Early Sunday morning in Hanoi, President Bush gathered for a quiet service with Catholics and Protestants Nov. 19 at the city's Cua Bac Church. More than a stopover during his Southeast Asia tour, Bush was sending a powerful message to communist Vietnam to respect religious freedom. Outside on the cobblestones, he and the first lady shook hands with several dozen choir members, and he spoke with reporters. He urged all governments to be at ease in saying to their people, "If you feel like praising God, you're allowed to do so in any way you see fit."
His visit came just a week after the United States removed Vietnam from its list of the world's worst religious persecutors. Named a "country of particular concern," or CPC, in 2004, Vietnam is the first nation to be removed for actually improving.
The changes are measurable, according to international religious freedom ambassador John Hanford. When he visited the country three years ago, officials denied there were any forced renunciations of faith, he told WORLD. Now, Vietnam has admitted and banned the practice, and they have "almost entirely stopped."
Vietnam has also freed several dozen prisoners of conscience, while allowing the registration and openings of hundreds of Protestant churches. Though abuses remain, Hanford said, "this is a time to feel like we've seen a country make a U-turn."
As Vietnam came off the persecution list, a surprise nation landed on the 2006 CPC list: Uzbekistan. Restrictions have worsened for both Muslims and Christians over the last year, but human-rights experts doubted that the United States would censure Uzbekistan when some officials were hoping to re-open an air base they say is vital to Afghanistan missions. Hanford said no one blocked his latest choice, a diplomatic victory much like naming Saudi Arabia to the list two years ago.
On trial for the Oct. 29, 2005, beheadings of three Christian schoolgirls, confessed killer Hasanuddin explained why he did it: "We just wanted revenge," he told the Central Jakarta District Court Nov. 15, for unpunished "massacres of Muslims," particularly a 2000 attack on an Islamic boarding school in Poso. But authorities already have executed three Christian men for killings in that case. Prosecutors say the 34-year-old was the ringleader in the beheadings; he and two other suspects could face death sentences.
Meanwhile, Compass News reported that Muslim extremists almost murdered a theological lecturer in West Java in October. Pretending to be Christians who wanted teaching on how to relate to Muslims, they lured the man into a van, strangled him, and beat his head with a hammer. The lecturer managed to roll out of the car and walk to safety, and police are investigating the case.
The building was part grocery store, part house church, but within an hour it became all rubble. Some 500 policemen and additional peasant workers demolished the decade-old Nongda church in Changchun city, Jilin Province, on Oct. 26, ostensibly to make way for commercial development.
Fallout continues for six Christian leaders arrested in Xiaoshan District, Zhejiang Province, during an afternoon church demolition July 29. During the raid, thousands of anti-riot and military police and government workers surrounded the newly completed church and beat hundreds of Christians.
Authorities have charged the six-five men and one woman-with resisting law enforcement by "instigating violence." But China Aid president Bob Fu said, "Some of the accused pastors were not even there." Nevertheless, their trial is scheduled for next month. If found guilty, the six could face about 10 years in prison.
By using the broad definition "two persons," lawmakers opened marriage to homosexuals Nov. 15. That makes the nation one of only five in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.
South Africa's constitution is the first in the world to forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2005, the country's Constitutional Court gave the government until Dec. 1 this year to amend marriage laws. Instead, parliament passed a new law after a year of wrangling between traditionalists and liberals. Knowing conservatives in their own party might revolt in the traditional nation, the ruling African National Congress imposed strict voting discipline on its lawmakers. In pallid consolation, the law allows both religious and civil marriage officers to refuse to marry gay couples on moral grounds.