WASHINGTON (BP) -- Catholics in northern Vietnam protesting against the long-term detention of two parishioners have run afoul of authorities in the Southeast Asian country.
"Anthony" Nguyen Van Hai, 43, and "Peter" Ngo Van Khoi, 53, were arrested May 22 for "disturbing the public order," according to World Watch Monitor. Their alleged criminal act was visiting a Catholic shrine south of Hanoi in the Nghi Phuong Commune in Nghe An Province.
According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the men were to be released Sept. 2, traditionally considered a day for amnesty in Vietnam. When local police did not release the men, family members were joined the following day by a larger group of Catholics in front of the Nghi Phuong District Peoples' Committee offices. Unconfirmed reports indicated that the district chief promised the release of the men on Sept. 4.
Nguyen and Ngo were not released and the authorities ordered the Catholic protesters to disperse. When the protesters refused, a large of police, soldiers and private citizens beat the protesters with clubs, seriously injuring 40; shots reportedly were fired into the air and religious icons were smashed, according to CSW.
Bishop "Paul" Nguyen Thai Hop of the Vinh diocese called for "international support and solidarity" after the attack on the Catholics, a religious minority in northern Vietnam. A statement from Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media also said, "The laws of Vietnam have become an effective means for the authorities to use whenever they want to suppress their own people."
On Oct. 6, Asia News reported, more than 50,000 Catholics gathered at the Thuan Nghia parish for a special mass and prayer service led by some 20 priests. Participants at the gathering called for the release of Nguyen and Ngo, who still have not been charged with any crime.
Vietnamese state television has criticized the calls for support as an attempt to "foment riots."
In a 10-minute news report, according to Asia News, Vietnam's state news agency said Bishop Nguyen was guilty of "lying" and turning a legal case against Nguyen and Ngo into a "case of persecution against the church." Vietnamese authorities warned more arrests would follow if "rebellion" continues.
The Vietnam News Agency (VNA) did not report the early September confrontation in the official newspaper of Vietnam's communist party, Nhan Dan, but did report a high-level meeting Sept. 19 between representatives of the Vatican and Vietnam's Committee on Religious Affairs. In the meeting in Rome, the newspaper said, the Vatican "expressed a desire to further relations with Vietnam and urged Vietnamese parishioners to respect and abide by the country's policies and laws."
"The Vietnam side reiterated that Vietnam has consistently pursued a religious policy that ensures people's freedom to religions and beliefs, and disapproved the corrupt use of the issue to cause social instability and harm the common interest of the Catholic community and the nation," the statement in the Vietnamese newspaper said.
"The Vietnam government will always support and create all possible conditions for religious organizations in the country," Vietnamese officials reportedly told officials at the Vatican. "The government hopes that all Vietnamese parishioners will take specific actions for the sake of both nations and their faith and follow Pope Benedict XVI's words which say that a good Catholic is a good citizen."
Meanwhile, the government has continued to warn parishioners. Asia News cited a "series of anti-riot exercises" by police, soldiers and members of the communist youth movement.
Evangelical Christianity, meanwhile, continues to grow in Vietnam and free church Protestant groups such as Baptists often are persecuted, but larger groups which submit to government control are allowed some measure of freedom as long as those freedoms do not conflict with the will of the people or cause "social unrest."
The Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) unified with the General Confederation of Evangelical Churches of Vietnam (South) during the group's 34th General Assembly in Hanoi in early October. The groups have been operating independently for nearly 60 years.
According to Nhan Dan, Nguyen Lam, vice chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front Central Committee, praised the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) for soundly performing its role as a "member of the front," a reference to the organized communist state. "Pastors, missionaries and followers have enthusiastically participated in patriotic movements and charitable activities, joining hands in developing their church robustly," Nguyen told the newspaper.
Religious persecution in Vietnam has become a heightened cause for concern in the United States as the U.S. government has forged stronger military ties with its former foe and more U.S. businesses have launched operations in Vietnam. In August, the House of Representatives approved a bill designed to advance religious freedom and other human rights in Vietnam.
In a 405-3 roll call, the House approved the Vietnam Human Rights Act, H.R. 1897, which would prohibit any increase in non-humanitarian U.S. aid to the country if its government does not make significant progress in promoting human rights. The Senate has yet to act on the proposal.
Among its goals, the bill seeks to end religious abuses and return confiscated property to churches and religious communities. The legislation also expresses the sense of Congress that the State Department should re-designate Vietnam as a "country of particular concern," a classification reserved for the world's worst violators of religious freedom.
The bill sends "a clear, strong, and compelling message to the increasingly repressive communist regime in power in Vietnam that says that the United States is serious about combating human rights abuse" in that country, said Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., in a written statement. Smith, the bill's House sponsor, said Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists and adherents of other faiths face government abuse.
The House-approved bill says the Vietnamese government "continues to limit the freedom of religion, restrict the operations of independent religious organizations, and persecute believers whose religious activities the Government regards as a potential threat to its monopoly on power."
According to Open Doors International, Vietnam is No. 21 on the World Watch List, the group's annual ranking of the 50 worst violators of religious freedom.
"In the coming years, it is unlikely that the situation will change substantially in favor of the Christian minority. Authorities have started to place more restrictions on areas that have experienced a more 'lax' approach from the government for years," the World Watch List claims of Vietnam.
Of Vietnam's approximate 9.7 million citizens classified as Christian, more than 8 million are Catholic. A significant number of those Catholics reside in southern Vietnam.
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