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U.S. Official’s Remarks Surprise Vietnamese Church Leaders

Religious freedom ambassador John Hanford cites country’s “enormous progress.”

9/18/06 Vietnam (Compass Direct News) – Church leaders in Vietnam expressed surprise at U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford’s statement at a briefing on Friday (September 15) that “ Vietnam has turned the corner and made enormous progress on religious freedom.”

Most observers concluded that this statement was a clear signal that the ambassador intends to recommend that Vietnam be removed from the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern, a U.S. blacklist of worst religious liberty offenders this year. On Friday the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (OIRF) issued its annual report on the state of religious freedom in 197 countries, stating “significant improvements occurred in the status of religious freedom in Vietnam .”

Within a day of the postings of Hanford ’s statements at the on-the-record briefing on the web, two church leaders in Vietnam called Compass expressing their surprise that the ambassador had responded to a question by asserting “enormous progress” in religious freedom.

When these and other church leaders talked to Hanford during his recent visit to Vietnam, they told him that in certain areas they were experiencing fewer problems and less harassment than previously and had cautious hopes for more improvement – seeing it as quite modest progress at best.

They fear the ambassador’s statements will encourage Vietnam to relax its efforts to change.

About 50 house church organizations have agreed that they should try to register their activities as is provided for in new religion legislation promulgated in the last two years. But they say that the highly intrusive nature of some of the questions they must answer are unnecessary and incompatible with religious freedom.

The procedure also requires the signing of a pledge not only to obey the law but also the decrees of local officials without any specification of what these decrees might be. In many parts of the country, such local officials have often capriciously harassed and persecuted Christians in spite of laws to the contrary.

Hence the registration process for these Christians remains stalled. Without receiving registration for religious activities, these house churches, representing more than 200,000 Christians, will remain illegal.

One house church leader also reported obtaining a new internal government document indicating a strong push by the government to gather information about all Christian groups – and decide on that basis which ones are eligible for registration. According to the new directive, he said, Christians not considered to have a “genuine need for religion” are to be “mobilized to return to traditional beliefs and practices.”

Christian leaders in Vietnam indicated that this does not seem like “enormous progress.”

Of the 15 pages of the OIRF report on Vietnam , at least six are devoted to the Protestant situation, including numerous incidents and problems. For example, the report says that over 500 ethnic minority churches of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam North in the Northwest Highlands applied to register in the past year and that “most application were either rejected outright, ignored or returned unopened.”

The ORIF report also admits that Vietnam has been very slow and uneven in implementing its new laws.

Signs of Progress

At the same time, Christians in Vietnam are grateful for some progress. The registration of a couple of dozen minority Montagnard churches related to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam South in the Central Highlands over the last year is one such case.

On Friday (September 15), the Danang-based Christian Mission Church (Co Doc Truyen Giao Hoi) was allowed to celebrate its 50th anniversary and on this occasion received government permission to carry on religious activity after three years of trying. This level of permission is seen as a prelude to receiving official, national legal recognition some time in 2007.

One member of the church reported to former missionaries in the United States that they had a wonderful celebration. He said that the 30 or so government officials who attended were very surprised to hear congratulations read from all over the world. This organization, including both minority Montagnard and ethnic Vietnamese congregations, would be only the third Protestant group in the country to receive legal recognition.

A prominent Hmong Christian leader, Ma Van Bay, was released for the September 2 National Day amnesty of prisoners. He had served about two-and-a-half years of a six-year sentence for “stealing the people’s money.” As treasurer of a church responsible for holding and using the modest voluntary offerings of Hmong Christians, Bay has denied the charges.

Held and released in his native Ha Giang Province, he visited his mother there before returning to his wife and children in southern Binh Phuoc province, to which he had earlier fled because of persecution. Bay told a Compass informant that he wanted to express his gratitude to all who had prayed for him and worked for his release.