Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said Saturday that he will urge that all U.S talks with the Vietnamese government be severed unless two Cypress ministers, believed to have been arrested in Vietnam for distributing Bibles, are released.
Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) told family members who met at the Cypress home of one of the ministers that the U.S government has made return of the men a top priority.
He said the continued detention of the Revs. Nhi Van Ho and Tuan Phuc Ma, who were taken into custody on July 2, will have "severe policy implications."
"This is a step backward for Vietnam," he said. "If they expect the American government to establish better relations, then they will have to stop oppressing not only our citizens but their own people as well.
"We should cut off talks if . . . they continue to hold two of our citizens," he added.
On Thursday, a petition bearing the signatures of more than 40 members of Congress was delivered to the Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations demanding the "immediate and unconditional" release of the two men.
Rohrabacher said the Vietnamese government has so far made no formal reply to the demands.
However, he said that the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kenneth Quinn, currently traveling in the region, was scheduled to meet Saturday with Vietnamese officials in Peking and would raise the issue.
Vietnamese officials have stated publicly that there is no religious persecution in Vietnam. However, officials have also said that foreign missionary work is "not encouraged."
The issue is complicated by the fact that the Vietnamese government is currently seeking wider recognition in the international community, including diplomatic relations with the United States and foreign economic aid.
Rohrabacher and other members of Congress have said the detention incident could severely strain the Vietnamese government's credibility.
Rohrabacher said he will travel to Vietnam in early August if the two ministers have not been released, and will "pound on the desks of the communists bosses and on the jailhouse door."
"These two brave souls are not going to be forgotten," he said.
The congressman said it is believed that the two men are being held by communist authorities in Saigon.
Family members said Saturday that they have had some contacts with friends and relatives in Vietnam but have received no word on the fate of Ho and Ma, who are Pentecostal ministers at the Vietnamese Christian Church in Santa Ana.
"I have an aunt over there, but she can't tell us much because (authorities) listen in on the phone line," said Tuan Phuc Ma's daughter, Elizabeth, 27. "They have to be very cautious about what they say. We made one phone call over there, but that's been it."
Ho and Ma traveled to Vietnam in May with Ho's son, Vu Van Ho, 31, and Thanh Tran, 23, another church member to hold religious services in Vietnam.
They carried with them Bibles, videos and other religious materials and took part in revival-style meetings in several churches near Ho Chi Minh City, said Vu Ho.
However, in late June the four were picked up by police and interrogated for several hours about their activities. After paying a fine for violating various Vietnamese religious laws, they were released unharmed, Vu Ho said.
But the next day, the elder Ho and Ma were ordered back to the police station for further questioning. The two younger men soon received word from relatives that they should flee the country.
"It is a miracle that I got out," said Vu Ho. "My father got through word that I should get out as soon as possible and God allowed me to go."
Thanh Tran said that because of their American citizenship, their interrogators were not physically abusive.
"But they mentally harassed us," he said. "One would scream and yell and make you feel really bad then another would come and console you. If you refused to answer a question, they would intimidate us by saying it was lucky we hadn't been charged with trying to overthrow the government."
Nonetheless, the families are worried about the physical condition of Ho and Ma. Tran said that other relatives in Vietnam have been persecuted and tortured for their religious beliefs.
But the families said they are optimistic that intervention by U.S. authorities will move the Vietnamese government to release Ho and Ma and also persuade the regime to relax laws on religion.
And they believe that their relative's religious faith will see them through their ordeal.
"My father is a strong person," said Elizabeth Ma. "He has a lot of faith and knows that God will take care of him."