Lead story - Friday May 16, 2008
VIETNAM: OFFICIALS CONFISCATE HOME OF EVANGELIST
Phenomenally effective former opium addict cited for ‘illegal religious activities.’
HANOI, May 16 (Compass Direct News) – Local officials in Lao Cai province have confiscated the land and home of a former opium addict because of his phenomenal success as an evangelist, local Christian sources said.
Sua Yinh Siong of Lau Chai village, in Sapa district in the Northwest Mountainous Region, had long been a desperate opium addict, leading to destitution for him and his family. In 2004, after hearing a Firm Foundation broadcast over FEBC radio in his own Hmong language and deciding to follow Christ, he was able to quit his debilitating opium addiction in astonishingly short order with God’s help, he said.
Siong broke completely from his animistic past, taking down paraphernalia for ancestor worship and other spirit-related articles and burning them. His joy over his liberation soon spread to others, and eventually more than 200 families in Sapa district also decided to follow Christ.
The number of Christians kept growing, not just in his own village and district, but in areas several hours away.
Instead of being pleased that a member of their community had been able to rehabilitate his life for his own good and that of his family and community, local government officials launched a campaign of harassment against him. It was not long before Siong began to receive stern warnings against his activities.
This escalated to more open harassment when government officials threatened to seize his property and run him off of it.
Out of appreciation for bringing them the gospel, some of the new believers had helped Siong to buy some terraced rice fields. They diligently completed all the required legal paperwork at both the local and the provincial levels.
Earlier this month, Siong told other Christian leaders that the harassment had reached a crisis point – in April local and provincial officials had confiscated his land, citing “illegal religious activities.”
In the first few days of this month, Siong said, officials evicted him from his home and threatened to destroy it.
Located in his ancestral village, the house is the same one in which he was born and raised and where he started is own family. Officials could not have picked a worse time to take his home; his wife gave birth to a child in mid-April. The infant became seriously ill and was receiving treatment at the Lao Cai provincial hospital.
Such harassment and worse has long been used against ethnic minority Christians in Vietnam’s Northwest Mountainous Region. Since the mid-1990s local officials have driven some 20,000 believers to abandon ancestral lands and homes and flee to Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Such mistreatment of religious believers has been reduced since Vietnam promulgated more enlightened religion legislation in 2005, but it has not stopped. Vietnam’s treatment of Christians in the northwest provinces continues to receive mixed reviews.
Christian sources said experiences such as Siong’s, deliberately orchestrated by government officials, still happen all too often.
“Officials clearly still believe the instructions they are under give them the freedom to suppress new believers without violating Vietnam’s religion regulations,” said one long-time observer.
The Central Bureau of Religious Affairs instruction manual for training officials, entitled “Concerning the Task of the Protestant Religion in the Northwest Mountainous Region” and revised in 2007, shows no change to the 2006 document’s core objective to “solve the Protestant problem” by subduing its development, according to a February report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and the International Society for Human Rights.
The 2006 manual had outlined a government plan to “resolutely subdue the abnormally rapid and spontaneous development of the Protestant religion in the region.”
“Whereas the 2006 manual provided specific legitimacy for local officials to force renunciations of faith among members of less well-established congregations, the 2007 edition imposes an undefined and arbitrary condition of stability upon the freedom of a congregation to operate,” the CSW report says. “Therefore, the treatment of any congregation deemed not to ‘stably practice religion’ is implicitly left to the arbitration of local officials, who had previously been mandated to force renunciations of faith.”
Without a full and unconditional prohibition on forcing renunciations of faith, the report concludes, the amended manual does not go far enough to redress problems in the 2006 original.
So far, Vietnam claims to have registered only about 90 of the approximately 1,200 congregations in the Northwest Mountainous Region.
But registration of congregations is often used to curtail rather than enable religious activities. For example, the registration procedure requires congregations to list by name all believers over 12 years old. Some congregations report that local officials then use this list to exclude any children or visitors not on the list from participating in worship services or other church activities.
Designation as Religious Freedom Violator
Still, the country has shown signs of progress. For example, authorities have recently permitted church leaders to hold the first training seminar ever for Hmong leaders since the Hmong movement to Christian faith began 20 years ago.
Most of Vietnam’s Christians are ethnic minorities often living in remote areas of the Central Highlands and the Northwest Mountainous Region. Much more than ethnic Vietnamese in the lowlands, they continue to suffer harassment, discrimination, and still, in some cases, harsh persecution.
In a hearing on human rights in Vietnam before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on Wednesday (May 14), U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Commissioner Leonard Leo said that progress in religious freedom has been accompanied by persistent abuses, discrimination and restrictions.
“Local government officials [are] confiscating the property and destroying the homes of ethnic minority Protestants in the northwest provinces, reportedly in an effort to persuade them to renounce their faith and return to traditional religious practices,” Leo said. “In view of the ongoing and serious problems faced by many of Vietnam’s religious communities, the uneven pace of reforms meant to improve the situation, the continued detention of religious prisoners of concern, and what can only be seen as a deteriorating human rights situation overall, the Commission again recommends that Vietnam be re-designated as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ or CPC.”
In spite of religious rights improvements, the removal of Vietnam from the state department’s list of the worst violators of religious freedom in 2006 was premature, Leo said.
“Improvements for some religious communities do not extend fully to others; progress in one province is not realized in another; national laws are not fully implemented at the local and provincial levels and are sometimes being used to restrict rather than protect religious freedom,” he said. “There continue to be far too many abuses and restrictions affecting Vietnam’s diverse religious communities, including the imprisonment and detention of individuals for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy.”
The state department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, on the other hand, believes Vietnam has shown considerable progress and no longer deserves the CPC designation.
State department spokesman Tom Casey said at a May 2 press briefing that while a number of religious freedom issues remain, efforts Vietnam has taken to address concerns merit its removal from the CPC list.
“We took them off the list because, among other things, they’d released a significant number of prisoners, including 35 that we had specifically raised with the government,” Casey said. “They have also reopened most of the churches that had been forcibly closed, particularly in the Central Highlands. They put forward a new legal framework on religion that banned forced renunciations of faith. And we are also, of course, in regular contact with religious groups throughout the country, and they have all reported a significant decrease in the instances of harassment and abuse directed at religious believers.”