"New Evidence" Of Religious Persecution in Vietnam Despite Release Prisoner

Friday, May 13, 2005

Friday, 13 May 2005
By BosNewsLife News Center

HANOI, VIETNAM (BosNewsLife)-- Human Rights Watch said Friday, May 13, "new evidence" shows Vietnamese security forces continue "to mistreat and arbitrarily detain" Christian minorities, despite reports that a prominent Christian was released after a decade in prison.

Voice Of the Martyrs (VOM) Canada, another human rights watchdog, said in a statement to BosNewsLife that Vietnamese Hmong Christian leader Sung Seo Pao was released from prison on May 3 "seventeen days before his eleven-year prison term for spreading religion was to end." There was no immediate independent confirmation of that report.

VOM Canada quoted its unidentified sources in Vietnam as saying that "Seo Pao looked well and was strong in his faith." He was reportedly first arrested in 1990 and served eight months in prison before being released on condition that he would not preach the Gospel. Unable to meet such a condition, he was arrested again several years later, VOM Canada reported.


Yet reports of the prisoner's release, did not ease difficulties for Montagnards, indigenous hill people from the Central Highlands, Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggested Friday, May, 13 in a new 16-page briefing paper.

The New York based organization said Vietnamese officials are also continuing "to force Montagnard Christians to recant their faith."

"Targeted in particular are those perceived as following 'Dega Christianity', an unsanctioned form of evangelical Christianity followed by many Montagnards, who distrust government-controlled religious organizations and seek to manage their own affairs," HRW added. "The Vietnamese government has banned Dega Christianity and charges that it is not a religion but a separatist political movement."


"Montagnards who attempt to practice their religion independently still face assaults and live in fear," added Brad Adams, Asia Director at HRW. "The persecution of Montagnards for their religious beliefs and for their claims to ancestral lands continues unabated."

In a statement seen by BosNewsLife, HRW cited five recent incidents of torture and threats. "On March 14, commune police summoned a villager from Ia Grai district, Gia Lai" who it said "was interrogated and held in a dark, windowless room for one day." He was "warned if he practiced religion without permission, he would be arrested again," HRW reported.

Later that month police in Dak Lak province allegedly arrested a Montagnard pastor of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam/South (ECVN), the only Protestant organization authorized by the government to operate in southern Vietnam. Six relatives of another affiliated Montagnard pastor were also detained, it said. "Two of those arrested were subsequently released but "one after facing public denunciation in which he was accused of having preached the Gospel illegally and calling himself a pastor without government approval," HRW claimed. The whereabouts of the other five remains unknown.


Last month, on April 26, Ia Grai district police officers in Gia Lai province delivered a written summons to three villagers, who reportedly abandoned the government sanctioned ECVN. "One was slapped across the face and jaw, another was punched in the chest, and the third was boxed in their ears" after they refused to abandon their Christian faith, HRW reported.

In early April, a Montagnard from Cu Se district of Gia Lai was arrested and detained at the district police station where he was forced to drink alcohol, "and ordered to stop believing in Jesus," HRW said. "They tied his feet and had him hold his arms straight out, crucifixion style, while they beat him with their hands and kicked him with their boots. When he lost consciousness they poured wine into his mouth [before releasing] him that evening."

On February 25, two police officers from Ia To commune, Ia Grai District summoned two men and a woman for interrogation. They were asked whether they followed Dega Christianity or the "Christianity of [Prime Minister] Phan Van Khai". After they did not agree to give up their faith, "police hit one of the men with their fists and beat the second man until he lost consciousness," HRW said. "The three were released from detention the same day. They were threatened with arrest if they were caught practicing their religion again."


Yet HRW acknowledged that talks between Vietnam and the United States on Vietnam's designation by the US as a 'Country of Particular Concern' for religious persecution "have produced some commitments by the Vietnamese government" to allow greater religious freedom. It said registration requirements for some churches have been loosened, and the prime minister has issued a regulation banning the forced renunciation of religious beliefs.

"However, the regulation requires religious organizations to obtain government permission in order to operate. It states that only churches that have conducted pure religious activitie since 1975 can register for official authorization. This effectively eliminates Montagnard house churches in the Central Highlands, most of which started up in the late 1980s and early 1990s," HRW said.

HRW said officials have used the instruction to publicly expose "disguised Protestants" and to "fight attempts by hostile forces to abuse Protestantism to incite people to act subversively."


HRW said it has also received reports of mistreatment of Montagnards who voluntarily returned to Vietnam from refugee camps in Cambodia. "According to these reports, at least four Montagnards who returned to Vietnam in March were detained for more than ten days upon return. During interrogation by police at the Gia Lai Provincial Police Station, one of the returnees was stabbed in the hand with a writing pen. Another was punched in the back, the third was hit in the stomach, and the fourth was slapped across the face. They were then escorted to their home villages by commune police and local officials, who placed them under surveillance."

In a recent Memorandum of Understanding signed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Vietnam pledged that there would be no retaliation or mistreatment against individuals who return from Cambodia to Vietnam. "However, Vietnam continues to deny international monitors unhindered access to the Central Highlands to check on the safety of returnees," HRW said.

"The general mistreatment of Montagnards and the targeting of returnees from Cambodia makes it clear that Vietnam is not upholding the commitments it made to UNHCR in January," added HRW official Adams. "Hanoi must allow international monitors into the Central Highlands to ensure proper implementation of the agreement. Vietnam should stop denying that these abuses are happening and start showing the political will to end them." (With Stefan J. Bos, BosNewsLIfe Research and reports from Vietnam)