(Morning Star News) – Blaring police loudspeakers awoke Bible school students at a Mennonite church center in southern Vietnam at about 11 p.m. the night of June 9, a prelude to a night of violence and detention that would seriously injure 20 people.
Police called for the owner of the compound in Binh Duong Province to let them in for an “administrative search.” Five minutes later, police dropped into the compound from neighboring roofs and broke through the front gate “as if it were a raid on terrorists,” according a witness.
The crowd of police, local defense forces and plainclothes officers and “citizens” numbered from 300 to 500, according to the center’s pastor, Nguyen Manh Hung. Many of the 76 Christians present were beaten, punched and kicked before being loaded onto three trucks and hauled to a police lockup for interrogation. They were released the following morning.
Night attacks on the church compound, however, continued the next three nights and sporadically since then with the intent of terrorizing the Christians. The original raid was largely directed by the chief of police of Ben Cat, unidentified only as Major Hoa. A detailed 14-page church report described his conduct throughout as “consistently crude and abusive.”
The Vietnam Evangelical Mennonite Church is one of many unregistered church organizations in Vietnam. It has suffered more persecution than most because its leader, the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, has long been an outspoken advocate for religious and other freedoms and for defenseless, oppressed ethnic minority Christians. He has been previously arrested, abused and jailed and has often been viciously vilified and slandered in state media. Another Mennonite church group that does not bring up government abuses of religious freedom received government registration in 2007.
Following the government demolition of the Mennonite Center in District 2 of Ho Chi Minh City in December 2010 in a contested city renovation project, pastor Quang reestablished his center in Binh Duong Province’s Ben Cat City, in Thai Hoa, Ward 6. His decision to tone down his confrontational advocacy only increased his time to supervise the expansion of Mennonite congregations countrywide. The group claims about 5,000 followers.
The new center in Ben Cat has thus become a very busy place. It is the church headquarters and serves as a school for various kinds of training, from summer Bible school for young children to theological training for senior leaders.
According to Vietnam’s restrictive laws, local officials must be notified of any overnight guests, whether staying in a home, an institution or a hotel. The Mennonites have learned to abide by this regulation but have sometimes notified officials of an event with an estimated number of participants and then submitted the exact list of names after the participants arrive, when precise information is available. In this case students arrived on June 9, and the report would have been submitted June 10.
“The excuse for the raid against sleeping Christians was checking for unregistered residents,” said one prominent pastor in Vietnam. “The overwhelming force and brutality used was aimed at terrorizing especially the young among the Christians to dissuade them from association from the Mennonite church.”
The female prisoners, including some young ethnic minority teens, were kept separately in a locked room at the police station. When the frightened girls began to sing Christian songs to comfort each other, the lights were turned out and men came into the room, wildly hitting anyone in their way.
When the 76 people arrested were released in the morning, they discovered 20 among them had injuries serious enough to require medical attention. When they tried to leave the center to find treatment, however, police stopped and prevented them from doing so.
On the night of the raid, several vehicles brought people with bricks, stones and sticks to the site. These were employed to break windows, doors and roof tiles of the recently built compound. During the 10 nights following the raid, gangs continued attacking the center, sometimes pelting it with bricks and stones and sometimes with rotten eggs and dead birds; they also shot rubber bullets at it. The rooms at the front of the building had to be vacated.
Electricity and water was cut in the neighborhood. With more people arriving at the center for other events, more than 150 people in the center were left without lights and water.
During daytime, all coming to compound were stopped and searched. Some had cell phones and motorbikes confiscated. All persons leaving the center were followed. This severely disrupted other events scheduled to take place at the center.
Summonses called for 52 students and some key leaders to appear before officials for interrogation. Students were terrorized during questioning and harangued with slander about pastor Quang and Mennonites. Some were forced to sign false reports that would allow police to add criminal charges to the original administrative ones. When at dusk police dismissed the young women following interrogation, police told them they were not responsible for their safety, while at the same time preventing the girls from using public transportation to return to the center.
Those with cell phones began receiving threatening calls regularly. Leaders also received anonymous calls telling them to “get out of town or else.”
Pastor Quang, very conversant in Vietnamese law, was mocked when he pointed out to his interrogators their many violations of Vietnam’s encoded due process.
Finding no opportunity for redress at the local level, Mennonite leaders agreed also to petition Vietnam’s highest authorities about the flagrant abuses of their rights under Vietnamese law. They addressed a June 12 “petition of accusation” signed by 58 Mennonite church leaders, to the minister of Public Security and to the head of the Peoples’ Investigative Bureau. It details five major charges against local police, including entering without a warrant, arresting and abusing children, using guns to terrorize defenseless students and pistol-whipping people within the holy confines of a church building.
The Mennonites reported the events to the U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, which informed them it could not do much but “would follow the situation.” A nearby Catholic church agreed to provide safe haven for Mennonite victims of persecution if needed. They also appealed to other house churches in Vietnam and to sister churches in the United States and Canada to intercede on their behalf. They have tried to inform United Nations agencies. They also agreed to seek local legal help, though such is rarely effective in Vietnam, where the Communist Party owns the government, including the legal system.
Pastor Quang, who has not reported the physical abuse he has frequently suffered during interrogations, explained why he was going public to seek redress on this occasion.
“The police of Binh Duong Province severely humiliated older pastors, young evangelists, women and even children, teachers, young people as well as myself – falsely accusing us and abusing us for failing to register residence,” he said. “They coarsely and roughly humiliated our church while our people were silent, law-abiding, non-resistant. And after their brazen misdeeds, they did not apologize but continued to falsely accuse and terrorize us, with no regard for the truth. The pictures and reports we have sent tell the true story.”
Though such systematic and sustained persecution of Christians is no longer very common in Vietnam, it regrettably still occurs. In this case, it is believed that authorities are upset that this Mennonite group did not succumb to earlier heavy pressure and persecution but continues to grow and expand. They were further upset that pastor Quang recently declined on principle to sign a kind of “contract of cooperation” the government presented to him.
As well, Ben Cat was a hot spot during recent anti-Chinese demonstrations in May, which some Vietnamese seized as an opportunity to protest the weakness and corruption of their own government. Some demonstrators also severely damaged foreign owned factories. Paranoid authorities, operating with extreme vigilance, may have worried that the Mennonite center was attracting too many people in light of pastor Quang’s erstwhile freedom activism.
But none of this can remotely justify such crude use of overwhelming force and official lawlessness against a religious group doing religious activities. This local government action is prime exhibit of government practices contributing to the growing tide of deep dissatisfaction with the authoritarian communist state.
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