Vietnam Sees Increase in Economic Liberty, Repression of Religious Liberty

While increased economic liberty has brought the Vietnamese personal freedoms unimaginable a decade ago, government-led religious officials continue to oppress the majority of Christians in Vietnam. Government officials, in the fear that Protestantism would undermine communism through peaceful revolution, continually apply strict regulations to stunt the growth of evangelical Christianity.

Thirty years after Vietnam defeated America, the communist government made its peace with capitalism, and last year had the second-fastest growing economy in Asia. With the easing of restrictions, evangelical Protestantism has exploded, and is practiced in thousands of illegal "house churches".

“This is anathema to the communist government who apply strict regulations to ‘approved’ religions,” reported the UK-based Independent news agency

According to sources, there are just 300 legal churches that service Vietnam's two million Protestants. Two thirds of Vietnam's Protestants are ethnic minorities, and many live in remote areas where neighbors are sometimes suspicious of the converts.

"A lot of people don't understand, so they say he who believes in Jesus Christ is a follower of America and foreigners," said one local believer.

Local Christians also say while they are able to practice their faith in the cities, in the countryside they were being beaten for their beliefs, and forced to recant Christianity, viewed as "a religion that originates in America."

A woman who works at a local church told the Independent she had to care for injured Christians from Lao Cai and Caobang who come to Hanoi for treatment because local authorities broke their bones or poured boiling water on them for their religion. A farmer said he'd been arrested and beaten by two policemen for five hours last March for converting to Christianity.

Last Easter, thousands of ethnic minority tribes people took part in demonstrations in the Central Highlands. They were protesting against the confiscation of ancestral lands and religious repression. The marches, attended by around 30,000, according to Human Rights Watch, were brutally quashed by the military. Most of the Montagnards - the collective French name for the Highlanders - are Protestants.

Christian groups in America dubbed it the "Easter Massacre", and the US-based Montagnard Foundation claimed 400 Christians were killed.

This figure was furiously denied by the Vietnamese government, which put the death toll at two and called the Montagnard Foundation a terrorist organization. The government is now convinced the hill tribes, many of whom have been pushed off their land for state coffee plantations, are being incited to fight for an independent state by counter-revolutionary exiles in the US.

"The Montagnards have always been at the bottom of the social structure," said a western missionary who has been working in the Highlands for nearly 40 years. "Then along comes the Christian message for tribal people who have been oppressed by the system. They stand up and say we can't be pushed around. When the systems sees an alternate ideology developing it begins to persecute."

In the Central Highlands, where the "Yardies" fought alongside Americans during the war, one U.S. doctor said, "After the war was over and the communists won, they still needed an enemy and the protestant faith was a convenient enemy. Religion is seen as a tool to interrupt and overthrow the communist system."

Last month, the U.S. designated Vietnam a "country of particular concern" over its religious freedom record, a claim to which the Vietnamese government responded by pointing to the American's record in Iraq today and Vietnam 30 years ago, and accusing Washington of "the pot calling the kettle black".

But, as the reported by the Independent, Hanoi might do well to re-read their own recommendations: "Fighting the contagion of Christianity in the minority areas has the opposite effect ... Actually the numbers grow slowly if we have a relaxed policy, and if we crack down hard, Christianity grows faster."