Thursday, March 31, 2011
Vietnam Clamps Down on Independent Christians
Vietnam has increased repression of indigenous minority Christians in the country’s Central Highlands, closing small informal churches, compelling public renunciations of faith and arresting worshipers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday.
The hill tribe minorities, known as Montagnards, are traditionally animist but have been converted to Christianity in large numbers over the past half-century. Culturally and ethnically distinct from the majority lowland Vietnamese, the believers among them worship clandestinely in informal settings known as house churches that are illegal under Vietnamese law.
“Montagnards face harsh persecution in Vietnam, particularly those who worship in independent house churches, because the authorities don’t tolerate religious activity outside their sight or control,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the human rights monitoring group, which is based in New York. “The Vietnamese government has been steadily tightening the screws on independent Montagnard religious groups, claiming they are using religion to incite unrest.”
The conflicts involve more than religion as Vietnam’s population and economy expand and lowland Vietnamese settlers encroach on the farmland of indigenous hill tribes, primarily with agricultural plantations.
There is a political aspect as well involving government concerns over links among some of the Montagnards with evangelical groups in the United States. Many Montagnards fought alongside American and South Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War, and some continued to resist after the Communist victory in 1975.
For the most part Montagnard Christians today are nonpolitical but the government is particularly concerned about a branch known as Dega Christianity, which is associated with a movement for land rights.
The United States designated Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom in 2004 but removed it from the list of such countries two years later, saying it was satisfied with the government’s moves to loosen restrictions.
Most Buddhists, Muslims and mainline Christian denominations worship freely in Vietnam. Buddhist temples are packed during festivals and churches sometimes overflow with worshipers on Sundays and at Easter and Christmas. According to government statistics the population is 9.3 percent Buddhist and 6.7 percent Roman Catholic, the largest Catholic population in Southeast Asia outside the Philippines.
But under Vietnamese law religious groups must register with the government and operate under approved guidelines. When the government gave official sanction to some evangelical Protestant churches a decade ago almost none of the 400 churches in the Central Highlands were included.
Independent unregistered groups often come under harsh government pressure. They include unapproved or independent congregations of Mennonites, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao Buddhists, ethnic Khmer Theravada Buddhists and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, as well as the Montagnard Christians.
The police and local officials disperse their religious gatherings, confiscate religious literature and summon religious leaders to police stations for interrogation. In some instances police officers destroy the churches of unauthorized groups and detain or imprison their members on charges of violating national security.
“The United States government should recognize this and should clearly designate Vietnam as a country of particular concern for violations of religious freedom,” Mr. Robertson said. “I think the facts demand it. The situation with the Montagnards is one of the most egregious violations of religious freedom in Vietnam.”
The Central Highlands are mostly off limits to journalists and independent rights groups. The report said much of its information came from the official news media as well as from asylum seekers who have fled through the mountains to neighboring Cambodia, and from overseas Montagnard advocacy groups.
The Vietnamese news media are remarkably forthright about the pressure on the Montagnards, Mr. Robertson said.
The Human Rights Watch report quoted one Vietnamese press report, in Bao Gia Lai, a state newspaper in Gia Lai Province, as saying: “After attempting to organize violent protests at various locations in the highlands and facing continued failure, some helpless leaders fled into the forest. But the sacred wood and untamed water could not protect them.”
It quoted Radio Voice of Vietnam as saying: “When a so-called religion becomes a tool in the hands of evil people, it should be considered evil and unlawful and should be eliminated.” By SETH MYDANS International Herald Tribune