Just days after the top U.S. diplomat for religious freedom worldwide left Vietnam, at least three Catholic parishioners were injured in a clash with local authorities in Quang Binh province, according to a local priest.
It’s unclear what led to the April 6 altercation at the Huong Phuong church, but local priest Le Nam Cao told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that police and soldiers fired bullets near the church and used tear gas and batons on the parishioners before tearing down decorations erected for an annual festival.
“It was noon time and most of the men were at work, so only old women and children were at home,” he told RFA. “Parishioners told me of the crackdown. I told them that I would not go out and they should go home and just let them do whatever they wanted because we had no weapons, so it was not good for us. “
While Le Nam Cao tried to convince his parishioners to stand down, some of them ignored his advice.
Tear gas, bullets and batons
“Some people did not agree, so they fought back against the troops including policemen and soldiers who were well equipped with tear gas, bullets and batons,” he said. “They fired tear gas. We could feel it inside our church. They shot some bullets near the church.”
Le Nam Cao said three or four people were injured, with some sustaining cuts on their heads and many suffering from tear gas. Authorities took some of the parishioners into custody, but they were later released, he said.
“One parishioner was looking at the scene, and he was detained and beaten by the police while some people got tear gas in their eyes, but they were not in danger,” he said. “I heard the ones that were seriously injured were treated in the hospital, and the rest just went home. The parishioners took care of bruises and bleeding.”
The timing of the attack was also odd as Le Nam Cao said he had just finished a meeting with local political leaders.
“They just came to talk to us for a short time then left,” he said. “After they left our church, the troops rushed in.”
When RFA contacted local authorities, they denied that an altercation had occurred.
Not the first
It isn’t the first time authorities have clashed with church parishioners, but usually it comes in the form of individual harassment, Le Nam Cao explained.
“Huong Phuong has been suffering for quite some time, but they have showed some resistance in recent years. Sometimes they spoke out about their demands in public,” he said. “Maybe that was why they cracked down on us.”
He added: “This is the second time, not counting some small incidents and some threats. There were times they sent troops here to guard our village for two days. When they came here before they said they were searching for some drug dealers or something else. They did not say that they were cracking down on us. “
Le Nam Cao told RFA the attacks and harassment appears to be directed at Catholics.
“Most of the parishioners here are afraid of the local government, especially the people who are in charge of security because they seem to have some hostility against Catholics,” he said. “They usually abuse their power to take revenge on a personal level. They create difficulties for parishioners, and not only in Huong Phuong.”
Clash follows envoy's visit
The alleged altercation comes just days after David N. Saperstein is the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom wrapped up a visit to Vietnam.
After his visit, Sapperstein told RFA the Vietnamese government appeared to be more open to religious freedom.
“In the main, there was a feeling that things are moving in the right direction,” he told RFA.
Saperstein toured Vietnam from March 26-31 and met with government officials as well as religious and civil society leaders to discuss challenges and opportunities for improving religious freedom in Vietnam.
While Saperstein told RFA Vietnam was making progress, he also said there were still problems there.
”There were stories of more overt harassment and interference by the authorities, particularly for the unregistered churches. These were more common in the ethnic minority communities,” he told RFA.
“More of them proportionally were unable to get their churches registered, and more of those people face harassment and interference from the local authorities. It’s a mixed picture.”
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.