Le Thi Hong Lien spent almost a year in prison for being a Mennonite. Reportedly beaten until her jaw broke and driven into mental illness, she quickly became a poster child for persecuted Christians in Vietnam. Under U.S. pressure, Vietnamese authorities released her on April 28, but re-arrested her three days later for attending a Bible study.
Ms. Lien's case is symbolic of Vietnam's uncertain promises to expand religious freedom. But that did not keep the United States, after months of talks, from announcing May 5 that it had reached an agreement with Vietnam based on its pledges to reform.
Last September the United States named Vietnam one of the world's worst violators of religious freedom-one of eight "countries of particular concern." This month's agreement forestalls more punitive measures such as U.S. sanctions.
Religious-liberty advocacy groups are not ready to celebrate, however. Many say promises do not mean progress. Vietnam has released about 12 religious prisoners and banned forced recantations of faith, but much more is left to do. Some 100 Vietnamese remain religious prisoners, while 1,000 places of worship remain closed. And while the government has apparently clarified its laws to allow more freedom to worship, how it will interpret them is unclear.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal body that recommends policy actions to the State Department, cautioned that Vietnamese officials need to implement more structural reforms. "They haven't addressed the tangible reasons that got them on the list in the first place," said Scott Flipse, the commission's senior East Asia policy advisor.
Under 1998's International Religious Freedom Act, an agreement is the first option open to diplomats. This is the first time the United States has succeeded in securing such an agreement with any of the eight nations, even though it has yet to impose sanctions.
The agreement remains classified, but John Hanford, State Department ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said it requires Vietnam to enforce a February law on religious practice that provides greater freedoms. The law gives the government deadlines for re-opening and registering churches.
"With deadlines, at least in theory, groups cannot be kept in limbo or left in a situation that leaves them very vulnerable for an unlimited time," Mr. Hanford told WORLD.
Mr. Hanford said Vietnam also has begun to include religious prisoners in its yearly amnesty for the first time. Such a release secured Ms. Lien her freedom, but did not protect her from re-arrest. Sometimes abusive local authorities, he said, need to be "reined in."
Ho Chi Minh City police released Ms. Lien the same night of her second arrest on May 1 during a house-church meeting, but not before intimidating her and other Christians present, according to Compass News. Despite her father's pleas that police interrogate her on site because of her poor health rather than take her to the station, they took her in anyway, along with other believers. One drunken officer reportedly told the Christians he had orders to harass them until they stopped meeting at the home of imprisoned Mennonite human-rights lawyer Nguyen Hong Quang, where police arrested Ms. Lien and others.
Mennonites are only one group the government considers illegal in the nation of 80 million. Most of the country's Protestants-whose estimated numbers range between 421,000 and 1.6 million-are ethnic minorities. They are concentrated in the Central Highlands and Northwest Provinces and gather in underground house churches. Other religions, too, are suspect in the Communist government's eyes: Buddhist offshoots known as the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai movements also face persecution.
Creating legal ways for such groups to worship without harassment is crucial, Mr. Flipse said. "They should be able to register independently with leaders of their own choosing," he said. Many groups fear tighter state control if they register with the government.
Despite its February law, Vietnam has carved out a caveat in registering groups. The law allows for highland house-church groups to register if they renounce connections to groups responsible for organizing protests. That still leaves some whom the government dislikes open to persecution. Among the ethnic minority Central Highlanders, collectively known as Montagnards, land-rights claims and religious-freedom demands sometimes go hand in hand.
"In effect, because Vietnam views the house-church movement as a solidarity movement with the Montagnards, the commmunist authorities will continue to arrest, torture, and suppress house-church members-whether they have an agreement or not with the U.S.," said Robert Johnson, a spokesman for the Montagnard Foundation. The authorities will claim Montagnards are seeking independence or opposing the government, he said.
Nonetheless, branding Vietnam a heavy-duty persecutor-with the threat of trade and other sanctions-has drawn the country to the negotiating table. Growing trade with the United States has become leverage for pliancy on human rights.
In 2001, the two countries signed a bilateral trade agreement. Within two years, Vietnam's exports to the United States had more than quadrupled to $4.6 billion. In 2003, two-way trade was $6 billion.
"There's a fear economic interests will trump religious interests, so we're reminding the State Department economic rights should not precede human rights," said Roger Severino, legal counsel at the Washington-based law firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Warming relations with the former enemy will culminate in a state visit to Washington by Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai next month, the first since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. In Vietnam's reckoning, securing trade with the United States will help shore up its export economy, under threat from China.
Before Mr. Khai hits U.S. soil, human-rights groups want more from Vietnam. A dozen have signed a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking that 500 closed churches and worship points in Vietnam's Central Highlands and Northwest Provinces be re-opened and allowed to register by June, with a further 500 opened six months later. The groups include the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Freedom House, the Becket Fund, and Vietnamese-American human-rights organizations.
The letter also asks the government to free jailed Buddhist believers and allow them to meet, and to permit Christian minorities fearing persecution to emigrate from the country without harassment.
To see that Vietnam upholds its end of the agreement, human-rights groups propose forming a collaborative monitoring group built on the U.S. Helsinki Commission model. The commission is a U.S. government agency designed to track compliance with human-rights commitments made by the United States and European countries dating to 1975.
"What exactly is agreed to, from what we can see so far, stops short of fully guaranteeing religious freedom for the Vietnamese people," Mr. Severino said. "These concrete, measurable steps need to be included in any agreement if Vietnam is to be welcomed as a member of the international community."
Mr. Hanford stresses that "implementation will be key" in assessing Vietnam's progress. "Only time will tell if these new laws . . . play out." Mr. Hanford said he believes that monitoring by the U.S. embassy in Hanoi and reporting from local groups are enough to track compliance with the agreement.
The big question is whether the agreement is enough to prevent Washington from designating Vietnam one of the world's worst persecutors again this year. Some say Vietnam has not earned its way off the list. But the USCIRF still holds that its original recommendations are in order: barring officials responsible for abuses from entering the United States, and re-aligning humanitarian aid to focus on fostering human rights.
For now, the U.S.-Vietnam agreement for many oppressed Christians is still too good to be true. Ms. Lien won a tenuous amnesty, but two pastors-arrested last year in a group known as the "Mennonite Six"-remain in custody.