From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
The Vietnam regime's current crackdown has swept up several significant
Christian human rights advocates such as Father Nguyen van Ly and human rights
lawyer and religious liberty advocate Nguyen van Dai. This raises questions
for religious liberty advocates.
Q) If a Christian who is free to believe and share the gospel of salvation, is
suffering persecution as a consequence of his/her public promotion of Biblical
Christian virtues (i.e. honesty and sexual fidelity) and/or values (i.e.
justice, equity and liberty), is their cause one of religious persecution? Is
silencing such a Christian a violation of their religious liberty?
Q) What may be defined as "religious" and what may not?
The belief that Jesus atoned for sins on the Cross is clearly a religious
belief and a core belief of Christianity. But what about the belief that the
Creator God of the Bible has spoken and is the supreme authority to whom all
While Christians consider this a core religious belief, it has political and
social ramifications. Totalitarian dictators, who usually have enshrined their
supremacy in their Constitutions, will regard such a belief as politically
seditious. (Indeed it is politically threatening to all rulers who defy God's
standard.) Is the theology of the Cross "religious", the theology of
sexuality "social", and the theology of justice "political"? Or should the
Biblical positions on all these subjects be defined as "religious"?
Q) The belief that the God of the Bible has spoken and is the supreme
authority is a belief that can be tolerated by dictators so long as it is
privately held and not publicly proclaimed or acted upon. But is the right to
privately hold a politically threatening religious belief a sufficient
expression of religious liberty?
The early Christians who suffered under Rome had full religious liberty.
Anyone could believe and worship anything they wanted. The early Christians
were not thrown to the gladiators and lions because they worshipped Jesus, but
because they would not worship Caesar or acknowledge him as supreme. So were
these early Christian martyrs political or religious dissidents?
For the US to designate a state a Country of Particular Concern, the suffering
believers need to be recognised as victims of religious persecution. This is
why Christian religious liberty advocates are keen to have Christian human
rights advocates recognised as such. This is also the reason why repressive
regimes are keen to have Christian human rights advocates recognised as
criminals. (See link 1)
Such is the dilemma that emerges when religious liberty is separated from
other human rights. This situation has developed because during the decades
after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formulated, secularists
increasingly overlooked Article 18 until religious liberty became the most
neglected human right of all. Persecuted Christians have generally been
invisible to the secular media while secular human rights advocates, who have
difficulty understanding why anyone would suffer for religion, have tended to
treat religious liberty as a dispensable human right.
Over the past decade much work has been done by Christian human rights
advocates and the US to correct this situation and raise the profile of
religious liberty and bring it back into the consciousness of human rights
advocates and the Church.
But as the profile of religious liberty and persecution of Christians has been
elevated, a false dichotomy has developed between religious liberty and human
rights in general.
Vietnam would be designated a Country of Particular Concern if it imprisoned
Christian advocate Nguyen van Dai for worshipping Jesus. But Vietnam can
imprison Nguyen van Dai for publicly striving to "loose the chains of
injustice" (Isaiah 58:6) in accordance with the Biblical command of God,
without fear of consequences because lawyer Dai's activity has propelled him
from the "religious" realm into the political realm.
The issue is further complicated because in the Western world today religion
is supposed to be private and personal, not public and social. Because of this
many Western Christian human rights advocates expect Christians living amidst
injustice and repression to just be quiet and have a private, personal faith.
But this is not Biblical Christianity – it is partial Christianity, quite
different from the holistic, compelling Christianity of Zimbabwe's church
leaders, Vietnam, China and Syria's Christian human rights lawyers, and
Colombia's priests who, compelled by the mandates of God, risk their lives and
liberty to stand against corruption, cruelty, injustice and repression. It is
quite different from the faith of Wilberforce and those of the Clapham sect
who did so much to transform Britain in the late C18 and early C19. As noted
by the Rector of Holy Trinity, Clapham, the Reverend David Isherwood, "This
idea, this modern myth that you kind of box your spiritual life off from your
social life, or from your political life, is a nonsense for Christians. . ."
(See link 2)
Christianity was never meant to be just believed. Christians are called by
Christ to be light (directing society), salt (improving society) and yeast
(transforming society). "Faith without deeds is dead" (James 2:26).
So the question is: would it be advantageous if religious liberty, now that it
has come-of-age with its improved visibility and profile and advocate
community, was absorbed back into the human rights family and a more holistic
TWO COMPLEMENTARY ARTICLES FOR CONSIDERATION
This posting will now present two complementary articles for the purpose of
stimulating debate on this important subject.
The first article is:
"Constructive Advocacy: Creating a Context for Action" (28 March 2007)
by Jared Daugherty of the Institute for Global Engagement, http://www.globalengage.org/media/article.aspx?id=3818
In this article Jared Daugherty outlines the problems that can arise when
religious liberty advocates take up the cases of local Christians engaged in
political causes and claim that these are cases of religious persecution.
This article advocates convincingly that Christians engaged in political
causes not be labelled, or treated as, victims of "religious persecution".
Daugherty's article, however, demonstrates exactly why religious persecution
and human rights in general should not be separated. Lawyer Nguyen van Dai
acts politically on religious motivations, and the fact that his advocacy has
political significance removes him from the realm where religious liberty
advocates, and the measures they have available to them (ie the International
Religious Freedom Act), can help them. And this is really an unacceptable
situation. Spiritual life, social life and political life are not separated
for these activists, they are not separated in reality, and they should not be
separated in our human rights advocacy.
The second article has been contributed to WEA RLC by a long-time Vietnam
observer who must remain anonymous. This article, published here in full,
makes the case that religious liberty must be central to human rights and not
removed to a separate sphere. It advocates a more holistic treatment of human
THE CURRENT CRACKDOWN AGAINST RIGHTS ACTIVISTS IN VIETNAM
Religious Freedom and other Human Rights
5 April 2007
Humans rights workers, diplomats, and others knowledgeable about Vietnam,
agreed late last year that Vietnam's sincerity towards human rights
improvement would be indicated by what happened in Vietnam after it was
removed from the US religious liberty blacklist, hosted APEC in Hanoi and
acceded to the WTO. They did not have to wait long. Vietnam has been
anything but subtle in unleashing a major crackdown on long-time and as well
as on newer human rights advocates in February and March. With the sticks
gone and the carrots swallowed, Vietnam apparently feels little compulsion to
The crackdown is being widely reported on by many human rights and religious
liberty organisations. It is also being voluminously, vigorously and
unabashedly defended in Vietnam's internal media as action against criminal
elements dangerous to the Party and State of Vietnam. In this
criminalisation of the peaceful promotion of freedom, human rights and
democracy, Vietnam's rulers reveal their true nature.
Vietnam's propaganda machine has defaulted into comfortable old grooves. In a
recent article in the Family and Society newspaper Father Ly is described as
"joining hands with black forces and reactionary elements to build a force
under the cover of freedom of religion activities". In the Security and
Order website, (a more colloquial translation of An Ninh Trat Tu would be Law
and Order) of the Ministry of Public Security, a 7 March 2007 article
describes the arrests of young lawyers Nguyen van Dai and Le thi Cong Nhan
just the day before. Lawyer Dai is accused of using his position as a lawyer,
since 2004, "to consort with certain extremist elements to gather what is
called 'evidence that Vietnam suppresses religion' to distribute to enemy
forces and to reactionaries residing abroad".
The official charge against the two lawyers and Father Ly is "having committed
the crime of propagandising against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam",
according to Items (a) and (c) of Section 1, Article 88 of the Criminal Code.
They were reported already as having "committed the crime" before any trial.
The charges are very serious in Vietnam's criminal code, allowing for four
months of detention for investigation extendible four times and very harsh
punishment if convicted.
The well-publicised image of Father Ly being forcefully muzzled during his
March 29th trial says it all. He got eight years imprisonment. (See link 2)
The Security and Order posting, only one day after Lawyer Dai's computers were
confiscated, named some of the people and organisations abroad supporting Dai
(i.e. the "enemy forces"); this included US State Department's National
Endowment for Democracy. Vietnam's large and intrusive security apparatus has
surely been watching Lawyer Dai and many others for a long time. The State of
Vietnam is clearly determined to protect someone from the dangers of peaceful
political expression, a free press, independent labour unions, and true
There has crept into the discussion about change in the Socialist Republic of
Vietnam, the notion that religious liberty is detached from other fundamental
human rights. So, Vietnam is rewarded and credited with improvements in
extending "freedom" to religious groups through the mechanism of registration,
even while she oppresses and criminalises peaceful activists and ordinary
people calling for other fundamental freedoms. To the extent that outside
human rights allies, be they governments, NGOs or religious liberty advocates,
accept this dichotomy, they will be handicapped in their work for human rights
It should be carefully noted that "religious liberty" advocacy is specifically
mentioned in the current Vietnamese-language propaganda against Father Ly and
Lawyer Dai. Religion, however, will be scrupulously avoided in any charges
brought – affirming the dichotomy. Indeed, it was from a basis of religious
liberty advocacy that both men branched out into wider human rights advocacy.
This would also be true of Fathers Tin, Giai and Loi, Professor Ket, the
Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang and some others. These activists are being persecuted
if not for their faith beliefs, for putting their beliefs into action.
Vietnamese authorities understand and articulate this connection, even though
some others would try to make a distinction between religious freedom and
other human rights. As in the case of famed German pastor Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, their Christian commitment drives these Vietnam activists to stand
and act for justice. It can also be said that some success in achieving
modest gains in religious liberty and even greater success in drawing
attention to abuses, have emboldened these activists to strive for more.
The human rights advocacy of these Christian leaders must be understood in the
light of their religious motivation. Their struggle for religious liberty and
other human rights comes from their Christian understanding of humankind being
created in the image of God, and having inalienable rights derived therefrom.
In this view (articulated for example by Catholic theologians John Courtney
Murray and George Weigel and by Protestant theologian Charles Taber) freedom
of religion is the central or first freedom. Other freedoms grow in
concentric circles out of the fundamental freedom to believe and practise
one's beliefs. In this view, it is not possible to separate religious liberty
from the other fundamental human rights.
Indeed, if religious liberty is to be true liberty, it must observe more than
freedom to believe in one's internal being. It must include freedom to
assemble, to speak, to publish and so on. This makes the current
"registration" of religious congregations in Vietnam so incomplete. It allows
a certain number, sometimes named people, to meet at a certain address during
certain hours to do certain registered activities. This represents progress
in that it presumably prevents congregations operating within the confines of
such registration from being arbitrarily broken up by security forces, but it
is certainly short of religious freedom.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights, the cornerstones of international human rights
law, also both clearly affirm the right to freedom of religion (Article 18 of
each). Conceptually religious liberty and wider natural human rights advocacy
are not divisible. (A recent practitioner of this wholistic philosophy on the
American scene was the Rev. Martin Luther King.) This is one reason Vietnam
so fears and oppresses the activity of religious leaders and religiously
motivated rights advocates. Another reason is the perceived important role of
churches in the demise of communism in Eastern Europe.
Those who do not understand that these strongly held religious beliefs drive
the human rights advocacy of key religious activists, will in my opinion be
handicapped in understanding the events currently unfolding in Vietnam.
It is intriguing that Vietnam continues its new, recent activity of
registering religious congregations – especially Protestant house churches –
at the same time as unleashing the crackdown. Also concurrent with the
crackdown, Vietnam received a Vatican delegation for a week in early March.
It is "religious freedom" as usual. In doing these things Vietnam has been
partly successful in artificially separating religious liberty from other
human rights during its current crackdown.
Some reasons it is able to do so may be as follows.
Contemporary human rights theory and practice. Unlike religiously motivated
human rights advocacy, Western secular human rights practice often has a
diminished place for religious liberty. This is in spite of the fact that
both the UDHR and the ICCPR both have strong articles on religious freedom.
But in practice religious freedom is frequently not central, but rather
secondary or even peripheral. This idea is echoed in the current Vietnam
position that concedes "there is a need for religion for a segment of the
population" and then tries in its own way to provide limited and controlled
space for this minority.
Departmentalisation. The Office of International Religious Freedom (OIRF)
that pays significant and special attention to religious freedom, of the US
State Department, has the unintended effect of separating religious freedom
from other freedoms and even marginalising it.
This has particular relevance for the case of Vietnam's Montagnards. Several
hundred are documented by HRW as being imprisoned and some Vietnam church
sources believe the number is likely be higher. These arrests and detention
followed demonstrations in 2001 and 2004 against religious oppression and
confiscation of their land and other discrimination. While Vietnam moved
quite decisively in 2006, in response to ORIF and other pressure, to reopen
many of the hundreds of Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) churches it had
earlier ordered shut, serious grievances still remain. Some Montagnards have
sought to independently practise their religion and resist registering or
affiliating with the ECVN (S) (Evangelical Church of Viet Nam – South). In
addition, some Montagnards have advocated self-management not only of their
religious organisations but also of their ancestral lands. Whether foreign
governments or other institutions agree with these goals or not, as long as
they are peaceful, they fall within the protection of international human
In the past the US has strongly advocated for the release of Hmong Christians,
members of the independent UBCV (Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam), Father
Ly and Pastor Quang, and others. To be consistent the US should be standing
up for Montagnards who have been imprisoned because of Vietnam's
criminalisation of peaceful dissent and assembly or membership in independent
Instead, US policy appears to ignore the well-documented imprisonment of more
than 350 Montagnards. Such a low priority is the issue that Under-Secretary
of State for Population, Refugees and Migration was apparently not even
briefed on the Montagnard prisoner situation before her early February 2007
visit to Vietnam and Cambodia. She displayed a shocking ignorance and naivete
in her public statements. The official Vietnamese media quickly seized on her
assessment that all was well and self-servingly repeated it. Vietnam has
caught on that various human rights are the domain of various departments
within the US State Department, and plays these divisions very well.
Differences within the Protestant community. Vietnam's Protestant community is
largely of the persuasion of the conservative Christians & Missionary Alliance
organisation that first brought Protestantism to Vietnam nearly a century ago.
This view says that Christians "should not be involved in politics but only
preach the Gospel". This risk-adverse philosophy sometimes kept Christians
out of trouble.
However, this reductionist view of the Christian Gospel does not take into
account the huge social implications innate to the Christian message. It
forgets that the genuine conversion of individuals has major consequences for
social transformation. Most of Vietnam's Protestants are ethnic minorities.
They are converts to Christianity from fear-based, animistic religions,
which require unending and costly placation of malevolent forces. When people
come to believe and understand that they are created by God in His image and
were redeemed by the sacrifice and death of God's Son, and are no longer
subject to evil spirits, nor inferior to other people, they gain an immense
sense of self-worth and dignity. This contributes directly to their standing
up to oppression against themselves and others.
It is not an accident that Christians have been prominent in Vietnam's ethnic
minority movements seeking a fairer place in Vietnamese society, no matter
what the political philosophy of the nation's leaders at the time. A purely
secular view runs the risk of missing the crucial role of religion in activity
and possibilities for positive change in an oppressive system.
Church leaders in Vietnam consulted with and supported people such as Pastor
Nguyen Hong Quang and especially Lawyer Nguyen Van Dai while they advocated
primarily for religious liberty. However, when these men expanded their
activity to advocate for broader human rights and freedoms, they were shunned
by the same leaders.
Understandably, many Christians simply want to avoid controversy, and prefer
to live in the "safety" of silence. Some even accept newly granted "religious
freedoms" as a gift with the cost of silence on other human rights. But as
surely as day follows night, some of their number will, because of the
Gospel's call to affirm universal human dignity, stand strong and courageously
against oppression of any sort.
Vietnam authorities have and are exploiting and exacerbating divisions in
these matters among Christian leaders, turning some against others. And most
sadly, some leaders have bought into the ruse that "religious freedoms" are a
reward for non-involvement in the struggle for other freedoms.
These words are being written at a time a major crackdown on human rights
activists in Vietnam, a significant number of them religiously motivated.
There are concepts regarding human rights theory and practices, and certain
strategies to support human rights advocacy, and differences among religious
leaders that may play into the hands of Vietnam and allow other basic rights
to be separated from religious freedom. All concerned for the freedom of the
people of Vietnam should be vigilant in not allowing such a dichotomy to
intrude on the larger and common cause.
Vietnam's rulers, desperate to hang on to power will resort to any and all
stratagems to do so. They should not be allowed to divide and conquer those
who stand and struggle for the dignity and full freedom of the people of
Vietnam – whether in Vietnam or abroad.
1) Vietnam tells US to distinguish between protesters, criminals
by Nguyen Hong Linh, for Thanh Nien News. 20 March 2007 http://www.thanhniennews.com/features/?catid=10&newsid=26226
2) William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect who changed the British Empire
28 March 2007. ABC Radio National Religion Report http://www.abc.net.au/rn/religionreport/stories/2007/1883648.htm#transcript
3) Eight years jail for Vietnamese priest. 7 April 2007 http://www.cathnews.com/news/704/4.php
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