Washington D.C., Apr 19, 2018 / 04:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After surviving six years of imprisonment and torture, Vietnamese pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh told CNA that prayer sustained him through his physical suffering and pain.
In 2011, the evangelical pastor was charged with “undermining national solidarity” for conducting his Christian ministry with the Montagnard ethnic minority groups that live in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Chinh had long been an outspoken critic of the government’s ban on preaching in the region and a pro-democracy advocate.
During his imprisonment, Chinh spent nearly one month in solitary confinement and his health quickly deteriorated. He was denied treatment or access to medication, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), who advocated on his behalf.
Chinh told CNA that he experienced consolation in knowing that his suffering was in imitation of Christ.
“Even though I suffered physical suffering and pain, I felt in my soul happiness,” Chinh told CNA through an English translator at the USCIRF summit April 18.
“I viewed it as God’s gift to me,” said Chinh. “It was like what Jesus Christ went through, the same suffering that his disciples experienced, and now I’m going through the same experience. That is how the good news comes out.”
Chinh explained his hope that sharing his experience will help increase the faith of other Christians.
Prayerful communion with Christ “gave me courage to survive the prison conditions until the day that I saw freedom,” Chinh explained.
The Vietnamese pastor was released from prison July 28, 2017, about halfway through his 11 year sentence. His release came with the condition that he leave Vietnam, so Chinh currently resides in the U.S.
Several months before his release, Chinh’s wife, Tran Thi Hong, was beaten and interrogated because she met with the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the time, David Saperstein, who was advocating on her husband’s behalf.
At the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom summit, Chinh was the only released prisoner to take part in a panel highlighting the specific cases of prisoners of conscience detained throughout the world. USCIRF is currently advocating for the release of prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, China, Turkey, and Pakistan.
Several other prisoners of conscience were released in 2017, including Maryam Naghash Zargaran, an Iranian Christian convert from Islam who was arrested and imprisoned in 2013.
“Every time you return a prisoner of conscience to his family that truly is a victory,” former USCIRF Chair Robert George told CNA.
The USCIRF has actively advocated for Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor incarcerated in Turkey since 2016. His trial in Istanbul this week was attended by Sam Brownback, the current U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Brunson will face another hearing in Turkey May 7.
“Since my release, the government has arrested more prisoners of conscience,” said Chinh on the prisoners of conscience panel.
Although religious freedom has improved in Vietnam since the 1970s, USCIRF still designates the country as a “country of particular concern” due to ongoing violations of religious freedom within the country.
David Adams, the Cross Catholic Outreach vice president for missions, explained the current situation in Vietnam to CNA.
“On the one hand, churches are allowed to operate with some freedom, depending on where they are located, like in the urban areas. But in other areas, like the Central Highlands where Pastor Chin was ministering to in this case a minority, the Montagnards … the government can get quite repressive and forbid any proselytizing or evangelization or even worship,” said Adams.
Cross Catholic Outreach actively supports Catholic ministries in Vietnam, with an emphasis on potable water, medical aid, and educating young people in the faith.
“Even in the most repressive societies, we have to keep hope alive. There are ways to support freedom, including religious freedom at the grassroots level,” said Adams.