Religious groups urge Biden admin. to address religious persecution in Vietnam

Workers erect scaffolding to aid the renovation of the Saint Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi on April 27, 2021. | NHAC NGUYEN/AFP via Getty Images

More than 70 international religious organizations and leading human rights experts are urging the Biden administration to address the state-backed persecution of religious minorities in Vietnam, particularly Christians. The government, they say, is employing repressive measures against the communities.

In a joint letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top Biden administration officials, the organizations, including 21Wilberforce, ADF International and the  American Association of Evangelicals, are drawing attention to the increasingly repressive measures employed by the communist government against religious groups that resist state control.

In the letter, the signatories express concern over the “rapid escalation of repressive measures against religious groups” over the past year.

They highlight the Vietnamese government’s efforts to force Christians to renounce their faith, crack down on house churches that do not submit to government control, and coerce members of independent religious groups into joining government-controlled organizations.

On April 8, authorities in Dak Lak Province apprehended Montagnard Evangelist Y. Krech Bya, a member of the Central Highlands’ Evangelical Church of Christ, during an Easter vigil service held at his residence, the letter points out, adding that he's facing criminal charges for “undermining national unity policy,” according to Article 116 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, with a potential prison term of up to 15 years.

The government has declared his church illegal and instructed him to abandon it and join the state-approved Evangelical Church of Vietnam – South, the letter adds. Over the years, due to his defiance, he has frequently been brought to the police station for questioning and occasionally publicly criticized by local officials during town meetings.

In 2004, he received an eight-year prison sentence for participating in nonviolent protests advocating for religious freedom for the Montagnard people. On April 8th, an additional eight church members were temporarily detained for questioning.

Concurrently, authorities in Dak Lak Province declared the criminal prosecution in absentia of Pastor A. Ga, a Raleigh, North Carolina resident, founder of the Central Highlands’ Evangelical Church of Christ, and a globally recognized champion of religious freedom.

"It is deeply disturbing that the arrest of Evangelist Y Krech Bya and the announced prosecution of Pastor A Ga, a U.S. legal permanent resident, followed on the heels of President Biden’s call to Vietnam Communist Party’s General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng on March 29. This high-level call may reinforce the Vietnamese leadership’s belief that it can violate human rights and persecute faith communities without affecting its relationship with the United States," the letter adds, along with a list of suggested actions for the Biden administration to demand of the Vietnamese government before the two countries engage in future talks. 

Similarly, ADF International’s Legal Counsel for Global Religious Freedom, Sean Nelson, called on the Biden administration to confront the Vietnamese government directly.

The letter details multiple instances of unjust criminal charges, arbitrary detentions and other serious government harassment toward religious minorities in Vietnam over the past year.

Among those instances, the letter highlights cases of “transnational repression” targeting Vietnamese individuals now residing in the U.S., including Pastor A Ga, the former leader of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ in Vietnam.

The letter also calls for the release of multiple religious prisoners of conscience in Vietnam and urges the Vietnamese government to amend laws that are abusively used against religious minorities.

Organized by the Vietnamese-American advocacy group Boat People SOS, the signatories of the letter include former Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and former Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Katrina Lantos-Swett, as well as hundreds of Vietnamese refugees who have fled Vietnam.

The letter is addressed to Blinken; Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Rashad Hussain; Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink; and U.S. Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Marc Knapper.

In November 2022, the U.S. State Department added Vietnam to its “Special Watch List” for violations of religious freedom, signaling the growing concern about religious persecution in the country.

The 2023 Open Doors US World Watch List, which ranks countries based on the level of persecution and discrimination faced by Christians, ranked Vietnam as the 25th most dangerous country in the world for followers of Christ.

“Historical Christian communities (such as Roman Catholic churches) enjoy a certain amount of freedom unless they become politically active, which can lead to imprisonment, or are involved in land-grabbing cases,” Open Doors warns in a Vietnam fact sheet. “Evangelical and Pentecostal congregations, most of whom gather in house churches, are closely monitored and face discrimination at various levels of government and society.”

Open Doors notes that since many converts belong to ethnic minority communities like the H’mong, authorities are "particularly suspicious of them."

“Their homes are sometimes destroyed and they are then forced to leave their villages,” the fact sheet states. “Yet their numbers are reported to be growing.”

Last year, critics warned that new draft regulations proposed by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs would allow the government to exert even more pressure on registered religious organizations. 

The Christian Post recently spoke to the Rev. Peter Nguyen Van Khai, a Vietnamese Catholic priest now living outside the country, at the 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C.

He spoke about the religious freedom conditions in his home country, one of the few remaining countries still ruled by a communist party. For years, regulations and laws governing religion have allowed the government to control the activities of registered religious organizations and churches. 

Van Khai was forbidden by the communist government from becoming a priest, studying in a monastery, doing pastoral work in churches and going abroad to study. He had studied theology and philosophy secretly for 14 years before being ordained as a Catholic priest. After his ordination, his family faced adverse treatment by the government, including job loss.

Although he said “the communist government doesn’t arrest the priests or bishops anymore,” he stressed that the situation has “worsened because the Communist Party is trying to control the bishops.”

“In our country, the Holy See sends the bishop candidate to [the] government, and the government chooses who they want. So they try to control the church and the priest and the [Catholics] via [the] bishop. And the government [holds] the right of veto,” Van Khai explained.

He said the ruling party in Vietnam is seeking to “turn the church into tools for their domination.”

In northwestern, central and southern Vietnam, Van Khai said, “people of different ethnic minorities are often persecuted.”

Converts from Buddhist or ethnic-animist backgrounds face the most severe persecution from authorities, their families, friends and neighbors.

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