The government of Vietnam has intensified repression of indigenous Christians from the country’s central highland provinces, Human Rights Watch charges in a report released on March 30. The latest government crackdown on these indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards, has coincided with a press by these communities for religious freedom and land rights.
“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 Human Rights Watch. “The Vietnamese government has been steadily tightening the screws on independent Montagnard religious groups, claiming they are using religion to incite unrest.” According to the report, Montagnard Christians in Vietnam: A Case Study in Religious Repression, special “political security” units conduct operations with provincial police to capture, detain and interrogate people they identify as political activists or leaders of unregistered house churches.
The report documents police sweeps to root out Montagnards in hiding. It details how the authorities have dissolved house church gatherings, orchestrated coerced renunciations of faith and sealed off the border to prevent asylum seekers from fleeing to Cambodia. More than 70 Montagnards were detained or arrested in 2010 alone, according to the report, and more than 250 have been imprisoned on national security charges.
Protestant Montagnards have faced repression for many years, but Catholic Montagnards have more recently become a target of Vietnamese authorities, particularly the Ha Mon Catholic sect, which started in Kon Tum province in 1999. Forced renunciation ceremonies and public criticism meetings have been conducted in recent months in Kon Tum, Gia Lai and Dak Lak provinces for Ha Mon followers, in which Montagnard Christians have been forced to confess to wrongdoings and to sign pledges to abandon the so-called false religion.
“People in the Central Highlands who wish to worship in independent house churches risk public humiliation, violent reprisals, arrest and even prison time,” Robertson said.
Former Montagnard political prisoners and detainees report that they were severely beaten or tortured in police custody and pre-trial detention. Since 2001, at least 25 Montagnards have died in custody after beatings or illnesses or shortly after being prematurely released by prison authorities to a hospital or home.
The government says that Montagnards who belong to unregistered house churches outside the control of the official Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam are “Dega Protestants,” which authorities allege is not a legitimate religious group but a cover for a Montagnard independence movement. Vietnamese law requires all religious groups to register with the government and operate under government-approved religious organizations.
“Freedom of religion does not mean freedom for state-sanctioned religions only,” Robertson said. “Vietnam should immediately recognize independent religious groups and let them practice their beliefs.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese government to end immediately its systematic repression of Montagnards, allow independent religious organizations to conduct religious activities freely and release all Montagnards imprisoned for peaceful religious or political activities. It called on the United States to reinstate Vietnam’s designation as a “country of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom.