Vietnam's Two-Front War on Religion
The Vietnamese regime's religion is communism, and the Party views all other organized religions as a direct threat to national security and its authoritarian control of the Vietnamese people. Religious tolerance exists only in theory; Article 70 of Vietnam's Constitution of 1992 states that citizens "shall enjoy freedom of belief and of religion; they can follow any religion or follow none; all religions are equal before the law; and places of worship of all faiths and religions are protected by the law." However, the fly in the ointment is this statement: "No one can violate freedom of belief and of religion; nor can anyone misuse beliefs and religions to contravene the law and State policies." This opens the door for officials of the communist government to arbitrarily define what constitutes a violation and which violations misuse and contravene law and policies.
WikiLeaks released encrypted State Department diplomatic cables revealing that former U.S. Officials John Hanford, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration, were making wrongful and harmful policy decisions regarding religious freedom in Vietnam and relative to whether Montagnard refugees in the Central Highlands were genuinely fleeing persecution. The decisions were based on disinformation fed them by an agent of the communist government. The agent, "Pastor" Siu Y. Kim, presided over the communist Vietnamese government-controlled "Potempkin" Hoi Thanh Tin Lanh Vietnam church for Montagnards in Plieku city, Gialai Province. And these two State Department officials were largely responsible for delisting Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for egregious violations of religious freedom.
Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Some of our Founding Fathers fled religious persecution in their own countries of origin, and they saw religious freedom as vital to the existence of the United States. Yet the State Department has determined to remove this basic freedom from their annual report on human rights violations around the world.
In her recent meeting in Hanoi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh and "raised concerns about human rights, including the continued detention of activists, lawyers, and bloggers, for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas," focusing on particular concern "about restrictions on free expression online and the upcoming trial of the founders of the so-called Free Journalists Club." However, concern over continued religious persecution was absent from her agenda, as was any mention of the hundreds of imprisoned Christian believers. Trade seems to have a higher priority than human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. Congressman Frank Wolf has called for the immediate dismissal of the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam after he reportedly demonstrated little concern for the importance of human rights in the country.
Clinton also told Foreign Minister Minh that in regard to trade, "we're working on expanding it through a far-reaching, new regional trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership." There is no indication that the State Department will link progress on human rights and religious freedom to gaining Vietnam's most valued prize from the U.S. -- a Trans-Pacific Partnership in trade. During the first half of 2012, the U.S. imported $9.3 billion of goods from Vietnam, while Vietnam imported only $2.4 billion from the U.S.
Despite the fact that freedom of religion is a crucial part of Vietnam's Constitution, the communist leadership continues to grossly violate the freedoms of all faiths. Members of Congress, Freedom House, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and human rights groups have called upon the State Department to re-list Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern; however, their calls have fallen upon the deaf ears of the Obama administration.
Vietnam's latest egregious violations include the destruction of two Hmong ethnic minority churches and the threatened destruction of a third. On June 13, the regime destroyed the Phan Ho Church of the registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) in Dien Bien province. On June 17, the Ho He Church, erected in April by the unregistered Vietnam Good News Mission, was also demolished. The church threatened with demolition, the Cong Church, is also part of the Vietnam Good News Mission. The Hmong Christian movement in Vietnam's Northwest Mountainous Region has grown from nothing to include some 400,000 believers in the last two decades (Compass Direct News, 06/29/2012).
Also, on July 1, a violent attack was launched against the community of Con Cuông (Vinh Diocese) as they gathered for mass, where a priest was beaten and dozens of parishioners were injured -- five were hospitalized with serious injuries, including one woman with a fractured skull, and many young Catholics were arrested and held in custody. Local sources believe that this is part of a government campaign to eradicate Christianity in rural areas in Vietnam. The rapid growth of Christian believers, even after decades of communist indoctrination, is seen as a serious threat to its authoritarian rule. Led by plainclothes police, the attacks are said to have been carried out by government-sponsored thugs belonging to the Vietnamese Fatherland Front (Mặt Trận Tổ Quốc Việt Nam), which is closely linked to the Communist Party of Vietnam and commonly used as "enforcers" by the government.
The destruction of churches is just the latest example of the regime's campaign of violence against Hmong Christians. In May 2011, reports from Viet-Catholic, Vatican news services, and local NGOs indicated that over 75 ethnic Hmong Christians had been killed by Vietnamese forces, while hundreds more were wounded and/or arrested and taken to undisclosed locations. An estimated 9,000 Hmong, mainly Catholics and Protestant Christians, had gathered in the Muong Nhe district in North Vietnam's Dien Bien province to honor the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Located in the remote and mountainous area bordering Laos and China, Dien Bien is one of Vietnam's poorest provinces. The province's estimated 170,000 Hmong represent 35 percent of its population, with the Hmong earning less than a tenth of the average annual income of the Vietnamese (AT, 06/12/2011). The Vietnamese regime has also forced many Hmong to recant their beliefs in Christianity through threats, torture, and imprisonment.
"Under current recognition rules, a church, especially House Churches, in the Central Highlands and in the North, such as in Dien Bien Province, cannot be recognized unless it has an ordained pastor in charge." And, of course, preachers can "be ordained as pastors [only] following GVN-sanctioned refresher training[.]" According to the "2008 Internal 'Training Manual for the Task Concerning the Protestant Religion," "it is not acceptable to be apolitical; religious leaders are expected to affirm actively both the Party and the State." This means that church leaders (i.e., Pastor Siu Y. Kim) and their followers must place communism over God and accept the state's control of all religious activities. According to the U.S. Consulate, "Pastor Kim ... is sincere in his approach to working with the government as a legal SECV pastor" (04HOCHIMINHCITY 303).
The Second Front: The Chameleon "Pastor" Siu Kim in North Carolina
According to Vietnam government statistics and the United Nations, the Montagnards are among Vietnam's poorest inhabitants; yet "Pastor" Siu Kim has made five or six trips to the U.S., some reportedly paid for with taxpayers' dollars by the State Department, and others by the communist government, to engage in propaganda here. During these trips he met with Montagnards and religious leaders in North and South Carolina, Texas, and other states, regaling them with fairy tales about religious freedom under communism in the Central Highlands. With relative ease, he was able to meet with State Department officials, the staff of Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator John Kerry (a key advocate for communist Vietnam), as well as religious figures and other institutions and groups that influence U.S. policy decisions. Siu Kim's trips also include visits to Canada, Thailand, and Malaysia.
After initially being invited as a guest speaker in 2001, Siu Kim succeeded in entrenching himself as pastor of the First Montagnard Alliance Church (FMA Church) in Raleigh, NC. He then ingratiated himself with the Rev. Michael (Mick) Noel, South Atlantic district superintendent of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, who, like a true colonialist, exerts heavy-handed control over the FMA and other C&MA-linked churches. Disregarding both the bylaws of the FMA Church and required consultation with Church elders and the congregation, the Rev. Noel then anointed Siu Kim as pastor of the FMA Church.
Using the Church as a bully pulpit, Siu Kim began attacking leaders of the Montagnard Community, especially former jungle resistance fighters and other Church pastors and elders, reportedly issuing veiled threats that if anyone opposed him they might not be allowed to return to Vietnam to visit their relatives, or if they did, accidents could befall them or their relatives. This spread fear throughout the community, for the Montagnards are aware that he was and still is part of the draconian religious police apparatus in the Central Highlands. Montagnards now residing in North Carolina report that while Siu Kim was pastor of the "Potemkin" communist-controlled church in Pleiku, they saw him participate with police and government officials in the burning of a Church in Lao Village, Chu Se District. He also allegedly joined police officials in raids on villages in Plei Tot Pioch and throughout the Chu Se District area searching for Montagnards who had participated in the mass protests against religious persecution in 2001.
Preaching with venom from the pulpit, Siu Kim has verbally attacked the members of the Montagnard Human Rights Organization, stating that "MHRO works for the devil." MHRO helped more than 1,000 Montagnards who fled persecution in the Central Highlands and found refuge in the camps of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Cambodia to come to the U.S. They also assisted 174 Montagnard families with 913 children in reuniting with their loved ones who had previously been granted asylum in the U.S. Since Siu Kim's takeover, 60% of the Church's congregation no longer comes to services.
But meanwhile, in the State Department, "the band plays on!"
Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a foreign service officer and is a student of South East Asian politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy for the peoples of the region and has written extensively on these subjects.