A Protestant pastor was sentenced to 11 years in prison in Vietnam Monday for leading a house church, unregistered as an official church with state officials, state media reported. The incident reportedly left Christians fearful that similar acts of persecution could become more common in the Communist state.
A court in central Vietnam claimed that Nguyen Cong Chinh, 43, was inciting division between the government and its citizens, state-controlled media reported Tuesday. Chinh was convicted of authoring and disseminating documents with distorted information that slandered authorities, of collaborating with "reactionary groups" and inciting ethnic minorities to commit wrongdoing, according to The Associated Press.
Human Rights Watch indicated that the arrest was part of the state's religious persecution policy.
"The conviction of Pastor Chinh is yet another demonstration showing how much the government of Vietnam cares about freedom of religion: not at all," John Sifton, the group's Asia advocacy director, told AP. He added that Chinh's prosecution "is not going to stop independent religious groups in Vietnam from exercising their beliefs."
Meanwhile, the local Christian community is fearing repercussions, according to some media reports.
"[Eleven] years in jail because he didn't register a church that was not hurting anyone? I am shocked," a Christian woman in Hanoi Pham Nhat told Bikyamasr.com, a global news website.
The Vietnam Mennonite Church, of which Chinh is a member, is a small congregation amid the minority Christian group in this country, where an estimated half of the population is Buddhist. The two largest officially recognized Protestant churches are the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) and the smaller Evangelical Church of Vietnam North (ECVN). The Roman Catholic Church constitutes seven percent of the 89.6 million population; Protestants make up one to two percent. The Mennonite Church is officially recognized but leading an unregistered house church is illegal. In communist Vietnam, all churches have to be sanctioned by the state, a requirement criticized by rights groups.
Persecution of such institutions from the government is common, according to various reports.
In August, Pastor Duong Kim Khai from Ho Chi Minh City, also affiliated with the Mennonite Church, was arrested and charged with violating Article 79, "Attempting to Overthrow the Government," according to the U.S. Department of State.
In November. two others affiliated with the church, lay pastor Nguyen Chi Thanh and congregant Pham Ngoc Hoa, were similarly arrested for violating Article 79, according to the department's 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.
Although Vietnam's constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom, in practice, the government regulates and in some cases restricts religious freedom, the report claims.