Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, a former prisoner of conscience imprisoned in Vietnam for his outspoken views on religious persecution by the Vietnamese government, spoke with Congressional Members today, offering a sobering view of religious and dissident oppression in the communist Asian nation.
The Congressional briefing was cohosted by the U.S. House of Representative’s Congressional Caucus on Vietnam and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and was meant to allow the newly released Pastor Chinh to tell his story.
Pastor Chinh is an evangelical pastor who for many years had been a pro-democracy activist and critic of the Vietnamese government’s ban on preaching in the Central Highlands, the region he and his wife, Mrs. Tran Thi Hong, lived with their five children. Pastor Chinh was also the founder of the Vietnamese People’s Evangelical Fellowship, a charity that ministers to ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands, including ethnic minority prisoners and their families.
In 2004, 200 paramilitary police and local officials destroyed Pastor Chinh’s home, which also served as a Mennonite chapel, on charges that Rev. Chinh had violated building regulations. Rev. Chinh and his wife faced continuing harassment and even beatings by police in the following years.
In 2011, Pastor Chinh was imprisoned by the Vietnamese government on false charges of “sabotaging the great national unity policy.” After a one-day trial on March 26, 2012, the Pastor was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
During his imprisonment, he was repeatedly abused, both physically and verbally, and spent long periods in solitary confinement. “Prisoners were mistreated, harassed, and even died,” Pastor Chinh told the Congress Members. “Several people died in front of me and I carried them in my arms. We had no basic rights in prison. I thought prison was to make people better, but it’s just a place for Vietnam to take revenge on the people. The communists do not have any conscience. Putting Vietnam back on the ‘Countries of Particular Concerns’ (CPC) list is the only effective way to treat communism. If we don’t do anything Vietnam will remain the same.”
While in prison the Pastor’s health began to deteriorate and he was denied medical treatment or access to medication.
While Pastor Chinh was imprisoned, the Vietnamese government continued to harass his wife, Mrs. Tran Thi Hong, a Lutheran member of the Vietnamese Women for Human Rights organization who vocally advocated in the international community for her husband’s release.
“My family is an example of many people who have been harassed in Vietnam,” Mrs. Hong said.
She was closely monitored by government forces, forced to remain in her house, and prevented her from meeting with her husband or procuring medicine for her sick children. Following her meeting with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, government forces subjected her to a beating which left her with multiple injuries. This assault was followed by a three-day interrogation during which she was pressured to sign a document stating that her meeting with the Ambassador was illegal and that she was a member of an illegal and subversive church due to her Lutheran faith. She was further tortured, on a regular basis, by female officers after refusing to sign the statement. “I didn’t sign because what they said was not true,” Mrs. Hong said during the briefing. “When I rejected they beat me again. They left me alone for about a week after that, then they took me back and beat me again and again.”
Pastor Chinh was released from prison on July 28, 2017, nearly six years before the end of his sentence. His release required him to accept exile from Vietnam. He and his wife and family were immediately granted asylum in the U.S., where they now live.
Also speaking at the Tuesday briefing was former Chair and current Commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Father Thomas Reese who addressed the issue of religious prisoners. “USCIRF has been concerned with religious freedom in Vietnam for a long time.” He pointed to Pastor Chinh as a perfect example. “The Pastor committed no crime and should not have been in prison.”
Father Reese also called for returning Vietnam to the list of CPC due to the Vietnamese government’s restriction on religious freedom.
CPC is a designation by the U.S. Secretary of State of a nation guilty of systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom as defined in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and its amendment of 1999. Nations designated as a CPC face both non-economic policy options designed to bring about cessation of the violations, as well as purely economic measures where the violations continue. There are currently 10 nations designated as CPCs, including Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.
Vietnam was designated a CPC from 2004 – 2006, but was removed from the list after promising to improve religious freedom in the country. Organizations like Human Rights Watch and the USCIRF continue to call for Vietnam’s inclusion on the list for the government’s continued campaigns against religious freedom. “USIRF believes that Vietnam deserves to be a CPC until [it respects] religious freedom,” Father Resse told the Congress Members.