- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2000

A Washington human rights group, days before President Clinton is to visit Vietnam, yesterday released a series of Vietnamese government documents that depict an official policy of persecution against Christians, especially evangelical Protestants.

Some 50 pages of documents disclosed by the rights-group Freedom House bear government seals and signatures, and were passed to human rights workers in Vietnam earlier this year.

"These documents … show that church closures, arrests and Bible burnings are not isolated acts of overzealous cadres but are the policy directives of the Vietnamese Communist Party and state religious officials," said Nina Shea, director of Freedom House's Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom.

Dating between Feb. 7, 1998, and June 6 of this year, the series of eight documents, some marked "Top Secret" or "Secret," were translated into English and authenticated by Vietnam experts in the United States, Canada and Thailand, according to Freedom House.

The first document includes a harsh condemnation of the Catholic Church, which it blames for orchestrating the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Issued by the Bureau of Religious and Minority Affairs in the northern province of Lao Cai that borders China, the document includes 10 policy recommendations for the repression of churches, especially those practicing evangelical Protestant Christianity.

"We must carefully control the thinking and activities of the religions," according to the translation. "We must turn propaganda into an art form" so that "they will not know they are being propagandized."

The policy directive is in response to the "unexpectedly rapid growth" of Protestant Christianity in the northwestern provinces among the Hmong ethnic minority.

According to Freedom House, the man Vietnam has put in charge of dealing with religion has a history of brutal repression of religion in other provinces.

The persecution of Buddhists, Protestants and Catholics outside those organizations sanctioned by the government is common in Vietnam.

All eight documents released by Freedom House are primarily directed toward evangelical Protestants.

"The documents show that Vietnam is still very much of the Communist mind-set in that they do not want any religious organization they cannot control," said Ms. Shea.

Mr. Clinton arrives in Vietnam on Thursday as the first U.S. president to visit since the Vietnam War.

Clinton administration officials said yesterday that the president will raise human rights issues in private talks with Vietnamese officials.

The State Department's 1999 report on human rights says that while Vietnam's human rights record remains poor, there has been measurable improvement in some areas.

"The government restricts freedom of religion and significantly restricts the operation of religious organizations other than those entities approved by the State. However, in some respects, conditions for religious freedom improved during the year," the report says.

But human rights advocates are angry that the State Department's top official on human rights, Harold Koh, has been left off the delegation.

"Harold Koh is a decent honorable friend of human rights and he should be on that delegation," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee on human rights. "This administration consistently puts trade above the rights of the oppressed."

Mr. Smith, who visited Vietnam last year on a fact-finding tour, said that human rights in Vietnam have deteriorated.

"They allow one clergyman to preach while another one is incarcerated. It has not improved," he said.

The Freedom House documents also call into question reports of improving religious rights in Vietnam.

Document Four prohibits the gathering of "people to study religion" and directs that government officials be informed if "a stranger arrives to preach religion."

An estimated 10 percent of Vietnam's 79 million people are Christians.

A major group of evangelical Protestants said it was pleased that religious rights in Vietnam may get some attention because of the Freedom House documents and the president's visit.

"There are outrageous violations of religious liberty in Vietnam," said Richard Cizik, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Evangelicals.

The group that represents some 50,000 American churches held its annual "Day of Prayer For the Persecuted Church" on Sunday.

Clinton administration officials said that the president will raise the issue during his meetings in Vietnam.

"The president most certainly will bring it up in his private meetings with Vietnamese officials," said one government official on condition of anonymity.

The official did not say why Mr. Koh, the State Department's senior diplomat for human rights was not part of the delegation, an omission that angered Freedom House's Ms. Shea.

"We are stunned at how trade has trumped human rights. Vietnam is not China, offering a huge market. This is a small country," said Ms. Shea. "If we cannot raise the issue of human rights with Vietnam, it is a complete sellout."

Human Rights Watch, another U.S.-based rights group, said in a report last week that religious freedom in Vietnam remains restricted, and more than 20 members of religious groups were in detention.

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