Vietnam (ICC) -- In July, International Christian Concern (ICC) received a tragically long list from a well-placed contact in Vietnam. The list contained the names of 63 Christian pastors and church leaders who remain locked up in deplorable conditions in four prison camps around the country. The prison sentences received by each are staggeringly long, ranging from five to 18 years.
Conditions in the prison camps are extremely difficult. According to an ICC source close to some of the prisoners, inmates subjected to hard labor for up to 14 hours a day during periods of high demand, working on a diet limited to small portions of mixed rice and corn. Disease is rampant, medical treatment is limited, and violence against prisoners is not unheard of. At least one of the prisoners on the list obtained by ICC has reportedly been beaten so badly "his mind no longer works."
Nearly all of the prisoners on the list are members of ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Due to their status as a member of an ethnic minority and their adherence to a faith still seen as an American import, these Christians face a level of discrimination and oppression far higher than most Vietnamese. Living far from major urban areas and the reach of most international news agencies, they also have little hope of assistance. In late 2012 ICC traveled to meet with the wives of two imprisoned pastors in the Central Highlands but could only conduct a very brief interview while wearing a disguise, thanks to extremely high levels of government surveillance.
Some of those imprisoned are likely the result of protests in 2004 during which Vietnamese authorities violently cracked down on the Christian community. A long-time observer of the growth of Christianity in Vietnam pointed out that not only do many Christians remain imprisoned, but even legally registered churches in some parts of the country are facing persecution.
"A full decade after large Christian demonstrations against illegal land confiscation and religious oppression in Vietnam's Central Highlands some 60 Christians are serving long prison sentences. Many ethnic minority Christians still suffer unreasonable restrictions in the government efforts to contain the Protestant movement. In Binh Phuoc province, local authorities are insisting on the dismantling of 116 chapels of the Stieng minority group belonging to the legally-registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South). Unregistered churches face regular arbitrary harassment," said ICC's source on September 25, who could not be named for security reasons.
Sadly, the harassment of imprisoned pastors and church leaders extends even to their families. As recently as September 27, Radio Free Asia reported that the wife and five children of imprisoned pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh had been arbitrarily locked up in their own home, with police sealing the gates of the house with wire and setting up a checkpoint outside. Chinh's wife, Tran Thi Hong, said she was unable to even take one of her children to see a doctor. She believes the authorities may be trying to prevent her from visiting Pastor Chinh, who is serving an 11-year sentence.
According to the source who provided the list of imprisoned church leaders to ICC, the Vietnamese government has grown somewhat reluctant to use aggressive force against Christian communities in urban areas. In the countryside, however, our source reported that authorities continue to "crush" Christian groups, seemingly at will.
Yet, there is still hope that the generally awful state of human rights, and the right to religious freedom along with it, will improve in the years to come. On August 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2013, stipulating that any non-humanitarian aid usually provided to Vietnam must be withheld until certain human rights conditions were met. If the bill were to pass the Senate and come into effect, the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in financial assistance, as well as the damage to Vietnam's international reputation, may be just what it takes to finally move the nation's authoritarian leaders towards a much greater respect for personal freedoms.
In the meantime, we can only continue to pray for the strength and the fortitude of the dozens of Christian pastors and church leaders locked up in Vietnam on behalf of their faith in Christ.
To learn more about how International Christian Concern is working to aid the families of imprisoned pastors in Vietnam and around the world, please visit our "Suffering Wives & Children" page here.
International Christian Concern is a Washington, D.C.-based human rights organization that exists to help persecuted Christians worldwide. ICC provides awareness, advocacy and assistance to the worldwide persecuted church.
Publication date: October 8, 2013