NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The communist government of Vietnam responded angrily Sept. 20 to its designation as a “country of particular concern” by the U.S. State Department.
In a statement issued from Hanoi, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the State Department’s findings on religious persecution in the Southeast Asian country as “erroneous.” Foreign Minister Nguyen De Nien also sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell to protest the decision of the United States to place Vietnam on its persecution watch list, according to a report in Nhan Dan, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
The foreign minister was reported to have complained that the State Department’s report on the deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam was based on “biased information” and was an “inaccurate reflection of Vietnam’s actual situation.”
But information has poured out of Vietnam since 2001 that ethnic minority or Montagnard Christians in the Central and Northwest Highlands of the country have endured severe persecution for holding church services in homes, acts that the government claims are subversive. Several ethnic minority Christians have been beaten to death for refusing to recant their faith and divulge the identities of other Christians.
As a result, Vietnam and six other countries, including North Korea, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, were named by the State Department Sept. 15 as being among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. Those countries were designated “countries of particular concern” under the auspices of the International Religious Freedom Act.
The Vietnamese government was cited specifically for failing to guarantee individual religious freedom for its citizens. While the country’s constitution claims that “all religions are equal before the law” and that “no one can violate freedom of belief and religion,” religious freedom extends only so far as it supports “national unity,” said the State Department report on Vietnam. The constitution claims that no person can “misuse beliefs or religions to contravene the law and State policies.”
Those “policies” include restrictions on Protestant house churches among the ethnic minority Christians of the Central Highlands, the report said. The report also included descriptions of physical abuse at the hands of the Vietnamese army and police, torture and imprisonments, the confiscation of Bibles and the forced closure of house churches and other places of worship not registered with the government.
Many of the allegations regarded as credible in the report originated from sources both inside and outside Vietnam and have been confirmed by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based advocacy group.
A common source of the stories of Christian persecution is Kok Ksor, leader of the Montagnard Foundation, an ethnic minority advocacy group based in South Carolina.
Ksor, for example, was the first to report that hundreds of ethnic minority tribesmen would stage a protest in favor of religious freedom and the reclamation of ancestral lands in the Central Highlands in April 2004. Ksor reported two days later that the protests had taken place and that Vietnamese police, or Cong An, had killed at least six ethnic minority tribesmen and as many as 20 had disappeared. Hundreds of Montagnards fled into Cambodia to escape capture. Some still remain in U.N. refugee camps while Cambodian police have sold others back to Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government denied forcibly oppressing the largely Christian ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands until it finally issued a statement April 19, nine days after the protest blaming the violence in the region on Ksor and the Montagnard Foundation.
Two months later, the Vietnamese government claimed that Ksor was promoting a secessionist movement among the ethnic minorities. “He instigated his followers, the extremist elements in the Dak Lak and Gia Lai provinces to deceive, instigate and force local people to carry out violent demonstrations” with the goal of establishing a “Degar” state, a statement from Vietnam’s embassy in Washington, D.C., said June 18.
“Degar” is a term now used by the former members of an organization called FULRO (United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races), a group of ethnic minority tribesmen who wanted a state separate from both South and North Vietnam as early as the 1960s. FULRO continued to fight the Vietnamese after the United States withdrew from the country. The communist government that won the totality of Vietnam in 1975 has since viewed any organization closely associated with the ethnic minorities with suspicion.
The presence of followers of Ksor and the Montagnard Foundation in the Central Highlands may be complicating the situation for Christians in the area, according to the State Department’s report. In addition to sidestepping government persecution, the State Department report revealed that some Degar nationalists had threatened Protestant pastors who found the group’s mixture of politics and religion reprehensible.
The Degar movement suffered a blow in July when Ksor’s half brother, Ksor Krok, was arrested in Cambodia and returned to Vietnam for a large bounty, according to the Montagnard Foundation. He was reportedly beaten and tortured in a prison in the city of Pleiku.
While the Degar political movement has caused the abuse of some ethnic minorities, persecution for solely religious reasons has intensified in Vietnam’s mountainous regions and elsewhere in the country. In 2001, Vietnamese police ransacked ethnic minority churches, killing some villagers, according to HRW. In 2002, Compass Direct news service reported that the government had forcibly disbanded some 350 ethnic minority house churches. Some executions were said to have taken place following the closures. In 2003, Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom described the persecution of ethnic Hmong Christians in the Northwest Highlands, including the beating death of one man.
Despite the persecution in the Central and Northwest Highlands, the numbers of religious believers in the areas continue to grow, according to the State Department’s report.