Religious Intolerance in Vietnam Draws Concern

Nov 14, 2002 03:00 AM EST

HO CHI MINH CITY - The recent wave of government repression against Montagnard evangelicals and Hmong Christians has drawn international concern and attention.

Documents acquired in October by religious and human rights workers in Vietnam have confirmed the forced disbandment of 354 of the 412 churches in the Dak Lak province. 50 Christian pastors and elders in the province are said to have mysteriously "disappeared" by mid October.

These persecutions are said to have targeted Vietnam's minority tribal groups inhabiting the Central Highlands, collectively known as the Montagnard mountain people. Though the Montagnard were historically part of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN), only a handful were allowed to identify with the ECVN when the ECVN was granted legal recognition.

In the northwest provinces of Vietnam, Hmong Christians have been subject to severe persecution and beatings.

News of the death of a 36 year old Hmong Christian man from severe beating has sparked comments from the normally cautious Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops in Vietnam.

The Hmong Christians, along with the Ede minority churches were summoned and informed by local authorities, that their churches were illegal. Beginning in late summer, their churches were forcibly disbanded, and their members were threatened with dire consequences in case of insurrection.

Furthermore, the church leaders were coerced to sign statements of compliance, which strictly prohibited from all religious activities. The communal activities of churches including worship, teaching, prayers, observing holy days, administering sacraments, performing baptisms, weddings and funerals, were forbidden.

For nearly 20 years, the Vietnamese government reluctantly tolerated the existence of Montagnard churches. However the several hundred participant Montagnard riot against the lack of religious freedom unleashed a heavy crack down of the churches by the government. Waves of violence and brutal campaigns commanding Christians to sign documents annulling their faith have forced many to flee to the forest, and to Cambodia.

The latest move against churches in Dak Lak is the most severe persecution since 1975, when churches were closed and church leaders put in re-education camps for years.

The president of the ECVN, which has usually been very cautious about speaking out against abuses, publicly wrote a frank and detailed letter to the Vietnamese prime minister, and to other relevant government agencies, asking these bodies for immediate redress. This letter describes the persecutions as contrary to the constitution and to specific promises made by Vietnam's Religious Affairs Bureau.

Earlier complaints by the ECVN to local authorities resulted in increase pressure and persecution. Authorities, 'kidnapped' church leaders, confiscated church furniture, books, bibles, and musical instruments, impounded chapels, and threatened Christians while they were worshiping.

"Ceremonies of Voluntarily renouncing Christianity," which depicts Christians voluntarily burning their bibles and hymnals are aired on local Dak Lak television.

"All the Christians I met greeted me with tears, asked me to pray with them and then hurried me on my way lest something untoward happen to me," said a recent visitor to the area. "Even some sympathetic government officials received me with tears, recognizing the overwhelming sadness of what is happening."

He added, "Many of the churches in Vietnam are praying night and day for this 'national tragedy.' Please pass this sad news to churches overseas as well so that they may participate in earnest prayer, beseeching the Lord to deliver us from this distress. There are many other heart-rending stories which I cannot tell you now."

The United States Commission on International Religion Freedom in September recommended that the U.S. State Department name Vietnam as a "country of particular concern," marking Vietnam a country with the heaviest abuse of religious freedom.

By Pauline J.
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