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When Vietnam’s prime minister, Phan Van Khai, visited the U.S. last summer to discuss his country’s entry into the World Trade Organization, he was faced with demands to ease religious persecution – a demand he took to heart upon returning to Hanoi with several liberalizing measures – but one Northern California businessman, who claims he’s been harassed for the last week while visiting Christian friends in Ho Chi Minh City, says the local police must not have been informed of the new policies.

Chad MacNamee, a building contractor and land developer from Northern California, is on his third trip to Vietnam in five years. “It’s really changed.. There are more cars, fewer bicycles, and the food in the restaurants and the accommodations are much better.

But the police have been unbearable, he said. “From Monday we have been followed everywhere we go. Even the hotel staff have been threatened into telling all our movements and who comes and goes with us.”

The only reason for this treatment, he said, is because the friends they are visiting in Vietnam are Christians.

In their travels throughout Southeast Asia, the McNamees have met local Christians and formed lasting friendships. Some of those they’ve met have visited them in California.

“We’ve only come as tourists to visit this beautiful country and see our friends that have come over to the U.S. before,” said Loree McNamee, Chad’s wife. “The prime minister of Vietnam told President Bush that there is freedom here. However, we have been followed and harassed since we arrived. Although Chad is a building contractor, not a preacher or a teacher, they seem to want to believe otherwise.”

The pair, and another American couple traveling with them, now find themselves in the center of an escalating faceoff between local authorities and a Christian church in Ho Chi Minh City.

Last Thursday, the two couples received “invitations” to come to the immigration office the next morning at 8:30 a.m.

“Really,” Loree said. “At the top, it read ‘Invitation.’ We were ‘kindly invited’ to come to immigration the next day. As we were busy that day, we kindly declined their ‘Invitation.’”

At 10:00 p.m., Friday, the police came to the couples’ hotel to inquire about their failure to appear.

“No problem. No problem,” the officers repeatedly assured them, while continuing to insist they come to the immigration office on Monday morning to have their visas checked.

“They never threatened the men physically,” noted Loree. “They were very courteous and careful.”

At that point, Chad McNamee informed the officers that a local pastor was on his way to the hotel and they left quickly.

“They did not want to talk to Pastor Mai,” Loree said, noting that the minister and other church members arrived at the hotel carrying cameras.

According to the McNamees, Mai reports many instances of the police intimidating Vietnamese Christians. In return, he and some of his parishioners have begun videotaping and photographing incidents to document cases of official harassment. According to the Vietnamese Embassy website, the nation’s constitution guarantees citizens “freedom of belief and religion.”

Mai has told the McNamees, who have a meeting at the U.S. Consulate tomorrow, he will deal with the police for them.

In a related matter, Associated Press reports a U.S. trade delegation, representing more than 20 major American companies and currently meeting in Hanoi, endorsed Vietnam’s bid to join the WTO.

“We’d like to see Vietnam’s WTO accession finalized by the end of the year, preferably by the end of November. That’s a pretty vigorous timetable,” said Matthew Daley, head of the US-ASEAN Business Council. “There will be questions of religious freedom, there will be questions of democracy, there will be questions of human rights. Any number of these things could come up. I think it’s going to be important for Vietnam and the United States to be in a position to address those in straightforward manner,” he said.

The pro-business McNamees don’t think Vietnam is ready for WTO membership just yet.

“Although Vietnam has told President Bush that there is freedom of religion in Vietnam, apparently there is a misunderstanding,” Chad McNamee said. “The government here wants to have it appear that they have freedom of worship but not lose control – saying one thing to the outside world and doing another.

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