Vietnamese Mennonite pastor freed

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews/Agencies) -- Nguyen Hong Quang, pastor of an outlawed Protestant Church, was freed yesterday by Vietnamese authorities.  Nguyen Hong Quang, who is responsible for the the Mennonite Church, had been serving a 3-year term for "acts against local authorities."  He had been arrested on June 8, 2004. 

Le Dung, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said that the prisoner's liberation "resulted from the Vietnamese state's policy of clemency and humanitarianism."  Besides Nguyen Hong Quang, another 10,000 inmates will be pardoned on September 2, Vietnam's national day. 

Nguyen Hong Quang, age 45, is secretary of the Mennonite Church, a creed prohibited in Vietnam, and a human rights activist.  He is well known in the country for his activity as a lawyer in favour of religious freedom and rights of the montagnards, peasants and the politically persecuted.  He had been arrested after having led protests against the imprisonment of 4 Mennonite pastors. In November 2004, Hong Quang's wife, who had taken his place as community leader, also suffered threats and intimidation, along with all the members of their group. 

Religious freedom does not exist in Vietnam: certain religions and rites are allowed under the supervision of Vietnamese police.  New regulations on religions were enacted last November 15: these have been criticized by Catholics, Buddhists, Protestants, and Cao Dai members.  Monsignor Etienne Nguyên Nhu Thê, Bishop of Huê, had told AsiaNews that these regulations constitute "a system of permissions and concessions which do not foresee full religious freedom." 

Nguyen Hong Quang's liberation comes a few months after a trip to the United States by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai.  The trip took place last June, breaking a 30-year de facto embargo.  The United States and Vietnam have agreed upon increased economic and military collaboration. Various observers say that Nguyen Hong Quang's liberation is a move on Hanoi's part to gain approval from the U.S.