April 13, 2023
The Honorable Antony Blinken Secretary of State U.S. Department of State 2201 C Street, NW Washington, DC 20520
The Honorable Rashad Hussain, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom The Honorable Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs The Honorable Marc Knapper, United States Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Dear Secretary Blinken,
We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, are writing to request that you, on the occasion of your upcoming visit to Vietnam, directly raise concerns with the Vietnamese leadership about their government’s antagonistic policies toward religions that do not submit to government control. Over the past twelve months, we have observed the rapid escalation of repressive measures against religious groups that resist government control. Of particular concern are the government’s intensifying efforts to force Christians to renounce their faith, crack down on house churches that do not submit themselves to government control, and coerce members of independent religious groups to join government-controlled religious organizations.
On April 8, the police of Dak Lak Province arrested Montagnard Evangelist Y Krec Bya, a member of the Evangelical Church of Christ of the Central Highlands, as he was hosting an Easter vigil service at his home. He was criminally charged for “sabotaging the national unity policy” under Article 116 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, which may carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. The government has outlawed his church and ordered him to leave his church and join the government-sanctioned Evangelical Church of Vietnam – South. Due to his resistance, over the years he has often been taken to the police station for interrogation and at times publicly denounced by local government officials at town meetings. In 2004, he was sentenced to eight years of prison for joining peaceful demonstrations to advocate for religious freedom for the Montagnard people. On April 8, eight other members of his church were also detained for interrogation; all have been released except for Evangelist Y Coi Bkrong. As part of this crackdown, on the same day, the police of Dak Lak Province announced the criminal prosecution in absentia of Pastor A Ga, a resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, founder of the Evangelical Church of Christ of the Central Highlands, and an internationally known defender of religious freedom.
Vietnam’s policy of forcing Hmong Christians to abandon their faith has even affected American citizens. In August of last year, Mr. Khue Vang, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Hmong ethnicity and a resident of Wisconsin, was visiting his wife and their four children, aged 6 to 13 years old, in Nghe An Province, Vietnam. During house inspection, the local police found out that he was a Christian; they expelled him from the district. After Mr. Vang returned to the United States, the police tried to force his wife, Mrs. Lỳ Y Xò, to also renounce her Christian faith, which she refused. The police confiscated her personal documents and the birth certificates of her children and threatened her with imprisonment. She fled to Dak Lak Province, taking her children along. Without the required personal documents, they cannot register to stay legally in the new location, not even temporarily. Mrs. Xò, who earned a livelihood through farming, has no farmland to work on and cannot find legal employment anywhere. Her children cannot go to school and do not have access to basic social services or benefits. Undocumented in their own country, their circumstances are dire and precarious.
Members of the persecuted Cao Dai Church who opposed the occupation of their Church’s facilities by the government-created Cao Dai Sect have been repeatedly punished with travel bans. On April 1, the border control police issued a belated travel ban notice to three Cao Dai dignitaries as they were returning to Vietnam from Cambodia. The Foreign Travel Management Bureau had been late in notifying the border control police about the travel bans directed at Mr. Le Van Mot, Mr. Tran Quoc Tien, and Ms. Luong Thi No. A fourth Caodaist, Ms. Nguyen Hong Phuong, was stopped at the crossing point on her way to Cambodia because her travel ban notice reached the border control police in time. In mid-March, another Cao Dai dignitary, Ms. Nguyen Xuan Mai, was notified of a Decision to Fine for “administrative violations,” because she had posted a video of the police disrupting religious activities conducted at the home of one of her relatives, which she attended.
Although the government officially tolerates and regulates the Catholic Church, it has always persecuted Catholic priests and believers whom it regards as insufficiently enthusiastic about government control. On March 22, government authorities of Ngoc Hoi District, Kon Tum Province, intruded and abruptly stopped Father Le Tien from celebrating Mass at a local chapel of Saint Paul Parish. They cut off the lights and loudspeakers, and one of them took away the bible that Father Tien was reading from. They dispersed all the churchgoers and ordered Father Tien to report to the police station for questioning. This is the third incident within the last year in which local authorities have disrupted the celebration of Mass at Saint Paul Mission. The mission was established in 2017 but is still not recognized by the local government. The parish built a wooden chapel, which local government personnel have threatened to tear down several times, according to one parishioner, and the police have regularly prevented priests and parishioners from celebrating Mass.
In 2019 the Kon Tum province authorities completely razed Son Linh Pagoda, which belonged to the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. The abbot had to live in an unsafe warehouse. In 2021, Ven. Thich Nhat Phuoc became its new abbot. He made multiple requests for permission to shore up the unsafe warehouse but did not receive any response. So in December 2021 he went ahead to bolster it with aluminum corrugated sheets. On December 13, 2022, the government demolished this dwelling. The abbot now must live in a makeshift shack near the latrine, which is all that remains of Son Linh Pagoda. On March 22, 2023, Ven. Thich Thien Thuan, the Monk Superior of Ven. Thich Nhat Phuoc, was ordered by the government of Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province to demolish many structures at his own pagoda. He was given a deadline of April 1, 2023, after which the government will send in its demolition team to carry out the order.
As a final example of the intensifying persecution of independent religious organizations and churches, on March 13, 2023, over a hundred police officers conducted yet another raid on the facility of a Buddhist religious group known as Thien Am Ben Bo Vu Tru. They took aside four nuns for interrogation, causing fear among all the group’s members who were mostly women and children. In July 2022, the group’s 90-years old founder and five young monks in training were tried for violations of Article 331 of the Penal Code (“Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, lawful rights, and interests of organizations and/or citizens”). They were sentenced to a total of 23.5 years in prison. The public security police recently initiated criminal prosecution against two lawyers who defended this Buddhist group, also under Article 331.
It is deeply disturbing that the arrest of Evangelist Y Krec Bya and the announced prosecution of Pastor A Ga, a U.S. legal permanent resident, followed on the heels of President Biden’s call to Vietnam Communist Party’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong on March 29. This high-level call may reinforce the Vietnamese leadership’s belief that it can violate human rights and persecute faith communities without affecting its relationship with the United States. We therefore urge you to communicate to Vietnamese leaders in no uncertain terms that further engagement between the two countries must be based on Vietnam improving its record for human rights and respect for religious freedom. In particular, the Vietnamese government should:
Instruct authorities at all local, district, and provincial levels to immediately stop their practice of forced renunciation of faith and respect the right of Christian house churches to conduct their religious activities independently from government-sanctioned religious organizations;
Amend the problematic Articles 116 (“sabotaging the national unity policy”) and 331 (“abusing democratic freedoms”) of its Penal Code to comply with UN human rights conventions;
Immediately and unconditionally release Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Bac Truyen, Montagnard Pastor Y Yich, Montagnard Evangelist Y Pum Bya, Montagnard Christian Y Krec Bya, members of Thien Am Ben Bo Vu Tru Buddhist Sect Group; Le Thanh Hoan Nguyen, Le Thanh Trung Duong, Le Thanh Nhat Nguyen, Cao Thi Cuc, Le Thanh Nhi Nguyen, and some 80 other religious prisoners; and
Cease all acts of transnational repression targeting human rights defenders among the Vietnamese diaspora.
Thank you for your consideration of these requests and for your Administration’s attention to these important matters.
Nguyen Dinh Thang, PhD CEO & President Boat People SOS (BPSOS)