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Life Gets Tougher for Vietnam’s Christians After New Decree

Special Report by ICC

1/10/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Amid a campaign to arrest Christians, Vietnam’s communist government has implemented a new decree, giving authorities greater control over people’s religious lives in an apparent move to emulate China.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is believed to be leading a campaign with a set number of Christians to be arrested, according to AsiaNews.

The latest to be convicted are 14 political activists – most of them Catholics aged between 24 and 39.

Deutsche Welle reports that the 14 were convicted by a court in the central province of Nghe An on Dec. 9 under Article 79 of the penal code for “plotting to overthrow” the communist state. Three of them were sentenced to 13 years in prison, while the others were given between three and eight years.

Article 79 carries death penalty. The court said the “convicts” –and mostly students and bloggers – had links to the banned US-based opposition group Viet Tan, or Vietnam Reform Party, classified as a terrorist organization by the Vietnamese government.

There is nothing to indicate the defendants intended to overthrow the government,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying. “This trial is in the middle of a deepening crackdown that’s been gradually picking up speed in the past year, year and a half. They’re mowing down the ranks of activists in Vietnam.”

It is believed that the communist government in the single-party state wants to restrict civil rights in general and religious rights in particular to pre-empt any attempts by the people to oppose authorities. AsiaNews says some of the 14 arrested were picked up randomly during church services.

The convictions came about a month after a court in the north-western province of Lai Chau jailed four Christians from the Hmong ethnic minority after finding them guilty of “plotting to overthrow the government.”

One man was sentenced to seven years, while the other three received three years each, BBC reported on Dec. 13. The four were among the thousands of Hmong people who attended a religious gathering on a remote hilltop in May 2011, but the authorities called it a separatist uprising.

The Hmong ethnic minority allied with the United States during the Vietnam War. They are routinely attacked and discriminated against by the government, which still holds it against them.

In July 2011, security forces beheaded pastors and shot to death other Hmong Christians who gathered to await Christ’s return in Dien Bien province bordering Laos and China after a false prophecy by American preacher Harold Camping, according to Moriel Ministries.

The arrests can be read together with the coming in force of a new law, termed as “Decree 92,” from Jan. 1. It supersedes the decree of 2005, which was already highly repressive.

“Under the norm, religious will be forced to undergo to an ‘educational program’ on the history of Vietnam and its legislation, sponsored and held by representatives of the ministries of Interior, Justice and Education,” explains Nguyen Hung of AsiaNews. “Members of the clergy are required to prepare a specific request in the case of foreign travel for conferences and ask authorities’ ‘permission’ in the case of transfers to a different area of the country.”

Apart from retaining repressive provisions of the 2005 decree, Decree 92 also carries requirements for full legal recognition of a religious group. It says the group must have operated for 20 years without violating the law, including “infringing of national security.” This provision clashes with the existing ban on operating without legal recognition.

At a recent meeting between Chinese and Vietnamese government officials, Vice Chairwoman of National Assembly of Vietnam, Ms. Tòng Thị Phóng, said his country would increasingly model itself on China in matters of religious policies, according to AsiaNews.

Evangelicals are about 1.8 percent of the 89 million people in Vietnam, while other Christian groups account for 9.4 percent, according to Operation World.

Ryan Morgan, ICC’s Regional Manager for Southeast Asia, said, “With Decree 92, the government of Vietnam has shown once again that it is not committed to creating anything like true religious freedom for the Vietnamese people.”

Any government that forces churches to be registered, then blocks churches from registering, and then intimidates those who lead or attend unregistered churches is a government determined to control the free expression of worship despite its protections under international law, Morgan said. “We call on the government of Vietnam to repeal any law that gives local authorities the power to persecute religious minorities and to immediately begin a more inclusive, transparent, and rapid church registration program.”

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