Free, But Never the Same

By Gina Goh

01/07/2021 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern)When Pastor A Dao walked through the doors of his home after spending four years behind bars, he found the house abandoned and in disrepair. It looked like someone had left in a hurry. Everything was covered in a layer of dust. After running around the perimeter of the house looking for the familiar faces of his wife and children, he was out of breath. The years spent in prison had damaged his health. He searched for his life savings. Those, too, were gone.

Four years earlier, A Dao had just left a con­ference on the freedom of religion and beliefs in Southeast Asia. As a Protestant pastor of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ (MECC) and an advocate for religious free­dom throughout Vietnam, it was common for him to attend such conferences. But this time, things would not go as planned. After the con­ference, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for “helping individuals to es­cape abroad illegally,” a charge he firmly de­nied.

A Dao’s time in prison was painful. During the interrogation, police tortured A Dao to extract a confession. As a result, he received a five-year sentence. Throughout his time in prison, he was beaten by other inmates while enduring torture from the guards.

Married to a Prisoner of Conscience

While her husband suffered in prison, friends pressured A Dao’s wife into leaving him. The humiliation and danger of being married to a prisoner of conscience was too much for her to bear. Of his two children, the younger one was placed into the care of his ex-mother-in-law in a distant province. The family’s only source of income, cropland, was sold by his wife before she left the house to return to her province.

When his release day came, A Dao returned home to find nothing left. He had no family, no belongings, and no income. Even the pas­tor’s Christian community turned its back on him. Soon after his return, most of his church members shunned him because they feared the local government, which monitored him very closely after he returned.

A Small Victory

Despite the tragic circumstances surround­ing the case, A Dao’s release marked a victo­ry for human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. Congressman Glenn Grothman, who adopted A Dao through the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission’s Defending Free­doms Project, said the pastor’s release marked a “hallmark day for both Pastor A Dao and Vietnam.”

US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Commissioner James W. Carr, who advocated for Dao’s release through USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project, stated that he hopes the release is a “sign that the Vietnamese government is seri­ous about improving religious freedom con­ditions and will release other individuals de­tained for their religious freedom advocacy.”

Pastor A Dao is not the only victim of perse­cution in Vietnam. Though it appeared to heed the Human Rights Committee’s firm input fol­lowing its review of Vietnam in early 2019, reports from victims of persecution which the UN received in 2020 show that Vietnam has been cracking down on defenders of human rights and religious freedom.

While, on paper, unregistered denomination adherents should be able to meet and worship in small groups in Vietnam, in reality, the au­thorities have not authorized members of other households to meet at a pastor’s home to con­duct house church activities in recent years. This is a violation of their own law. Mon­tagnard Christians who have not joined the government-sanctioned denominations face ongoing harassment from local units under the provincial police department to stop them from exercising their freedom of religion.

Life After Prison

Though A Dao was released, he lives under the watchful eye of the Vietnamese government today. As is customary for released prisoners of conscience, especially in the Central High­lands of Vietnam where most ethnic Montag­nards live, the local authorities watch them very closely and they must seek approval be­fore leaving their home villages to go on er­rands or visit friends in nearby communities.

The police visit him at home regularly to in­terrogate him about his current activities and question him about his membership in the Evangelical Church of Christ of the Central Highlands, a religious organization which has not submitted to government interference in its spiritual mission. The government claims that it is a “reactionary” entity working with for­eign governments to undermine the commu­nist regime. The police also continue to pres­sure A Dao to join a government-sanctioned denomination.

Given the restrictions and the dangers, A Dao has not tried to lead religious activities in his home following his release. Thankfully, he is not entirely alone in this period of trial. His eight-year-old son and mother still live in the house with him. At this time, the family sur­vives precariously with help from friends, which is ultimately not sustainable.

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