Police attack Mennonite church gathering in Vietnam

by Luke Martin, Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church

In June, security police attacked a Mennonite church gathering in Vietnam, where pastors and theological students were gathered for a conference and graduation ceremony. The event took place north of Ho Chi Minh City, at the Evangelical Mennonite Church, a congregation not officially registered in Vietnam. This past week, members of that church arrived as refugees in Allentown.

Luke Martin (left) and Vietnamese Mennonite pastor Nguyen Quang Trung at the November 2012 celebration of the Vietnam Mennonite Church.
Luke Martin (left) and Vietnamese Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Quang Trung at the November 2012 celebration of the Vietnam Mennonite Church.

Police arrived at the church at 11 p.m. local time, after attendees were asleep on mats laid out on the floor. Police called for two people to open the door for an “administrative investigation,” and a few minutes later, they broke down the door, turned on the lights, and stormed the building, assaulting students and church leaders. Those attending—76 in total—were led to waiting trucks, taken to the local police station, and booked, though no arrest warrants were produced nor any reason given for the beatings and arrests.  Police searched the premises, destroying some property in the process, and there are reports that police incited onlookers to throw stones at the church, breaking windows and roof tiles. Church leaders estimated the size of the crowd was around 300 people.

All of those arrested were released by the next morning, but attacks on the building—throwing bricks, stones and rotten eggs—continued for several days, and those coming to the center were searched and had property confiscated.  Electricity and water were cut in the area, affecting other neighbors as well. One pastor was charged with resisting administrative investigation and local disorderly conduct.

Church leaders are petitioning authorities and have laid five charges against the local police.

Incidents like this were more common in Vietnam as recently as ten years ago, but Vietnam’s government, wanting better international relations, has improved its record on human rights and religious freedom. One of the two groups that make up Vietnam’s Mennonite community was granted official status in 2008; it became an official member of Mennonite World Conference in 2009. Both groups have around 5,000 members each and have adopted the Mennonite Confession of Faith.

Still, stories of arrests, beatings, destruction of property, and other violence against Mennonites have been common. In 2004, one pastor was arrested and convicted on charges of preventing a police office from carrying out activities, a common charge used against religious leaders. That pastor was sentenced to three years in prison bur released after 14 months after an international appeal for his release.

And receiving official status as a church in Vietnam isn’t easy: churches must have been in existence for 20 years before they can request legal status, meaning churches must function illegally for some time. New congregations can request permission from local authorities to meet; sometimes they get it, sometimes not. When local authorities aren’t pleased with leaders or the activities of churches—whether registered or unregistered—they often resort to harassment.

The family that came to Allentown has been recognized as refugees by the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees. Nhan Thanh Nguyen, his wife Ngoc Ha Than and their daughter, who celebrated her sixth birthday last week, are members of the Evangelical Mennonite Church, where Nhan Thanh Nguyen took courses on the Bible and theology, led the youth group, and preached. He was repeatedly arrested and harassed, and he and his family fled to Thailand in 2011 where they were granted refugee status, and where Nhan Thanh Nguyen  continued to minister and preach to Christian refugees in Bangkok.

Pastor Hien Truong, of Vietnamese Gospel Mennonite Church in Allentown, sponsored the family to come to the United States, through Lutheran Children & Family Services of Allentown.

Parts of this article were first published by Mennonite World Conference, and you can read the full article here. Reposted with permission.