Vietnam—Security police assaulted a large group of pastors and theological students gathered in their church center at a provincial town just north of Ho Chi Minh City on the eve of a renewal conference and graduation ceremonies for students of the theological training program.
The Evangelical Mennonite Church, a church not officially registered in Vietnam, was meeting June 9 to 11 at their three-story church center in Ben Cat town in Binh Duong province, just twenty kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City. Most of the pastors had already arrived for the event.
After all the people had retired for the night on sleeping mats laid out on the floor, around 11:00 PM police loudspeakers called for Mrs. Le Thi Phu Dung and Tran Minh Hoa to open the door for an “administrative investigation.” Pastor Phu Dung is president of the Church and wife of former president Nguyen Hong Quang who now heads the training programs of the Church. Pastor Hoa is the pastor of the congregation that meets at the center.
A few minutes after the order was given, security police directed by Ben Cat police chief Major Hoa broke down the door and demanded that the lights be turned on. Large numbers of uniformed and ununiformed men stormed the building, assaulting students and church leaders. Each of the seventy-six persons was led by two policemen to waiting trucks to be taken to the local police station where they were all booked.
According to extensive reports by Pastor Quang, the invading police produced no arrest warrants and gave no reason for the beatings and the arrests. After they hauled the people away, personnel of the various police agencies searched the premises, destroying some property. Police reportedly incited “onlookers” to throw stones at the building which broke windows and roof tiles. Church leaders estimated the total attacking force at more than three hundred persons.
By six o’clock the next morning all had been released. Taking stock of the situation after the group returned to the center, twenty of those who were beaten required medical attention.
For several days after the raid, gangs continued an attack on the building, throwing bricks, stones and rotten eggs. The rooms in front had to be evacuated. During the daytime persons coming to the center were stopped and searched, and some had cell phones and motorbikes confiscated. Many persons were told to leave the area and never come back. Electricity and water was cut in the area; this affected other neighbors as well. A nearly Catholic church expressed support for them.
Most of those arrested were summoned to the police station later for further investigation. Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang was summoned late June 12 to appear at the police station within twenty-five minutes to face charges of “resisting administrative investigation and slandering authorities carrying out their duties.” Trained in law, Quang recognized this as an illegal order and ignored it. The next day he was ordered to appear on charges of “resisting administrative investigation and local disorderly conduct.” At the police station Quang met some officials who were sympathetic towards him.
Religious groups are required to inform local authorities of meetings, and Pastor Hoa had reported to the local ward the evening before the raid that twenty-nine pastors were coming, and was planning to submit a complete report the following morning of those who had gathered for the conference.
With no resolution at the local level, leaders petitioned higher authorities about the flagrant abuses of their rights under Vietnamese law. They sent a “petition of accusation” signed by fifty-eight church leaders to the Minister of Public Security and to the head of the Peoples’ Investigative Bureau. It details five major charges against local police, including entering without a warrant, arresting and abusing children, using guns to terrorize defenseless students and pistol-whipping people within the holy confines of a church building.
While incidents like this occurred frequently in Vietnam a decade or two ago, Vietnam’s government has bettered its record on human rights and religious freedom, encouraged by leaders’ desire to win acceptance into the family of nations. One segment of Vietnam’s Mennonite community was granted official status as the Vietnam Mennonite Church in 2008. Led by Pastor Nguyen Quang Trung, this Church became an official member of Mennonite World Conference in 2009.
Nguyen Hong Quang served as president of the other group, referred to as the Evangelical Mennonite Church or Mennonite Church in Vietnam. Each group has around five thousand members, and each has adopted the same Mennonite Confession of Faith.
Pastor Quang has been outspoken, calling on local authorities to respect the national constitution along with decrees and laws assuring people’s right to religious freedom. In 2004 he was arrested and convicted, along with five other church leaders, of “preventing a police officer from carrying out his activities,” a catch-all charge once often levied against religious leaders. Although sentenced to three years in prison, he was granted amnesty after fourteen months following an international appeal for his release.
For many years the Church headquarters was located in his home in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 2. He was forced from his home in December 2010, along with hundreds of other people, in a major redevelopment project. He and his family then moved to Ben Cat in Binh Duong province. The Church had built a three-story brick building on land that Quang’s wife, Mrs. Phu Dung, had received by tenure and he subsequently purchased with church money and funds received from confiscation of the District 2 property. The Church had already started a congregation in the Ben Cat area before they moved there.
As a piece of the government’s program of controlling the activities of religious groups, a church cannot request legal status until it has been in existence for twenty years. This means that it must function “illegally” for some time. New congregations can request permission to operate in local areas. Sometimes that permission is given—other times not. Since some government officials considered Quang uncooperative, the local government never gave the church official permission to function in Ben Cat.
What was the Church to do? Since they had rights to the property, and the local zoning office gave permission to build the structure, Quang and his family developed it into a training center for children and youth as well as offering theological and practical training for evangelists and pastors.
The local authorities had harassed the church at Ben Cat earlier. Mrs. Nguyen Thi Hong was pastor at Ben Cat when arrested and imprisoned in November 2007 on charges of defrauding investors many years earlier when a business deal failed. Sentenced in court to a prison term, observers suggested she would not have faced prison had she not been a church leader.
Nguyen Thanh Nhan was one of the six Mennonite leaders who were sentenced to prison terms in 2004. In 2007 he and his recently married wife moved to Ben Cat to pastor the congregation, and later became overseer of several area congregations. Local security police constantly harassed him. He was frequently called to the police station for investigation, and was told to abandon his congregation. This harassment increased in 2011 when Nguyen Hong Quang and his family moved to Ben Cat and the activities at the center mushroomed. Nhan was threatened with arrest, and he feared for his health due to injuries suffered by beatings from his earlier imprisonment. In late 2011 he and his wife and three-year-old daughter fled to Thailand. The United Nations granted him refugee status to enable him to resettle in a third country.
There have been times when the local Ben Cat authorities have been helpful. At Christmas time, 2012, local authorities arranged for the Church to use a theater several days for a renewal conference.
Ben Cat in My Phuoc district is in a rapidly-growing industrial area of Binh Duong province with many foreign companies located here. In recent months there have been growing tensions between Vietnam and China over Chinese activities in the South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea. In early May the government allowed some public demonstrations against the Chinese. Thousands of persons took part in these demonstrations which quickly spiraled out of control, damaging Chinese-owned industrial facilities and those of other Asian countries. Hundreds of suspects were arrested following anti-China riots in Binh Duong province May 13. At a public trial in Ben Cat town that attracted thousands of spectators on Sunday, May 25, a worker was sentenced to three years in prison. It is not known whether the recent actions against the church were in any way related to these other developments. Pastor Hong Quang told an inquiring correspondent that he was “only doing the work of the Lord.” Quang wryly noted that if the government had assigned to the industries only one-fifth of the police that were sent to invade the church property, the industries would have been protected!
What is the real reason for the June 9 incident and the ongoing harassment? Does the head of the local police have some vendetta against Quang? Is this stance directed by higher officials?
In a phone interview with an international correspondent a week after the incident, Pastor Hong Quang said local authorities were not pleased that he had recently organized some big event with guest speakers. He also said that they were also irritated that he had declined a request to “cooperate with” the authorities. Major Hoa, the chief of police, has frequently declared that there is no church in Ben Cat! Perhaps he needed to make this a reality.
When local authorities are not pleased with leaders or the activities of local churches—whether part of registered or unregistered churches—they often resort to harassment.
Pastor Quang is his report said the same: “If one wanted to record all the control and harassment of the Mennonite Christians and those of other denominations, including those with legal recognition, one could not record it all. Every local area deals with the pressure, whether heavy or light, if not now then at some other time, if not the pastor then the believers, if not with long-time Christians then with new believers, if not directly from the security police then with tough military personnel as in the case where, at the beginning of a worship service, soldiers are more numerous than believers, not blocking believers from going to the service, but shoving them off the path into the mud so they cannot go to church in that condition.”
A year ago the largest evangelical church in Vietnam announced a national conference with the agenda to unite the northern and southern branches of the Evangelical Church in Vietnam. Thirty-five years earlier the government wanted the two groups to unite, but the church in the south declined. Now the Bureau of Religious Affairs said no. The conference was called off!
While it is true that Vietnam has made significant progress in granting rights taken for granted in many countries, some have observed that Vietnam tends to take two steps forward, then one backward. It’s time to move forward again.
International persons acquainted with the Mennonite churches in Vietnam are considering an appropriate response to express solidarity with their brothers and sisters there.
Article by Luke Martin of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Article written for Mennonite World Review.
Photo: Luke Martin (left) and Nguyen Quang Trung at the November 2012 celebration of the Vietnam Mennonite Church.