Vietnamese churches demand investigation of Christian’s death

By Morning Star News |
Police and other officials intrude into home of Y Krot Bya during worship in Buon Don District, Dak Lak Province, Vietnam on Nov. 15, 2023.
Police and other officials intrude into home of Y Krot Bya during worship in Buon Don District, Dak Lak Province, Vietnam on Nov. 15, 2023. | (Morning Star News)

Relatives of Y Bum Bya, a member of the Evangelical Church of Christ of the Western Highlands (ECCWH), on March 8 found his battered body hanging from a tree with a rope around his neck.

Police, saying they were coming to return a cell phone that they had confiscated from him, had ordered him to be at home that morning to meet him. At the appointed time, however, officers sent word that he should meet them at another location about half a kilometer away.

He set out for the place but never returned. Relatives searching for him found his lifeless body hours later in a nearby stand of trees.   

Police had first arrested and badly beaten Y Bum Bya in August 2023, and then publicly humiliated him before forcibly assembled fellow villagers. Officers charged him with trying to “destroy the great national unity,” under Article 116 of the criminal code. Merely expressing a controversial idea in Vietnam can trigger this charge.

In April 2023, a pastor of his congregation, Y Krec Bya, was also arrested and held a year for investigation before his trial on March 28. He also was accused of “destroying the great national unity.” On the flimsiest evidence he was sentenced to an outrageous 13 years in prison to be followed by five years of house arrest.

In a bold and unusual move, the ECCWH recruited 31 congregations to sign a petition demanding a full and transparent government investigation of the murder of Y Bum Bya, given its proximity to the site of the police summons. They also demand a review of the preposterous sentence for Pastor Y Krec Bya.

These churches show great courage in presenting the petition, providing full information about their identities and locations. The preparer of the petition also bravely provided his name, location, phone number and email.

The ECCWH is an independent denomination of E-De ethnic minority churches in Dak Lak Province. The other signatories represent two additional mostly E-De denominations and some independent congregations.

What these churches have in common is the temerity to publicly appeal to the international covenants promising religious freedom to which Vietnam is signatory, and to appeal to Vietnam’s own law that ostensibly provides some religious freedom. This takes courage. Any appeal or even mention of natural human rights, and Vietnam’s having signed international conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can be turned into criminal offenses.

These churches are told they must be registered with the government to operate, but at the same time they are deemed ineligible to register.

Morning Star News has also received a 22-page document detailing 13 cases of police oppression and harassment of E-De Christians in 2023. Each case records exactly what took place and identifies the offending police officers and other government officials involved and also provides names the victims.

Common to the cases is acute pressure to leave the ECCWH and join the largest registered church, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam-South. Working sessions with the police or other officials last many hours and include threats and sometimes brutality.

A goal of the government appears to be the dissolution of the ECCWH. The authorities decide which evangelical groups are eligible for Vietnam’s version of religious freedom and which are not. Officials can then use any objections to violations of human rights to file charges for crimes such as “destroying the great national unity.”

Such government practices and incidents have contributed to the United States placing Vietnam on its Special Watch List (SWL) of violators of religious liberty for the last two years – a major irritant in U.S.-Vietnam relations. Such ongoing oppression of Christians will make it difficult for Vietnam to get off the SWL.

Harassment, threats, and some severe brutality have also spread an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear over Vietnam’s estimated 400,000 ethnic minority Christians, collectively called Montagnards, in the Central Highlands. And these practices starkly belie the progress Vietnam claims it is making toward religious freedom.

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