Thinking about Vietnam

For the past few months, the most talked-about story in the presidential campaign has involved the Vietnam War: who served, where, and when. Almost daily, I turn down press calls for my comments, since I was the one thirty-three years ago who discovered John O'Neill. We, as a nation, are still haunted by Vietnam. Another thing that is as true today as it was thirty-five years ago is that the Communists in Vietnam are enemies of human rights and religious freedom. Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly knows this all too well. Three years ago, Vietnamese policemen surrounded his church and arrested him. His crime? "Undermining national unity." As Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer, wrote in the Washington Post, Reverend Ly's real crime was "informing the rest of the world" about the way Vietnam treats Christians and other "religious minorities." For daring to testify before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Ly was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. While Ly's case drew international attention, including a congressional resolution calling for his release, it's not unique. Just ask the Montagnards of Vietnam's central highlands. Chances are that if you have heard of them at all, it was in the movie Apocalypse Now in which they were depicted as savages. The reality is that many of them are Christians who simply want to be left alone to practice their faith and raise their families, something the Vietnamese government won't allow them to do. As Genser tells us, the past six months have seen increased persecution of Montagnard Christians. Unfortunately, as BreakPoint readers have often learned, state-sponsored or condoned persecution of Christians is not unusual. What is unusual is that in the case of Vietnam our government enjoys leverage over the persecutors. This means that we can bring religious freedom to the table as a prerequisite for American favor. Improved relations with the United States, especially in the area of trade, is an important part of Vietnam's plans for economic development. To that end, the United States and Vietnam negotiated a bilateral trade agreement three years ago. In his comments, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said that the pact would help bring "economic freedom and opportunity to Vietnam." The economic benefit to the Vietnamese people remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the agreement has not stopped human rights abuses. As if to make this clear, the Vietnamese arrested Ly just days before the agreement was announced. This must not continue. The trade agreement, which is far more important to Vietnam than to us, must be renewed every year. Christians above all must insist that our government demand religious freedom and other human rights as a condition for trade. At the very least, our State Department ought to designate Vietnam as a "country of particular concern," because under the International Religious Freedom Act, this would then require the United States "to engage with the Vietnamese government to advance the cause of religious freedom." As the presidential campaign reminds us, Americans still spend a lot of time thinking about Vietnam. The question is: Are we prepared to put all that thinking to good use? For further reading and information: Learn more about the problems in Vietnam and what you can do. See Christian Solidarity Worldwide's letter-writing guide. Kevin Eckstrom, "State Department Adds Saudi Arabia to 'Worst of Worst' Persecutors List," Christianity Today, 16 September 2004. (Vietnam and other countries were also added.) See the annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The Commission has recommended that Secretary of State Colin Powell designate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern. Jared Genser, "The Real Scandal about Vietnam," Washington Post, 25 August 2004, A17. Learn more about Genser's organization, Freedom Now. Paul Marshall, "Vietnam -- Still," National Review Online, 8 September 2004. "Vietnam and Cambodia to stop Montagnards from fleeing," Associated Press, 14 September 2004. "Vietnamese Minority Clash with Government over Highlands," NPR, 13 September 2004. "Vietnamese hill people find a home in US," The Age (Australia), 21 August 2004. Timothy R. Callahan, "Vietnam's 'Appalling' Persecution," Christianity Today, 31 December 2003. BreakPoint Commentary No. 040713, "Faithful Unto Death: The Plight of Burmese Christians." BreakPoint Commentary No. 040503, "Touching the Untouchable: India Targets Christian Converts." Mark your calendar: November 14, 2004, is the annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Learn more about helping the persecuted Church at Stand Today's website.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary