U.S. religious freedom advocates voiced their collective concern on Wednesday over the human rights abuses and religious freedom violations that reportedly take place in Vietnam.
They also urged the Obama administration to take action by re-designating Vietnam a "Country of Particular Concern" – a label that the U.S. government gives to countries for ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.
"When used in the past, the CPC designation produced tangible improvements on the ground and did not hinder progress on other bilateral issues," testified Ted Van Der Meid, commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
"In fact, trade, investment, humanitarian programs, and military relations expanded during the period when Vietnam was a CPC," he added. "The CPC designation can be used again to bring concrete change."
During Wednesday's "emergency session," the commission heard from Van Der Meid, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), as well as witnesses of what has been currently taking place in Con Dau, a Catholic village in the Diocese of Da Nang, Central Vietnam.
Smith – who last month introduced a House resolution to condemn and deplore the violence, threats, fines and harassment in Con Dau – recalled the attack on the village a few months ago during a religious funeral procession.
"Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Smith reported. "More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested, and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police."
And, according to Smith, the Vietnamese government justifies the violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered – some through coercion – to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new "green" resort.
"Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses," he insisted.
In Van Der Meid's testimony, the USCIRF commissioner reported on how Vietnam continues to backslide on human rights and noted that there remain "too many religious freedom violations, too many individuals detained for independent religious activity or peaceful religious freedom advocacy, too many cases of discrimination and forced renunciations of faith targeting new converts to Protestantism, and too many stories of government approved violence targeting Buddhists and Catholics."
"The U.S. should clearly articulate our interest in human rights improvements and use all available diplomatic tools to advance that interest," he added, after noting how the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship has been rapidly growing in many different areas. "U.S. policy should clearly signal support for those in Vietnam peacefully seeking to advance both prosperity and universal rights."
Wednesday's session came just days after residents of Con Dau marked the 80th anniversary of the founding of the village.
And while witnesses were brought up to share about what has been currently taking place in Con Dau, Van Der Meid and Smith made sure to point out that persecution of religious followers is not limited to the Catholic Church in Vietnam.
Furthermore, the human rights abuses there are not limited to people of faith.
"The Con Dau case is a microcosm of the larger decline in human rights conditions in Vietnam," testified Van Der Meid. "It is an issue that will require concerted efforts by the U.S. and the international community if there is to be future progress on human rights and religious freedom."
Among the recommendations offered Wednesday included a visit by the U.S. Embassy to Con Dau village, a strong show of support from the Obama administration for the passage of the Vietnam Human Rights Act, and the public and consistent raising of the issues with Hanoi backed by actions.
"Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a core interest of the American people and critical to the success of many of our global interests," concluded Van Der Meid.
"We believe that the CPC designation and the Vietnam Human Rights Act contain powerful tools to spotlight abuses of religious freedom and related rights, encourage future improvements, and demonstrate that U.S. policy and programs are on the side of those, like the villagers of Con Dau, peacefully seeking to live without fear, intimidation, corruption, and police impunity."