By Ryan Morgan
7/23/2013 Vietnam (International Christian Concern) – Last Tuesday, fans of Western fast food chains among Vietnam’s 88 million citizens had cause to rejoice as McDonald’s announced they would be opening their very first restaurant in the country. Unfortunately for the highly controlled and sometimes violently repressed religious minorities of Vietnam, the announcement brings little comfort.
McDonalds restaurants’ new entry with other major Western brands like Pizza Hut, Subway, and Starbucks marks an increasing openness under a still Communist government. Yet even as economic liberalization over the past decade has led to ballooning trade ties with Western governments (the U.S. conducted a record $24 billion in trade with Vietnam in 2012), it seems that Western notions of religious liberty have made little, if any, headway. For Vietnam’s 8.5 million Catholics and 1.5 million Protestants, this is bad news.
Ethnic groups such as the Hmong have experienced an unprecedented growth in Christianity over the past few decades. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s most recent report, the Vietnamese government is actually actively working to control the growth of Christianity among these ethnic minorities. The growth of Christianity among the Hmong is viewed by Vietnamese authorities with great suspicion given the perceived Western nature of the faith and the fact that the Hmong assisted U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. When efforts to control this growth seem to fail, violent attacks on Christians ensue.
The most recent example occurred only three weeks ago when the heads of two newly-converted Hmong families were summoned to report to local police in Lao Cai Province, located in the country’s mountainous northwest. After one couple persistently refused to recant and return to their traditional animist belief system, officers became so angry they repeatedly punched both husband and wife until the wife began bleeding. The couple was released from custody soon after but no word has come yet on if or when the police involved will face disciplinary measures.
The attack on the couple came only a month after authorities in Dak Nong Province concluded their investigation into the March death of 38-year-old Hoang Van Ngai. Ngai, a church elder and member of the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam, was taken into police custody and beaten to death. Despite entering the police station a healthy man, photos of Ngai’s body showed evidence of severe bruising. Police claimed Ngai committed suicide by sticking his own finger into an electrical socket, despite the fact that Ngai’s elder brother, detained in a nearby cell, could hear the sounds of his brother’s violent beating. After an outcry from Ngai’s family, police launched an opaque investigation which concluded in May and upheld the original explanation of suicide. Attempts in the West to raise the case with Vietnamese officials were met with silence.
One bright spot did emerge at the end of last month when officials in South Vietnam unexpectedly resettled four Christian families from Kontum Province after their homes and property were destroyed by neighbors angry at their conversion. For four months, the families lived in the home of a pastor and his wife while news of their case garnered attention around the country and overseas. The attention paid off and higher level officials eventually ordered the family to be given new land for homes and farming, as well as government food support for at least six months.
However, this one positive turn of events is almost certainly the exception to the rule. For the majority of religious adherents facing human rights violations in Vietnam, there is little hope of justice or restitution unless their story finds an international spotlight. While things have certainly improved over the past ten years, there remains an astonishingly small level of religious freedom for the citizens of Vietnam, especially considering the rapid growth of Western businesses in the country. With reports of serious violations and mistreatment coming out every few weeks, it appears it will take much more than a few Happy Meals to ensure the people of Vietnam are guaranteed the right to choose whatever faith they want without fear of being harassed, arrested, and even murdered.