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(New York) - Vietnam’s recent demolition of a Mennonite chapel in Kontum province highlights the country’s intensifying campaign against religious freedom, Human Rights Watch said today. A new law expected to go into effect in November bans any religious activity deemed to threaten national security, public order or national unity.

The recent attacks on the Mennonites, a Protestant denomination not recognized by the government, occurred against a backdrop of a crackdown on independent religious groups, in particular members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and ethnic minority Protestants in the northern and central highlands. During the last year, several protestant pastors and independent Buddhist monks have been detained and their places of worship shut down, cordoned off, or placed under surveillance. At least two Catholic priests and one Catholic layperson are serving long prison sentences for holding training courses and distributing books or leaflets.

The Vietnamese government bans independent religious associations and only permits religious activities by officially-recognized churches and organizations whose governing boards are approved and controlled by government. The Mennonite Church is not officially sanctioned by the government

“Bulldozing a Mennonite chapel is just one aspect of the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on freedom of religion,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “Whether through legislation or through violence, the government has shown it is increasingly unwilling to tolerate religious practice outside its strict control.”

On the morning of September 24, more than 200 officials, including paramilitary police from Unit 113, descended on the chapel and home of Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh in Kontum province. Pastor Chinh is superintendent of the Mennonite churches in the Central Highlands. The attack marked the second time the chapel was destroyed this year. On January 16, authorities bulldozed the same chapel, which doubles as Pastor Chinh’s residence.

In the September 24 attack, government officials confiscated Chinh’s property and farm animals, set fire to the house and chapel, and then used two bulldozers to flatten the remains. Chinh was out on a pastoral visit at the time, but his wife and children were arrested by officials and detained at Vinh Quang district headquarters from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm that day. Mrs. Chinh, who is seven months pregnant, reported being hit in the stomach and stepped on while in custody. Chinh reportedly went into hiding after returning to the scene briefly after the destruction was complete.

“All that remains of the Mennonite chapel in the Central Highlands is a cement floor,” wrote Pastor Chinh in a letter dated September 25. “Many questions about this action await answers by leaders in Vietnam and abroad – this action which so seriously violates our human rights and religious freedom in a brazen way.”

A new Ordinance on Religious Beliefs and Religious Organizations, passed by Vietnam’s National Assembly last June, is expected to go into effect in November. Its first article, quoting Vietnam’s Constitution, pays lip service to freedom of religion, but most of the remaining articles restrict that freedom and expand government controls over religion. The Ordinance also bans religious activities based on vague standards of national security.

The Ordinance, which applies to all religious activity in Vietnam, requires religious leaders to follow the principle of “national unity” and to educate their followers about patriotism.

“The proposed ordinance on religious beliefs formalizes the serious restrictions already imposed on religious practice in Vietnam,” Adams said. “This legislation impermissibly imposes the government’s political goals on religious practice in Vietnam.”

In late September, leaders of Vietnam’s unregistered house church organizations, including some of the Mennonite churches, petitioned the head of the National Assembly and other top officials about their strong concerns that the new legislation will provide a legal basis to permanently outlaw their organizations.

“Thousands of Vietnamese citizens are being persecuted simply because they want to worship outside government restrictions,” Adams said. “The government has not made any credible charges that the Mennonite church constitutes a threat to national security – this is just about control over public life.”

Background on Crackdown on Mennonites in Vietnam

The Mennonite Central Committee, which is the social service arm of the Mennonite Church, was one of the very few western charitable organizations to continue work in Vietnam in the immediate aftermath of the communist victory in 1975 and the reunification of the country shortly thereafter. However, members of the banned Mennonite church have come under increasing pressure from the government in recent years. On May 15, 2004, authorities arrested Mennonite Pastor Ksor No, head of the congregation in Ia Grai district, Gia Lai. The reason for his arrest is not known; authorities presented no warrant or document to his family to inform them why he had been arrested.

In June, Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, an outspoken Mennonite church leader in Ho Chi Minh City, was arrested after publicly criticizing the government for detaining four Mennonites three months earlier. Quang, who is trained as a lawyer, has defended farmers’ land rights cases, spoken out against the arrests of religious and political dissidents, and publicized the plight of minority Christian churches in the Central Highlands. Many of his critical writings have been disseminated on the Internet in both Vietnamese and English.

In 2002 and 2003 Human Rights Watch received several reports about police ransacking the homes of Mennonite believers and confiscating Bibles in Kontum. Officials have withheld the residence permit (ho khau in Vietnamese) of Pastor Chinh and other Mennonites, which makes it difficult to legally find work, travel, and rent or own a home. In addition, local vigilantes in Kontum have reportedly beaten Mennonite workers and arranged hit-and-run motorcycle “accidents” to intimidate members of the church and pressure them to renounce their faith.

In September 2004, the US State Department designated Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern” because of what it called Vietnam’s “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” The European Union and Japan have also expressed concern about repression of religious and political rights in Vietnam. In October, more than 100 members of the European Parliament called on the EU and EC to highlight Vietnam’s human rights record during meetings of the Asia-Europe Economic Summit (ASEM) held in Hanoi. During the meetings the Dutch Foreign Minister, on behalf of the EU, called for the release of political and religious prisoners.

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