By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
HANOI, VIETNAM (BosNewsLife)-- Church officials in Vietnam say one of the country's longest serving prisoners of conscience was released under pressure from the United States, but Christians remain concerned about an alleged Communist government-led crackdown on devoted believers, which included killing an evangelical pastor and a Christian convert.
Nguyen Van Ly, a priest who spent much of the last two decades either in jail or under house arrest, was freed last month, three days ahead of the May 22 arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama, church officials said.
"Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly has returned to the mother diocese...after his years and months in (northern) Nam Ha jail," the archdiocese of Hue said in a short statement. In photos released by the Archdiocese, the 80-year-old priest could be seen kneeling — with assistance — before the archbishop upon return to his parish. The archdiocese claimed he was in good health.
Church observers said the human rights activist was punished harshly due to his opposition to the political monopoly of the Communist party and his stand against the government confiscation of church properties. He also set up a pro-democracy movement, campaigning for democracy and freedom of speech.
During long periods of incarceration, sometimes in solitary confinement, he reportedly suffered numerous health problems, including strokes and partial paralysis.
His long-awaited release took place three months before the end of an eight-year prison sentence for "anti-state propaganda," a charge human rights groups say is used to punish outspoken critics.
Yet news of his release was overshadowed by fresh reports that the recent killing of evangelical pastor Dang Ba Nham and a new Christian in Vietnam's north-central coastal city of Vinh was no accident.
Local Christians said the pastor, his wife, and a church elder were praying on a roadside with a woman who had recently converted to Christianity.
They reportedly stood in front of the property of the new Christian, Phan Thi Thanh Huyen, to ask God for His blessing in building a new house. As they were praying, a large pickup truck with red military plates veered across the street and ploughed into the small group.
Pastor Nham was dragged about 15 meters and died at the scene. He was 56. The new believer, Huyen, died of injuries the next day.
Pastor Nham’s wife underwent complex surgery for serious neck and upper body injuries on May 9, according to Christians familiar with the situation.
The church said she is weak, and her recovery uncertain. The church elder, Hoang Ngoc Hung, was transported to Hanoi by the military and has also undergone serious surgery. An attending doctor reportedly said his chances of surviving are no more than 20 percent.
"Serving the Vietnam Good News Mission Church, Pastor Nham was an effective evangelist in Nghe An, Thanh Hoa, Ha Tinh and Quang Binh – probably the four provinces in Vietnam most hostile to the Gospel, and the location of regular incidents of persecution," commented Christian news agency Morning Star News. He had reportedly been warned to stop sharing his faith in Jesus Christ.
Witnesses said however that many believers attended the May 8 funeral at his church in Vinh.
Critics have suggested that the alleged killings underscore that despite announced reforms authorities continue to crackdown on Christians publicly expressing their faith and others deemed a threat to the Communist power structure.
Rights groups had been pressing Obama to use his recent trip to push the Vietnamese government to release political prisoners, including Christians, and tie trade deals to human rights.
At least about 130 people are currently imprisoned for acts of peaceful dissent, according to rights activists.
Recently, a coalition of 19 groups, including Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Human Rights Watch, wrote an open letter to Obama urging him to realize that the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship will not fundamentally advance absent meaningful
human rights improvements, including the release of imprisoned activists, an end to harassment of civil society groups, and respect for international law."