Observation on the Central Bureau of Religious Affairs 2006 Internal Training Document on Dealing with the Hmong Christian Movement in the Northwest Provinces
“… to resolutely subdue the abnormally rapid and spontaneous development of the Protestant religion in the region.” (Under “0bjectives” in Lesson 3, Section V, 1.)
At the beginning of 2005 Vietnam was still denying outright that there were Protestant Christians in the Northwest provinces. It was well-known that over 200,000 and perhaps many more Hmong had come to Christian faith over the previous 17 years.
Under heavy international pressure Vietnam promulgated new religion legislation in 2004 and 2005. It promised to teach the new regulations to officials throughout the country and thereby improve it dismal religious liberty record that led the US to classify Vietnam as “Country of Particular Concern” for both of those years.
The strongest test would certainly be the Northwest provinces, where oppression was long practiced. A campaign launched in 2000 called Plan 184 was intended to eradicate Christianity. Persecution was egregious. Many Hmong Christian leaders were severely abused, falsely imprisoned and some died as a result. (The latest reported death by abuse was of church elder Sung Chong Chu of Dien Bien Dong District on December 9, 2005. This has just come to light and has not yet been published.) Many Hmong were driven from their ancestral homes and lands. By the admission of this document, some 20,000 Hmong Christians fled south to the Central Highlands.
This training document has been in use at least since May 2006, and was acquired by Vietnamese Christians in August. It embodies the application of the new religion legislation as interpreted by Vietnam’s Central Bureau of Religious Affairs for use among the ethic minorities in the Northwest provinces. It is a very troubling application considering it comes from the central government body charged with the management of religion, not some hard-headed, uniformed local official.
The document retains the old rhetoric that Protestantism is part of the scheme of “peaceful evolution” of the American Empire and unnamed allies, the goal of which is to fight against the revolution. It also clearly admits that local authorities have made up “special measures” to oppose Christianity, including forcing people to renounce their faith. Vietnam has always denied that this was done.
However, in a departure from the past, the training document allows that for a portion of the Hmong and other ethnic minorities there is a legitimate need for religion and therefore some may be registered to undertake religious activities. In a system that previously denied there were Christians at all, this may be a step forward.
What is troubling to the point of being unacceptable, is the process whereby the government unilaterally and subjectively decides which Hmong Christians have a genuine need for religion and will be allowed to practice it under strict rules, and which Hmong must be “mobilized and persuaded to return to there traditional beliefs”.
At this writing work teams are doing a thorough inspection of the Northwest to identify Christians. They are ordered to divide Christians into three categories :
- Category 1 is for Christians who seem to know their faith and have a need for communal worship activities. These are eligible for registration.
- Category 2 is for those who call themselves Christians but are not knowledgeable about their faith and meet irregularly. These are to be encouraged to return to their old ways, but if they insist, they are allowed to worship alone in the confines of their own homes without teachers or other Christians.
- Category 3, new Christians, are given no choice but to be “mobilized and persuaded to return to their traditional belief”. This is the practice of forced recantation used against virtually all Hmong Christians in the recent past, and outlawed in the new religion legislation.
One must try to imagine the feelings of the Hmong being interviewed, one at a time. Their interviewers include police and other officials from the central government, the province and the district. The inter-viewees themselves may have been beaten in previous raids, and have seen their leaders hauled off and mistreated and jailed. It is likely these same officials implemented Plan 184 that was intended to eradicate Christianity. Now even a frightened woman who speaks very marginal Vietnamese is expected to answer with equanimity and pass an oral test on Christianity administered by officials trying to weed out Christians by there own standards.
Christian leaders are also to be categorized by government officials long hostile to all Christians, as “those who have an attitude of following the government” and those “who are hostile and extremely resistant”. The later variety are to be “denounced to the citizens” in the old communist style.
While some diplomats point to progress in Vietnam’s allowing religion for some Northwest ethnic minorities, church leaders in Vietnam see the document in a very different way. A number of thoughtful leaders of both the legally recognized church bodies and the still largely unregistered house churches have carefully studied the document. Their consensus is that it clearly demonstrates “the government’s insincerity” in offering real change.
They have pointed out the purpose of the Plan for the ethnic minority Christians in the Northwest is to MANAGE, CONTROL, LIMIT, STOP AND REVERSE the movement. Another way of looking at it is to see its objective as freezing the movement in place. A successfully frozen movement would wither and die. The Plan’s stated purpose is to “resolutely subdue” the Protestant movement. One wonders how this could be considered consistent with granting greater freedom.
IMPLEMENTING THE NEW PLAN
A look at the early results of how the Plan in the new document is being used is also not encouraging. In 2002 and 2003 the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), with which Hmong Christians have long been affiliated, wrote letters of recognition for well over 1,000 ethnic minority churches in the Northwest provinces. (The training document accuses the ECVN (N) of “unilaterally recognizing 500 churches in the NMR”.) In a further attempt to help the Hmong churches in 2005 and 2006, the ECVN (N) assisted 534 Hmong congregations to submit applications to carry on religious activities locally according the new religion legislation. None of the above efforts received even the courtesy of acknowledgement by Vietnam’s authorities. So little respect does the government have for the recognized church which has long advocated for the Hmong, that key church leaders would hear about registration developments first through the US embassy!
From January to May of 2006, the ECVN (N) President, with some legal assistance, submitted some requests for registering religious activities for Hmong congregations. On July 18, 2006 the congregation of Xin Chai in Bao Thang District of Lai Chau Province received a certificate for religious activity. This seems to have been unknown by the General Secretary and the rest of church’s executive committee.
It is necessary to note that the ECVN (N) is currently handicapped by a deep rift between the President of the church and the General Secretary, elected at the General Assembly in late 2004, the first allowed since 1984. There are clear signs that the government has contributed to and is exploiting this regrettable rift.
On September 18, 2006 the General Secretary received from the US embassy in Hanoi a faxed list of 18 “registered” ethnic minority churches that the embassy had received from the Central Bureau of Religious Affairs. The embassy inquired as to what the church’s view was of this development. The General Secretary, who was unaware of ethnic minority church registration until hearing from the embassy, sent an announcement forthwith to Northwest provinces asking the leaders of the 18 churches to come to Hanoi to report developments. (While the Plan in the training document ordered officials to register at least two churches in each of the provinces where there are Hmong Christians, the 18 listed are located in only five provinces.)
On October 16, the ECVN (N) submitted a one-page report on its findings to the embassy. It included three lines of positive comments and 31 lines detailing severe difficulties faced by the newly registered congregations. Independent reports from three other sources, two of them Hmong with strong ties into the area, confirm the hardships.
Here are some complaints from the 18 “registered” churches:
Some church workers very familiar with the Northwest Christians movement, have noted that the 18 “meetings places” are not large ones and most are lead by leaders who are not strong, making them easy to manipulate.
ECVN (N) leaders concluded that the methods employed by officials were intended to limit the number of Christians to those that had been listed on registration papers, and not to allow anyone new to participate. So the purpose of registration is not to provide free legal space but rather to use as a tool to squeeze the Protestant movement.
House church leaders have gone to school on the document and are incorporating lessons learned into their negotiations and plans regarding registration of their congregations. They note that the idea of registering the names of Christians in churches originates with the CRBA, and has been misused in the Hmong case and determined to resist it. No other religion is required to do his.
Both the recognized churches and the house churches have noted the document clearly states the government’s purpose in registration is to provide the state with tools to mange their affairs. And so with the plus of legality offered by registration comes the threat of more government intrusion.
The document itself and its application violate Vietnam’s new and still very limiting religion legislation, particularly in its injunctions to “mobilize and persuade” professing Christians to return to their traditional ancestor and spirit worship. It is an unacceptable fulfillment of Vietnam’s promise to improve religious freedom. It is a very poor reward for the recent hard work of governments and non-governmental advocates for religious freedom. We should be quite disappointed.