GFA Compassion Services teams minister on a continual basis in Asia slums, leper communities, and other forsaken people groups. You can find out more about those ministries by clicking here.

Gospel for Asia has established 67 major Bible colleges in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Bhutan border. Students are equipped to “reach the unreached” through an intensive three-year program, including on-the-job training through outreach ministry and preparation for missionary life.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

AUSTRALIA: NEW SOUTH WALES – New Disaster Threatens

A new disaster now threatens Australia following the bushfire disaster in Victoria and the flood disaster in Queensland. Coastal New South Wales is bracing itself tonight for a severe weather onslaught that may last until the weekend.

A low pressure trough and pressure system is deepening off the coast, with strong winds and heavy rain already lashing the coast. The weather is expected to intensify overnight, with gales and heavy rain over the next 72 hours.

However, the weather has already turned nasty, particularly on the north coast with severe flash flooding and massive seas already wreaking havoc on the coast. Within the last hour or so it has been reported that some 4000 people have been stranded by flooding that closed many roads including the Pacific Highway. A mother and small child are missing in flood waters after being swept away in flash flooding.

A number of rivers are on flood alerts and watches tonight, from the Queensland border south to Sydney. Some of the worst affected areas thus far include Coffs Harbour, Bellingen and Dorrigo. Already some 180 mm of rainfall has fallen in three hours in the north.

BELOW: The swollen river at Dangar Falls, Dorrigo

ABOVE: Rising flood waters in Sawtell