This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Police attack Mennonite church gathering in Vietnam

Security police assaulted a large group of pastors and theological students gathered in their church center at a provincial town just north of Ho Chi Minh City in June. The attack came on the eve of a renewal conference and graduation ceremonies for students of a theological training program.

The Evangelical Mennonite Church, a church not officially registered in Vietnam, was meeting June 9-11 at their three-story church center in Ben Cat town in Binh Duong province. Most of the pastors had already arrived.

After all had retired for the night on sleeping mats laid out on the floor, police loudspeakers called for Le Thi Phu Dung and Tran Minh Hoa to open the door for an “administrative investigation.” Pastor Phu Dung is president of the church and wife of former president Nguyen Hong Quang. Hoa is the pastor of the congregation that meets at the center.

A few minutes after the order was given, security police broke down the door. Large numbers of men stormed the building, assaulting students and church leaders. All 76 people were taken in trucks to a police station.

According to extensive reports by Pastor Quang, the invading police produced no warrants and gave no reason for the beatings and the arrests. Police agencies searched the premises, destroying some property. Police reportedly incited “onlookers” to throw stones at the building, breaking windows and roof tiles. Church leaders estimated the attacking force at more than 300 people.

By 6 a.m. all had been released. Of those who were beaten, 20 required medical attention.

Attacks continue

For several days after the raid, gangs continued attacking the building, throwing bricks, stones and rotten eggs. Front rooms had to be evacuated. People coming to the center were stopped and searched — some had cell phones and motorbikes confiscated. Many were told to leave the area and never come back. Electricity and water were cut in the area.

Most of those arrested were summoned to the police station later for further investigation. Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang was summoned June 12 to appear at the police station to face charges of “resisting administrative investigation and slandering authorities carrying out their duties.” Trained in law, Quang recognized this as an illegal order and ignored it. The next day he was ordered to appear on charges of “resisting administrative investigation and local disorderly conduct.” At the police station Quang met some officials sympathetic toward him.

Religious groups are required to inform local authorities of meetings. Pastor Hoa had reported the evening before the raid that 29 pastors were coming and was planning to submit a complete report the next morning.

With no resolution at the local level, leaders petitioned higher authorities about the abuses of their rights under Vietnamese law.

They sent a “petition of accusation” signed by 58 church leaders to the minister of public security and to the head of the Peoples’ Investigative Bureau. It details five charges against 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.

An ongoing issue

While incidents like this occurred frequently in Vietnam a decade or two ago, the government has improved its record on human rights and religious freedom. One segment of Vietnam’s Mennonite community was granted official status as the Vietnam Mennonite Church in 2008. Led by Pastor Nguyen Quang Trung, this church became a member of Mennonite World Conference in 2009.

Nguyen Hong Quang served as president of the other group, referred to as the Evangelical Mennonite Church, or Mennonite Church in Vietnam. Each group has about 5,000 members, and each has adopted the same Mennonite Confession of Faith.

Pastor Quang has been outspoken, calling on local authorities to respect the national constitution and people’s right to religious freedom. In 2004 he was arrested and convicted, with five other church leaders, of “preventing a police officer from carrying out his activities,” a catch-all charge once often levied against religious leaders. Sentenced to three years in prison, he was granted amnesty after 14 months after an international appeal for his release.

As part of the government’s program of controlling the activities of religious groups, a church cannot request legal status until it has been in existence for 20 years. This means it must function “illegally” for some time.

New congregations can request permission to operate locally. Some government officials considered Quang uncooperative, so local officials never gave the church official permission to function in Ben Cat.

International people acquainted with the Mennonite churches in Vietnam are considering an appropriate response to express solidarity.

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