HO CHI MINH CITY -- In violation of Vietnam's new religion policy, authorities in Lao Cai Province in Vietnam's far north are pressuring new Christians among the Hmong minority to recant their faith and to re-establish ancestral altars, according to area church leaders.
Local authorities have warned that on Sunday they will come in force to Ban Gia Commune and Lu Siu Tung village, Bac Ha district, where the Christians reside, but they did not say what they would do.
When the authorities in Bac Ha district in Vietnam's Northwest Mountainous Region discovered that villagers had converted to Christianity and discarded their altars, they sent "work teams' to the area to apply pressure. Earlier this month they sent seven high officials - including Ban Gia Deputy Commune Chief Thao Seo Pao, district Police Chief A. Cuong and district Security Chief A. Son - to try to convince the converts that the government considered becoming a Christian a very serious offense.
Christian leaders in the area said threats included being cut off from any government services. When this failed to deter the new Christians, they said, the officials threatened to drive the Christians from their homes and fields, harm them physically and put them in prison.
When the Christians refused to buckle under the threats, a leader of the Christians, Chau Seo Giao, was summoned daily to the commune headquarters for interrogation. He refused to agree to lead his people back to their animistic beliefs and practices.
Giao asked the authorities to put their orders to recant the Christian faith into writing. The officials declined, with one saying, "We have complete authority in this place. We do not have to put our orders into writing."
They held Giao for a day and night without food and water before releasing him. He is still required to report daily for "work sessions."
In September, Hmong evangelists of the Vietnam Good News Church had traveled to the remote Ban Gia Commune where it borders Ha Giang province. Within a month, some 20 families numbering 108 people in Lu Siu Tung village had become Christians and had chosen Giao to be their leading elder.
Rapid growth of Christianity among Vietnam's ethnic minorities in the northwest provinces has long worried authorities. There were no Protestant believers in the region in 1988, and today there are an estimated 300,000 in many hundreds of congregations. As recently as 2003, official government policy, according to top secret documents acquired by Vietnam Christians leaders, was the "eradication" of Christianity.
Under international pressure, however, a new, more enlightened religion policy was promulgated by Vietnam beginning in late 2004. Part of the new approach was an effort to eliminate forced renunciations of faith. The provisions and benefits of such legislation, however, have been very unevenly applied and have not reached many places such as Ban Gia Commune.
Vietnam's Bureau of Religious Affairs prepared a special instruction manual for officials in the Northwest Mountainous Region on how to deal with the Protestant movement. Published in 2006 and entitled "Concerning the Task of the Protestant Religion in the Northwest Mountainous Region," this document included plainly worded instructions for authorities to use all means to persuade new believers to return to their traditional beliefs and practices.
This document directly contravened Vietnam's undertaking to outlaw any forcible change of religion. Under international pressure, the manual was revised and some language softened, but according to an analysis of the 2007 revision of the manual released in February by Christian Solidarity Worldwide , the language still communicates the goal of containing existing Christianity and leaves the door open to actively stop the spread of Christianity.
The Central Bureau of Religious Affairs instruction manual for training officials shows no change to the 2006 document's core objective to "solve the Protestant problem" by subduing its development, concluded the February report by CSW and the International Society for Human Rights.
The 2006 manual had outlined a government plan to "resolutely subdue the abnormally rapid and spontaneous development of the Protestant religion in the region."
"Whereas the 2006 manual provided specific legitimacy for local officials to force renunciations of faith among members of less well-established congregations, the 2007 edition imposes an undefined and arbitrary condition of stability upon the freedom of a congregation to operate," the CSW report says. "Therefore, the treatment of any congregation deemed not to 'stably practice religion' is implicitly left to the arbitration of local officials, who had previously been mandated to force renunciations of faith."
Without a full and unconditional prohibition on forcing renunciations of faith, the report concludes, the amended manual does not go far enough to redress problems in the 2006 original.
Officials in the remote village of Ban Gia felt no compunction to resort to strong-arm methods to halt the growth of Christianity, said one long-time Vietnam observer.
"When a church leader advised the central government of the problem in Ban Gia Commune, the pressure only increased," he said. "The unavoidable conclusion is that it is still acceptable in Vietnam for officials to force recantations of Christian faith."