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BosNewsLife – The Vietnam Mennonite Church urged the Communist government Thursday, September 1, to release its jailed evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach, the last of six Mennonite church leaders still being held since a wave of arrests in March 2004. The appeal came a day after news emerged about the release of 45-year old Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, a well-known promoter of religious freedom and human rights who has defended farmers’ land rights cases and spoken out against the arrests of religious and political dissidents. Pastor Quang was sentenced November 2004 to three years imprisonment and forced labor on what human rights groups described as “false charges” of “interfering with officers doing their duty.” He always denied the charges against him, despite severe pressure to sign an admission of guilt, church sources said. Vietnamese authorities have not reacted to the allegations.

“We believe that the early release of pastor Quang is the result of the great concern expressed by many governments, human rights agencies, international press coverage and evangelical believers both within and beyond Mennonite circles,” the Vietnam Mennonite Church said in a statement received by BosNewsLife. He was held in five different prisons, and reportedly suffered abuse at the hands of fellow prisoners. “During this time his health was seriously affected; many times he fainted and his strength gave out while performing labor in the prisons…For long periods near the end he was kept among prisoners with HIV/AIDS, so the possibility of infection is quite high, and many times he was beaten by criminals in the prisons,” the church added. In addition, it said, “his Bible was confiscated, and he was forbidden to pray for other prisoners in his area; and there were times when he was disciplined for preaching to the prisoners.”

While it is pleased with his release, the church stressed the government should urgently free evangelist Thach, who was sentenced in November 2004 to two years in imprisonment. “He has suffered severe beatings at the hands of the authorities,” said Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a human rights watchdog.