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Compass – For years Vietnamese church leaders have filed complaints of religious liberty abuses to government officials and have almost never received replies. But in an unprecedented shift, pastors are now petitioning authorities more openly and internationally.

In a country that sentenced Father Nguyen Van Ly to 15 years in prison for writing to a U.S. government agency about religious rights violations, leaders of one of Vietnam ’s recognized churches are openly copying their petitions against such abuses not only to U.S. and European Union officials, but to foreign media organizations. (Sentenced in October 2001, Father Ly was released as part of a general amnesty last February 1.)

Since October 5, the Rev. Phung Quang Huyen and the Rev. Au Quang Vinh, president and general secretary respectively of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), have copied foreign governments and media on petitions they have written on behalf of persecuted Hmong Christians.

Rev. Huyen, for example, wrote a petition on November 8 to authorities on government attempts to force seven Hmong families to give up their faith. He addressed it to Vietnam ’s prime minister and half a dozen other top government agencies, and openly copied it to the European Union office and U.S. Embassy in Hanoi , as well as to international news agencies.

The letter, obtained by Compass in both its original Vietnamese and a translation, relates Hmong Christian Trang Seo Dinh’s description of how people were continually summoned to the police station, harangued and beaten for refusing to give up their Christian belief. Dinh, of Xin Chai Village , Ta Cu Commune, Bac Ha District in Lao Cai Province , names the offending officials.

“The Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) strongly condemns the human rights violations described above,” wrote Rev. Huyen. “We petition the Prime Minister, the Government Bureau of Religious Affairs, and the Police of Lao Cai Province to investigate this case and punish any individual or group that violated the consitution and the law.”

While thousands of such petitions have been sent to local and central government officials in recent years and some of them have been published outside Vietnam , this marks the first time church officials have openly, simultaneously distributed such letters so broadly. While Father Ly was punished severely for such tactics while in prison, at press time authorities had taken no action against ECVN (N) President Rev. Huyen.

Other church leaders have taken the challenge of refuting their government’s widely broadcast denials and fabrications regarding religious freedom, as they too have decided to go international. Further raising the stakes, church leaders show they have acquired legal savvy as their petitions cite articles of the criminal code in naming officials who abuse Christians.

At least in part, the new-found courage stems from growing frustration with the Vietnamese government, which continues to deny credible reports of serious religious liberty abuses while proclaiming complete religious freedom.

The ECVN (N) has in the last two years issued letters accepting into membership 981 mostly Hmong, ethnic minority churches in the northwest provinces. Not only has the government refused to accept these churches as legitimate, but it continues a brutal campaign called Plan 184 to eradicate Christianity among Hmong Christians, according to a recent Freedom House release. Such activity direct contradicts Vietnam ’s recent legislation on religion.

On November 8, the U.S. Department of State named Vietnam for a second time to its list of worst religious liberty offenders in the world, called “countries of particular concern.” On October 29, Agence-Presse France reported that Vietnam had demanded the U.S. remove it from the black list.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Dung told a news conference in Hanoi , “There is not so-called religious repression to any religion in Vietnam .” Likewise, on November 11 the Vietnam News Agency reacted angrily to the continued inclusion of Vietnam on the list, calling the action “a violation of the U.N. Charter and causing damage to Vietnam-U.S. relations.”

The Vietnamese blamed “distortion campaigns launched by hostile forces against Vietnam .”

In announcing the CPC list, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did recognize that Vietnam had made improvements. If those improvements continued, she said, Vietnam could be removed from the list.

Compass sources in Vietnam noted that Vietnam ’s new religion legislation has not yet yielded the “improvements” the United States and others have hoped for. “As long as a huge segment of the church, such as a quarter million Hmong believers, are subject to a specifically anti-Christian government campaign,” said one source, “it is hard to accept that real ‘improvements’ have been made.”

Another source noted, “ Vietnam ’s top standing among the four East Asia countries on the black list – along with North Korea , China and Burma – is hardly something to be proud of.”