Ethnic minority Christians in Vietnam increasingly face charges of national security crimes, severe abuse, property confiscation and forced renunciations of faith, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and US parliamentarians.
Vietnamese law requires all religious groups to register with the government and operate under government-approved religious organizations.
Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director, questioned the legality of such registration as well as its application to indigenous communities, known collectively as the Montagnards.
Robertson said the government had long considered Montagnards "a national security threat" intent on "subverting the state". The HRW report released on 31 March, links increased government crackdowns on unregistered indigenous religious groups in the Central Highlands to their growing calls for more land rights and religious freedom.
"Why are they [Montagnards] being forced to register in the first place? Freedom to practise religion doesn't set out [that groups] have to register with a state-controlled... group to be considered legitimate... [The government is] making broad-brushed claims that religion is a cover for an attempt by the Montagnards to break the Highlands away into an independent country."
According to the most recent government census in 1999, Vietnam's ethnic minorities, who mostly reside in the interior mountainous and highlands areas, comprised close to 14 percent of the country's population, or about 10.5 million people.
Pendulum of persecution
In 2005, Vietnam passed comprehensive religious freedom legislation, outlawing forced renunciations and permitting official recognition of new denominations.
In November 2006 the US removed Vietnam from its blacklist of "Countries of Particular Concern", determining that the country was no longer a "serious violator" of religious freedoms as defined by the US 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.
But a Vietnam Human Rights Sanctions Act submitted in January 2011 to the US Congress noted that "despite reported progress in church openings and legal registrations of religious venues, the government of Vietnam has halted most religious reforms since the Department of State lifted the 'country of particular concern' for religious freedom violations designation".
The situation is particularly grim for unregistered ethnic minority Protestant congregations, noted the bill's authors, involving forced renunciations of faith; pressure to join government-recognized religious groups; arrest and harassment; the withholding of social programmes provided for the general population; destruction of churches and pagodas; confiscation and destruction of property, and severe beatings.
However, HRW noted in its report a decade-long cycle of government repression that interspersed "arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture" with public works, land allocation and improved educational opportunities to address Highlander grievances.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions