Two priests from Vinh diocese in central Vietnam were surrounded and threatened on Monday by a mob of 300 people waving red flags, in what the clergymen and rights group said is part of a broad pattern of government supported abuse in the Southeast Asian country.
Dominic Pham Xuan Ke and Joseph Nguyen Ngoc Ngu were at the Diem My Commune People's Committee office, the local government office, discussing their earlier petition for help against threats from thuggish groups when the crowd appeared, Ke said.
“We came to work with them to solve the problems but they had arranged people to come to threaten us. They said the group had gathered spontaneously, but that’s impossible,” Ke told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
It took several hours before the priests felt safe to walk from the government office to their car, he said.
“We were then about to go home but (our) parishioners told us not to go because they heard that people had prepared knives, swords and even laid electrified wire on the road. But we still decided to go, and luckily we all got home safely,” said Ke.
Vietnam’s social media users have pointed out that people calling themselves “Red Flag” groups have mobilized online and occasionally in person to attack Catholic parishes and parishioners.
The groups’ members dress in red and hold the Vietnamese Communist Party’s standard red flag with a yellow star and flags bearing the hammer and sickle.
On Facebook, the “Red Flag” groups have called priests “reactionary black crows,” among other epithets.
“In early May, when the Veterans Association and other associations called for the establishment of the Red Flag, they set it up a very clear purpose: to constrain the Catholics from protesting against Formosa and to get rid of ‘Catholic enemies,’” a priest from Phu Yen parish named Dang Huu Nam told RFA.
Nam told RFA that he, Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop of Vinh Diocese, a priest names Nguyen Dinh Thuc were among priests named as enemies by the Red Flag movement.
The Catholic priests and their churches have spearheaded efforts to help fishing communities win redress from the Taiwan-owned Formosa Plastics Group, who acknowledged it was responsible for a toxic spill in April 2016 at a massive steel plant located in Ha Tinh province. The spill put millions of fishermen and other local residents out of work.
“All of the religious conflicts in Vietnam, or around the world, have left devastating consequences which are difficult to heal,” Nam told RFA.
“Although we live in the spirit of peace, love and forgiveness as Catholics, we are also willing to use the law to protect our rights and our lives,” he added.
Nguyen Quang Bach, a member of the Red Flag group, told RFA they did not threaten the priests, and said the group has been licensed by the government.
Nguyen Khac Mai, a retired Vietnamese propaganda official, said the Red Flag groups most likely received a green light from police, propaganda organs or other groups controlled by the ruling party.
“I find it very worrisome that the government is giving green a light to anarchy, regardless of morality and law,” Mai told RFA.
“If the Red Flag is not prevented and once they go too far, for example damaging property, or smearing the religion, the Catholics won’t be able to keep silent anymore and that can be very dangerous,” added Mai.
In a report issued in June that did not mention the Red Flag groups by name, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch identified 36 incidents between January 2015 and April 2017 in which “unknown men in civilian clothes beat rights campaigners and bloggers.”
“Many victims reported that beatings occurred in the presence of uniformed police who did nothing to intervene,” said the report.
“The Vietnamese government should understand that tolerance of these violent attacks will lead to lawlessness and chaos instead of the social order and stability it says it is striving for,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement accompanying the report.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Paul Eckert.