Vietnam's persecution of Christians did not end with the death of Cardinal Thuan, says David Alton
This week, on behalf of the Jubilee Campaign. I have been travelling in Laos and Vietnam taking evidence about the plight of Christians. I took with me a memory of a moving encounter with the late Vietnamese Cardinal. Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. During a conversation with him in Rome he told me a little about the 13 years he had spent in Vietnamese prisons.
The cardinal was imprisoned after South Vietnam fell to the North in 1975 and the repression of the Catholic Church by the Communists began in earnest. When he died last autumn the communist authorities issued a press release expressing their condolences to his relatives most of whom live in exile in Australia.
The cardinal's story and that of the suffering church in South East Asia reminds us of the price many Christians continue to pay for their faith. Cardinal Thuan's story reminds us of how relatively easy we have it in the West. Sadly. Vietnam's persecution of Christians did not end with the death of Cardinal Thuan. One of the groups of people who have paid the greatest price are the Montagnards of the Central Highlands — also known as the Degar people. They have been suffering severe persecution by the Vietnamese government ever since the Communists took power in South Vietnam in 1975. The Degar are indigenous hill tribes comprising over 30 tribal groups based in the Central Highlands and numbering about 600,000 in total. About 400.000 or more of them are Christians comprising both Protestants and Catholics. The Communist authorities have been persecuting the Degar people both because they assisted the U.S army during the Vietnam War and because of their Christian faith.
In Vietnam, there was a massive crackdown against the Montagnard people in the Central Highlands in December 2001. Large numbers of Montagnard Christians were rounded up and arrested while trying to organise Christmas services.
Many Montagnard children have been prevented by the Vietnamese authorities from having access to education if they or their parents practice Christianity. Vietnamese soldiers and police have also been systematically forcing Degar Christians to renounce their faith and to drink pig's blood. Drinking pig's blood was a pre-Christian religious practice among the Degars and this indicates a systematic attempt by the Vietnamese authorities to destmy the Christian faith of the Degars.
On January 30th 2001. two Montagnard Christians, Rahlan Pon and Rahlan Djan were arrested. They were taken to Vietnamese army camps where they were tortured. This detention and torture sparked off peaceful protests by ethnic Montagnards who were seeking the release of the detained Christians. Vietnamese security forces responded by attacking the Montagnards with beatings and tear gas. Martial law was imposed in the Central Highlands in February 2001. Entire Montagnard villages were put under arrest and travel was prohibited. Hundreds of Montagnards have been arrested, beaten and tortured with electric prods. Vietnamese military patrols have prevented Montagnard villagers from obtaining food and water.
On December 28, 2001, the Cambodian authorities deported at least 167 Montagnard refugees who had fled the persecution in Vietnam. These refugees who were forcibly repatriated have been detained by the Vietnamese authorities and many of them have been tortured.
H'Boc Eban, and her 3 children fled to Cambodia but were subsequently deported to Vietnam. She was then severely tortured by having electric cattle prods forced into her mouth —this occurred so many times that she lost consciousness and had to be hospitalised. The fate of her three children is unknown.
The Montagnard human rights organisation. the Montagnard Foundation, reports that "Today the devastation continues and we are faced with continued and sustained policies that exploit our homelands and persecute our race through forced assimilation. human rights violations and genocide enacted by the current Vietnamese government."
The Vietnamese government has also made it their goal to eliminate Christianity among the Hmong tribes people. They reportedly decided this at a government conference in 2001, and hope to succeed in their goal before their next conference in 2005. Many Hmong Christian leaders have fled their villages and now live in the forest or in caves to escape this religious persecution, At least 20 Hmong pastors have been imprisoned in Vietnam for their Christian faith.
Religious persecution in Vietnam also extends to ethnic Vietnamese although it is the minority hill-tribe Christians such as the Degar people and Hmong that have borne the biggest brunt of anti-Christian persecution in recent years.
Aid to the Church in Need, in their timely and excellent publication, Violence Against Christians, say that Le Quang Vinh, head of the Vietnamese Government Committee on Religion. denied that religious persecution exists in his coun try.
According to him, there are people who misuse religion to undermine the Communist Party. He claimed that one of these is the Catholic priest Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly, who was arrested after testifying to a U.S Congressional Committee.
Father Van Ly had called upon the US Congress to postpone the ratification of a bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam as long as there were restrictions against religion in that country. Father Nguyen Van Ly had started a campaign for religious freedom in Vietnam in 2000. He was arrested while preparing for Mass. Six hundred security officers surrounded his church. Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly was sentenced to 15 years.
We hear a lot at the present time about the need to exert international pressure. Sometimes we neglect to act because we assume that governments like that of Vietnam are simply not susceptible. But that simply isn't so. We should be mounting inter
national letter-writing campaigns to Veitnamese Ambassadors and government officials, and raising these questions with our own Government.
At a time of economic liberalisation in Vietnam,I think we can be reasonably optimistic about the future prospects for greater religious freedom in that country. But it won't happen if we stay quiet and remain indifferent.
David Alton is an independent emssbench peer and ispofessorof citizenship at Liverpool John Moore's University. He was a founder of theJubilee Campaign; based at St John's Seminary. Wonersh which may he contacted on 01483 894 787.