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.