WASHINGTON—Officials in Ho Chi Minh City publicly denounced a Mennonite minister and his wife in the days before a court sentenced him to three years in jail for documenting police interference with the building of a chapel.
According to sources in Vietnam, local officials and community members went to the home of pastor Nguyen Hong Quang and his wife, Le Thi Phu Dung, on Nov. 11, where they read aloud a decree ordering an end to religious activities at the house.
A day earlier, local officials and members of local civic groups held a public meeting to denounce the couple, sources told RFA’s Vietnamese service.
“This presents our common spirit of determination toward chi Dung's [Le Thi Phu Dung’s] attitude—because she is also a member in our people’s community,” said one woman who took part in the public denunciation of Le Thi Phu Dung.
The court said that 15 days were allowed for filing an appeal. Possibly I will make an appeal. I had the impression that there seemed to be a complete pre-arrangement behind this sentence.
The officials ordered her to take down a sign that read “Vietnamese Mennonite Church” and evict an unknown number of students who were living with her, the sources told RFA’s Vietnamese service.
Quang was sentenced the following day to three years’ jail by the Ho Chi Minh City Municipal Court. The trial was closed to foreign diplomats and journalists, and hundreds of Mennonites gathered outside the building during the proceedings.
Quang was arrested in June on charges related to an incident in March in which he tried to photograph and videotape police as they sought to stop construction of a Mennonite chapel.
In an interview, Dung said she was considering appealing the sentence but doubted an appeal would succeed.
“The court said that 15 days were allowed for filing an appeal. Possibly I will make an appeal. I had the impression that there seemed to be a complete pre-arrangement behind this sentence,” she said.
“We want fairness. We want freedom in practicing our faith. We don’t want to be hated, arrested, simply due to our... religion. We don’t want others to make up [charges] against us… by lying and saying we have committed a reactionary act against the government. We don’t want others to invent pretexts for oppressing us. We don’t want such things to occur. These are our suggestions. We respect the country of Vietnam,” she said.
Asked if Quang spoke during his trial, which was closed to all but a handful of relatives, Dung quoted him as saying: “’We are all clergymen. We have never committed any act of intentional objection, opposition or disruption of order and security—especially since we work close to our [homes] and our families are nearby.’”
We want fairness. We want freedom in practicing our faith. We don’t want to be hated, arrested, simply due to our... religion. We don’t want others to make up [charges] against us… by lying and saying we have committed a reactionary act against the government.
"'We are not foolish enough to fight against the local authorities and have conflicts with them. We always want every problem to be solved peacefully,'" she quoted him as saying.
Local officials couldn’t be reached for comment, but the Vietnam News Agency reported that Quang was sentenced for “preventing people from carrying out their official duties” in Binh Khanh Ward, District 2 of the city.
Five accomplices were also sentenced to between nine months and two years behind bars on the same charge, the official news agency said.
“According to the prosecutor's report, Quang suspected Pham Van Ninh and Vo Van Phuong of spying on him. So, when he and his associates passed by their place on March 2, 2004, they seized Ninh and Phuong's motorbikes, forcing them to ask for help from police of Binh Khanh Ward,” it said.
“The local policemen arrived at the scene and asked all the concerned parties to come to the police station. Quang and his accomplices took severe objection to the policemen's request, insulted and tried to prevent them from taking the motorbikes to the office.
“With the public support, the policemen arrested the offenders and brought the victims' motorbikes to the police station.”
Quang's sentence is the latest in a series of repressive moves by the government against Mennonite Christians in Vietnam, including the demolition of a Mennonite chapel in Kontum Province in October.
Earlier this month, authorities in central Vietnam rounded up four Mennonite Christian clergymen and demanded that they renounce their faith, penalizing the two who refused with fines, beatings, and three months of house arrest.
'We are not foolish enough to fight against the local authorities and have conflicts with them. We always want every problem to be solved peacefully.'
Local authorities told the men—all ethnic minority Montagnards—to sign papers renouncing their Mennonite faith, the pastors said. Y Kor and Y Kat signed the papers and were then permitted to return home, but Y Yan and Y Djik refused and were detained, handcuffed, and beaten, Y Yan and Y Djik said.
A day later, on Nov. 7, senior police officers from Gia Lai—located in the Vietnamese Central Highlands—brought the four men to a public denunciation in front of the Chu A villagers, they said.
At the village meeting, police told the villagers they would be jailed and fined unless they also renounced the Mennonite church, according to a Mennonite clergyman who was present.
The Mennonite Church is a Protestant denomination that began in Europe in the 16th century and adheres to a pacifist doctrine. It currently claims a following of 1 million people worldwide.
The Mennonite Central Committee, the social service arm of the Mennonite Church, was one of very few Western charitable groups permitted to remain in Vietnam after the Communists came to power in 1975.
Mennonites in Vietnam, many of whom live in the Central Highlands, have faced increasing pressure from government officials in recent years.
At Easter this year, thousands of Montagnards protested in the Central Highlands to demand the return of ancestral lands and an end to religious repression. The U.S.-based Montagnard Foundation claimed 400 Christians were killed in the ensuing crackdown, although Hanoi said only two people died.