Radio Free China

Human Rights and Religious Freedom News

Vietnam: crackdown raises questions for RL advocates – is it time for a more holistic approach?

Posted by radiofreechina on April 19, 2007

By Elizabeth Kendal
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC)
Special to ASSIST News Service

AUSTRALIA (ANS) — 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.

Nguyen van Dai

Nguyen van Dai

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 are accountable?

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 Cou ntry 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 t he 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 a midst 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 w ithout 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 approach developed?

Elizabeth Kendal


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
by Jared Daugherty of the Institute for Global Engagement,
(28 March 2007)

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 rights.

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 o n 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 hold back.

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 an d 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 religious freedom.


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 ri ghts allies, be they governments, NGOs or religious liberty advocates, accept this dichotomy, they will be handicapped in their work for human rights and freedoms.

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 drive s 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 lib erty, 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.) Th is 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 rights law.

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 religious organisations.

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 communi ty 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 dich otomy 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

2) William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect who changed the British Empire
28 March 2007. ABC Radio National Religion Report

3) Eight years jail for Vietnamese priest. 7 April 2007


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