HANOI, Feb 19, 2006 (dpa) – Police in northern Vietnam broke up an evangelical Christian prayer meeting and questioned more than a dozen church leaders as part of a crackdown on “illegal religion,” documents obtained by Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa revealed Sunday.
The news came as a US human rights delegation headed by US Assistant Secretary of State Lowen Kron who is in charge of democracy and human rights issues arrived in Vietnam on Sunday, ahead of scheduled meetings with Vietnamese officials on Monday.
However, the latest crackdown on ethnic minority evangelical Protestants, and the detention last week of a dissident Buddhist monk, could renew tensions between Vietnam and the US, its old enemy.
US embassy officials said that Kron was expected to bring up religious issues in his meetings.
Authorities in a district of Ha Giang province, 400 kilometres north of Hanoi, issued an order for police to question more than a dozen suspected church leaders, according to the documents obtained by dpa and confirmed in interviews with local officials.
“We told them to stop practicing that religion because it is illegal,” Dan Van Viet, head of the police in Tung Ba commune in Ha Giang, said by telephone last week, confirming the raid on the prayer meeting.
“We caught 20 people red-handed illegally singing. We seized 14 books and one radio from them,” he said.
In other anti-Protestant cases in the province, police moved into people’s houses just before Christmas to discourage them from practicing the religion, a separate official confirmed to dpa.
The reports are a strike against Vietnam’s campaign to be removed from the US list of Countries of Particular Concern for Religious Freedom.
US law calls for economic sanctions against countries on the list, which includes such religious persecutors Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea.
The US has held off on sanctions so far, and Vietnam has argued that it should be removed from the list, saying tens of millions of Vietnamese Christians and Buddhists practice religion freely and no one is persecuted for beliefs alone.
There have been several signs of improvement for religious freedom in the past year. In November, a representative of the Vatican for the first time presided over the ordination of 57 Catholic priests in Hanoi. And early last year, famed exiled Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh was allowed to return for the first time in 40 years.
Yet, the latest crackdowns are signs that Vietnamese officials are still wary of religions they believe they cannot control.
It was unclear whether the Ha Giang crackdown was ordered by the central government in Hanoi or whether it was the brainchild of the local Communist Party.
One of the Ha Giang documents, dated December 9 and titled “The plan on assigning forces to fight and manage illegal religious practices” named 22 suspected Protestant leaders to be questioned in 14 separate villages.
According to one local communist official in Ha Giang, action was taken against home-based churches to prevent any disruption of the January 14 local party congress, held in preparation for the national congress in April.
“To prevent any trouble, we sent two officials to live in the houses of the local people,” said Hoang Trung Kien, head of the Communist Party of Dong Thanh commune, Ha Giang, who confirmed the content of the written order.
Evangelical believers have written a complaint to Prime Minister Phan Van Khai about the raid on their prayer meeting of about 100 Christians on January 1 at a private home.
“While we were singing, four officials came into the house and, without saying a word, immediately started beating us with police clubs,” reads the complaint from Tung Ba commune.
“(Local police) said being Protestant is following the U.S.,” reads the complaint, dated January 15.
Viet confirmed that the raid took place, but denied claims that police beat any of the group members.
Although the days when the Communist Party suppressed general religious expression are long gone in Vietnam, the authorities continue to detain religious leaders who refuse to join state- sanctioned churches.
Last week, dissident Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do was seized by police in Ho Chi Minh City as he tried to board a train to visit the patriarch of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, according to witnesses and a Paris-based organization affiliated with the church.
The monk was released after six hours of questioning and returned to his monastery, where he remains under police supervision.
One Western diplomat said Hanoi’s government remains suspicious of non-state religions because of a perceived political threat.
Thich Quang Do in particular has railed against the Communist Party and called for multi-party elections in written statements smuggled out from his monastery.
Evangelical Christians are under suspicion because of mass anti- government protests by ethnic minority evangelicals in the country’s restive Central Highlands region in recent years. dpa kj emc sr