Mainline church groups in the U.S. often enthusiastically supported communist “liberation” of Southeast Asia 30 and 40 years ago. The defeat of pro-U.S. regimes there and the withdrawal of the U.S. led to some of the most horrible mass atrocities of the last century.
But there has rarely if ever been any buyer’s remorse by mainline church groups, who still ignore ongoing human rights problems in the remaining communist regimes of Southeast Asia.
Indeed, a recent delegation from the Brethren Church and Church World Service (the relief arm of the National Council of Churches) had a most “successful and uplifting trip” to Vietnam, where apparently all is nearly well.
The work of Church World Service (CWS) in Vietnam has long been controversial. As the trip report from the Brethren Church laconically observed, “CWS benefits from a relationship with the government of Vietnam that dates back to the Vietnam War, when it did not discriminate in its aid.” CWS, as always, continues “working with government officials on all levels.”
As CWS’ website recalls: “During the 1960s and 1970s, Church World Service operated in Vietnam through a coalition of three North American NGOs know as “Vietnam Christian Service” (VNCS), while also participating in Peace and Reconciliation initiatives through the World Council of Churches “Fund for Reconstruction and Reconciliation in Indochina (FRRI).” The FRRI notoriously funneled aid to communist rebel movements throughout the region.
The account of life in Vietnam by the recent church delegation is fairly glowing. There are only a few cryptic negative notes. The delegation tried to visit the site where a Brethren missionary was killed during the war. He was murdered by the Vietcong, a fact that the church report omits. But it was undoubtedly for this reason that the communist Vietnamese government refused the delegation’s request to pay homage. Instead, the Brethren faithful held a memorial service in their Ho Chi Minh City Hotel.
More successfully, the delegation did visit The Mennonite Church of Vietnam, from whom they “heard about the persecution through which they have come since the war.” Who did this persecuting? How did these Christians suffer under their communist “liberators?” Presumably this would be of interest to the constituents of the Brethren Church and CWS. But there are no details. Instead, more verbiage is given to the various tourist sites that the delegation managed to hit.
In a material sense, perhaps CWS has done admirable work in Vietnam. It helps dig wells and construct latrines, supports rural clinics, conducts disaster relief, delivers food to schools, and trains teachers. But the CWS publications mention no special concern about churches in Vietnam or CWS’ interest in sharing a Christian message with the Vietnamese. All of CWS’ partner groups in Vietnam are communist government agencies and “people’s committees.” And despite CWS’ professed concern for social justice, there is almost no critique of the communist Vietnamese government, which, even under economic liberalization, remains one of the world’s most repressive regimes, especially in its suppression of religion.
In CWS’ “advocacy” section of its website, it pledges: “We fully support the Government of Vietnam’s Comprehensive Poverty Reduction and Growth Strategy and the Vietnam Development Goals (VDGs), which both aim to achieve these goals.” CWS is concerned about good sanitation and clean water in Vietnam. But none of its ‘advocacy” work, in Vietnam, or its Washington, D.C. lobby office, seems to address any concern about human rights or religious liberty in communist Vietnam.
In fact, CWS seems to want to discourage any special concern about human rights in Vietnam. The “advocacy” section of the CWS website carries a plea from the Vietnam-USA Society, a front group of the Vietnamese government, urging opposition to the U.S. State Department’s designation of Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC)” to Vietnam. According to this friendship society, this designation “disregards recent significant improvements in democracy, human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam.” It is curious why these “improvements” were even necessary, since neither the Vietnam-USA Society nor CWS have noted any particular human rights problems in the past. But lest the “dignity, feelings and self-respect” of the Vietnamese people be hurt, American friends are urged to write the U.S. State Department and point to the “obvious evidence of religious freedom in Vietnam.”
Understandably, the communist Vietnamese government is grateful for CWS’s uncritical stance towards their regime. In 2004, Vietnamese vice president Madam Truong My Hoa addressed a 50th anniversary celebration of CWS.
“Over 50 years since national independence was achieved and nearly 30 years since the country was reunified, Vietnam has always secured peace and strived for the goal of "rich people, strong nation, equal, democratic and civilized society,” Madam Vice President trumpeted. Addressing CWS, she gratefully declared that, “Vietnam has ever had more friends, important partners, striving for the common goals of peace, equal development and mutual interests. “ She particularly thanked CWS for having “helped the U.S. general public to better understand Vietnam,” i.e. perform public relations for the Vietnamese communist regime.
Unmentioned by nearly all CWS materials is that Vietnam is a communist one party state that bans all political opposition and independent media. All religious groups have to belong to a communist party supervisory body. All religious activities, including ordinations, church construction and charitable work, must be approved by the Vietnamese communist government.
In claiming religious freedom in Vietnam, the CWS-supported Vietnam-USA Society, without any sense of irony, pointed to the growing numbers of religious believers in Vietnam. How generous of the communist Vietnamese government to allow their existence! But in fact, religious groups, including Christians, have survived and grown in Vietnam despite the regime’s efforts to suppress them. They owe no thanks to their communist overlords. And they owe little thanks to church groups like CWS that mostly ignore their plight and make apologies for their oppressors.
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