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Vietnamese Officials Resort to Force in Civil Dispute

Even after securing building permit, Rev. Quang and 10 others are taken into custody.

Special to Compass Direct

May 26th

HO CHI MINH CITY, May 25 (Compass Direct) – An estimated 50 police and other security forces and officials from Binh Khanh Ward in District 2 converged on the Mennonite church, office and residence of the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang on Monday afternoon (May 22), demolishing new construction and arresting the pastor and 10 others.

The officers forced their way into the building, kicked down doors and roughed up construction workers and other people by punching and wielding nightsticks and electric cattle prods.

Rev. Quang, who had been released from prison last August after serving 15 months of his three-year sentence for “interfering” with police officers, was handcuffed and held in custody at the ward police station overnight. He was the last to be released on Tuesday evening (May 23), about 28 hours after his arrest.

Pastor Quang had recently reported that, after months of difficulty and delay, he had received a building permit dated May 8 to repair the Mennonite building in District 2. A part of it had been forcibly demolished last July (while he was still in prison) because of five-year-old allegations of building code violations. Officials forced his wife and children to watch that demolition.

In the latest incident, authorities charged that the church rebuilding went beyond the allowances of the building permit. In Vietnam , building codes are only selectively enforced.

In a previous incident in March 2004 at the same location, Pastor Quang and five Mennonite church workers were arrested, charged with “interfering with officers of the law doing their duty” and sentenced to various prison terms.

Pastor Quang was released before the end of his sentence following intense international advocacy. The last of the six arrested in the incident, evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach, was released in March after completing a two-year sentence. (See Compass Direct, “Last of Vietnam’s Mennonite Six Released from Prison,” March 3.)

While Pastor Quang was being shuffled from prison to prison, leadership of the Mennonite church passed to his wife, Le Thi Phu Dzung. Authorities raided the church at least 80 times while Pastor Quang was in prison, sometimes in the middle of the night, terrorizing Dzung and her three young children.

Setting a Trap?

Construction was underway when the raid occurred on Monday. In an interview with Radio Free Asia while her husband was in custody, a distraught, crying Dzung described the loud noises in the background as the demolition of the allegedly illegal new construction went on.

The destruction of the new construction continued under the direction of authorities the next morning, even during a visit to the site by a U.S. consular official.

Some of Pastor Quang’s peers believe that, instead of using peaceful due process, authorities resorted to use of force in a civil matter in order to set a trap for Pastor Quang, hoping to provoke him. At minimum, they said, Vietnamese authorities did not demonstrate sensitivity and humanity toward the Mennonite church and again showed a callous attitude toward a religious group.

A long-time Compass source noted that it is especially puzzling that Vietnam would risk the fallout of more negative publicity at a time when it is trying hard to get off the U.S. list of Countries of Particular Concern of religious liberty offenders. Removal from the list is necessary if the United States is to support Vietnam ’s highly desired entry into the World Trade Organization.

“Local ward authorities may have done this on their own – they have long acted with deep animosity toward Pastor Quang and his group,” the source said. “They were upset because they were not informed in advance of his prison release last August and had hinted to him that they were not yet finished with him.”

Though local authorities had acted with restraint toward the church since Pastor Quang’s release from prison last August, he said, the building permit issue provided them the opportunity they sought.

“On the other hand, both Pastor Quang and his wife had also signed the provocative April 8 ‘Declaration on Democracy and Freedom for Vietnam ,’ along with 116 other democracy advocates,” the source said. “So it is possible that this caused some higher authorities, who do not want reproach on religious liberty and human rights, to permit or provoke the incident.”

Whatever the motives, stories again blaming solely the victims are likely to circulate soon, he added.

A pastor in Vietnam concluded: “Whatever the facts of the case, the image of dozens of armed and aggressive police and security forces brandishing nightsticks and electric truncheons and once again forcing their way into the Mennonite church and home of its leader, and beating up people, will do little to convince either unregistered churches in Vietnam or the international community that Vietnam is intent of improving relations with religious bodies.”