Subpoenaed pastor recalls fleeing Vietnam for religious liberty

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HOUSTON —Pastor Khanh Huynh nearly lost his life fleeing Vietnam in search of religious liberty. After being subpoenaed by the city of Houston for opposing the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, he wonders whether he will have to flee again to maintain that liberty.

“The freedom of speech and freedom of religion is beginning to be invaded and violated,” said Huynh, pastor of Houston’s Vietnamese Baptist Church. “I feel like this is a recurrence of what I knew and experienced in Vietnam … Some days I wake up and I feel like, ‘Do I have to take my family, my children to another country?’ because this is what we fled Vietnam for.”

Huynh — who immigrated to the U.S. from communist Vietnam in 1979 — is one of five Houston pastors who were subpoenaed for sermons and other private correspondence regarding their opposition to the ordinance known as HERO among its supporters. The subpoenas were part of the city’s effort to defend itself against a lawsuit challenging its disqualification of a petition drive to vote on the ordinance, which has added “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Houston’s list of protected classifications such as race, religion, sex and disability.

Mayor Annise Parker announced Oct. 29 that the subpoenas would be dropped, but on Oct. 31 Huynh said he had not received any official notice from the city or a court that they had been withdrawn.

At a city council meeting and a separate meeting with Houston’s city attorney, Huynh voiced his concern that the ordinance will violate the religious freedom of business owners and others who disagree with its expanded classifications. He also expressed concern that it will make women and children vulnerable to sexual predators by permitting people to use public restrooms of the gender they identify with rather than those of their natural gender.

Huynh received his subpoena by certified mail at the church office and said he feels unfairly targeted since other pastors were more vocal in their opposition.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a minority [as is] the church, and they think that they can threaten me or retaliate and I’ll have no way to fight back,” Huynh said. “But I’m so grateful that pastors and leaders in America have voiced an outcry and given help.”

Religious freedom “is what America shared with the rest of the world,” and it must not be violated by any city, state or federal authority, Huynh said. He is willing to be jailed if necessary rather than turn over to the government documents expressing his religious views.

It would not be the first time he has been arrested for acting on his Christian convictions. As a teenager in Vietnam, which fell to communist rule in 1975, he was arrested along with his pastor and other youth and children for participating in a Vacation Bible School.

Authorities “paraded us though the town to make a statement for everybody in the town that that they would not tolerate or they would not accept Christianity in Vietnam,” Huynh said.

At age 19, he joined a group that fled Vietnam by boat and found its way to Malaysia. But Malaysian authorities were unwilling to accept refugees and towed Huynh’s boat back out to sea. The Malaysian navy attempted to capsize the boat as they towed it and the vessel was badly damaged.

Huynh and his fellow travelers then set a course for Indonesia, bailing water out of their boat the whole way. Many of the Vietnamese passengers died en route because they ran out of fresh water. About 20 minutes after the last surviving traveler disembarked in Indonesia, the boat sank.

Huynh ended up in a squalid refugee camp for nine months, where he got his first taste of religious freedom.

“For the first time after almost four years with the communists, we were able to sing without being afraid of people hearing us praising God,” he said. “… The joy of freedom is amazing.”

By late 1979, Huynh was granted refugee status by the U.S. government and came to America, where he entered Christian ministry, married and started a family. America’s religious liberty led him to kiss the ground at the Los Angeles International Airport in the early 1990s upon returning from a visit to Vietnam to see his parents.

“The greatest phrase we heard from [U.S.] customs officials was ‘welcome home,'” Huynh said.

His fight to enter a country with religious liberty strengthened his resolve to battle Houston’s subpoena of his religious speech, Huynh said. That resolve is shared by fellow subpoena recipient Magda Hermida of Magda Hermida Ministries, who experienced communist oppression in Cuba, Huynh said.

Huynh said he draws encouragement from the pastors in Vietnam who leave home every day with a change of clothes in case they are imprisoned for their faith before returning home. He said he will never concede his liberty to speak and act according to his Christian convictions, and he is thankful that it doesn’t look like he will have to be arrested again for doing so.

“I’m willing to [go to jail], but I know that the Constitution of the United States of America is behind me,” Huynh said.

— David Roach | BP

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