BANGKOK—Two months after Prime Minister Phan Van Khai banned religious persecution, local authorities in northern and central Vietnam are still exerting heavy-handed pressure on Protestants to renounce their faith, Protestants from both regions have told RFA's Vietnamese service.
In separate interviews, Protestants from Lao-Kai, Thai Binh, and Gia Lai provinces have described incidents in which local officials either harassed or assaulted church members or failed to intervene when others did so.
Local authorities interviewed by RFA reporters denied that any beatings had occurred, and the Vietnamese central government rejects allegations that it sanctions harassment or persecution based on religious beliefs.
Prime Minister Khai’s order instructed officials to "ensure that each citizen's freedom of religious and belief practice is observed [and] outlaw attempts to force people to follow a religion or to deny their religion."
But New York-based Human Rights Watch said that while registration requirements are looser, only churches that have conducted "pure religious activities" since 1975 can register for official authorization—eliminating Montagnard house churches in the Central Highlands, most of which started up in the late 1980s and early 90s.
One group of Protestants in the northern province of Lao-Kai, bordering China, were beaten and had their rice fields confiscated in April after they refused to break with their church, according to Protestants who say they were among those targeted.
They [officials] told me, ‘The prime minister’s decree applies only to the area around Hanoi, not remote areas. Tell the prime minister to come here with the decree, and we will solve the problem.'
“They told me, ‘The prime minister’s decree applies only to the area around Hanoi, not remote areas. Tell the prime minister to come here with the decree, and we will solve the problem,’" said Giang-A Tinh, 27, a minority Hmong from Ta-phin village in the Lao-Kai’s Sapa district.
Tinh spoke to RFA’s Vietnamese service from Hanoi, where he traveled to complain to the central government. Local authorities “took all the rice fields of 12 families,” he said.
On April 23 and April 29, Tinh said, police and village officials beat him up after he refused to renounce his faith in writing. His mother, Vang Thi Ria, 70, and brother, Giang-A Pao, 32, were also roughed up, and his brother remains bedridden, he said.
“There are 45 protestant families in Ta-phin village. There are more in other villages but I don't know what happened to them,” he said.
Another source who asked not to be named confirmed that local authorities, led by village police chief Thao A Cau, had seized land owned by 12 Protestant families.
One Hmong Protestant from the same village, Tr'ang-A-Cam, told RFA that police beat him and three other villagers after they refused to renounce their faith.
The authorities in the village and district let a group of ‘brothers’ plunder all [our] land—they beat us all up in the Ta-phin People’s Committee office and in the rice fields. Numerous petitions to the province haven’t helped, so I brought our petition here [to Hanoi] to see if they can help,
He said he and Tinh had fled to Hanoi to avoid further beatings and possible arrest, and to petition for the central government to intervene.
“The authorities in the village and district let a group of ‘brothers’ [cadres and villagers] plunder all our land—they beat us all up in the Ta-phin People’s Committee office and in the rice fields. Numerous petitions to the province haven’t helped, so I brought our petition here to Hanoi to see if they can help,” Cam said.
“They produced papers saying I was renouncing my religion and told me to sign them. When I didn't sign they beat me and others.”
He said one police officer told him, “’Your God is the God of the French and the Americans... It's not the religion of Uncle Ho [Chi Minh]. If you don't put up an altar to the ancestors, you don't have the rice fields of the ancestors,’” Cam said. “They told me to sign and renounce my religion, but I did not sign and did not quit my religion.”
The chairman of the village People’s Council, Tr’ang A Xa, denied that any beatings had occurred. “They don’t have altars in their homes for Thien [an ethnic Vietnamese deity], and that is wrong,” Tr'ang A Xa said in an interview.
“You want to follow a religion, you have to register and get permission of the local authorities, get agreement from relatives—and if they don’t agree, you can’t do it.”
Separately, in the northern province of Thai Binh, 10 people assaulted a protestant preacher and an assistant on May 14 as village officials looked on, the preacher, Nguyen Van Cam, said in an interview.
Police officers stopped the two as they spoke with a female follower and invited them into the Dong Lam village administrative offices in Tien Hai district, about 100 kms (60 miles) southeast of Hanoi, Cam said.
I work with local police every day, and I have meetings with them every week, and I haven't heard about any such incidents. I've never heard about any Protestant activities in Tien Hai at all—I know only about Buddhists and Catholics here. If Protestants come to see us, we always help them, even give them protection under the law.
“They invited us to the office where they beat brother Dien, a believer who was with me. They had us report about our relation with a woman named Ms. Liet and sign a paper promising not to go to her anymore. We refused, and they said, ‘You’ll see what we can do to you with our hands,’” he said.
About 100 meters (yards) from the village administrative office, at about 8 p.m. May 14, he said, a group of 10 people they didn’t recognize surrounded them and began beating them with sticks.
They called out for help before Dien fell unconscious, as several local officials looked on, "watching without doing anything,” Cam said.
“I submitted a complaint to Tien Hai district police, and I worked with them for two hours… They asked me to change the issue from religious persecution to personal conflict, but I refused,” he said.
The chairman of Tien Hai district's Fatherland Front, Bui Quy Hanh, denied any such incident had taken place.
“I work with local police every day, and I have meetings with them every week, and I haven't heard about any such incidents,” Hanh said. “I've never heard about any Protestant activities in Tien Hai at all—I know only about Buddhists and Catholics here.”
“If Protestants come to see us, we always help them, even give them protection under the law,” he said. Hanh also said he has just distributed the National Law on Belief and Religion to officials in the region. “I didn't see any problems, no negative reactions. Everyone was excited.”
On May 19, in Gia Lai Province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, a Mennonite pastor and a preacher who were arrested and forced to denounce their faith in 2004 were summoned by police and told to renounce their religion again, they said.
A note signed by Chu A village police chief Nguyen Tien Mai and sent through the People’s Committee of Plei Mo Nu hamlet invited pastor Y Kor and preacher Y Yan to come to the village office at 8 a.m. May 20 for a working session with police.
Under threat of physical abuse or confiscation of property, some ethnic minority Protestants allegedly were made to sign a formal, written renunciation or to undergo a symbolic ritual, which reportedly included drinking rice whiskey mixed with animal blood. Others refused, often with no known negative repercussions.
Y Yan said he was kept at the police station for four hours, during which the ranking officer told him the Mennonite church was “reactionary” and illegal.
“I told them I live and die with the Mennonites, and nobody can tell me to abandon it,” Y Yan said. The police treated him kindly, he said, urging him to remain calm and list all Mennonites in the village, but he refused.
In its annual review of human rights around the world, released in London on May 25, Amnesty International reported that Hanoi had jailed dissidents and forced religious followers to renounce their faith over the last year.
And in its most recent annual report on human rights around the world, the U.S. State Department said that while Vietnam’s constitution and government decrees provide for freedom of religion, Hanoi last year “continued to restrict significantly organized activities of religious groups that it declared to be at variance with state laws and policies.”
“According to credible reports, the police arbitrarily detained persons based upon their religious beliefs and practice, particularly among ethnic minority groups in the Central and Northwest Highlands. In 2003 and 2002, there were also reports that two Protestants in those areas were beaten and killed for reasons connected to their faith,” it said.
“Under threat of physical abuse or confiscation of property, some ethnic minority Protestants allegedly were made to sign a formal, written renunciation or to undergo a symbolic ritual, which reportedly included drinking rice whiskey mixed with animal blood. Others refused, often with no known negative repercussions,” the report said.
Original reporting by Viet-Hung for RFA's Vietnamese service. Service director: Viet-Long. Written and produced for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.