Vietnam Lets Churches Thrive, but Keeps Control

A year ago in this poor hill-tribe village, police rounded up members of a small Catholic sect who were accused of trying to create an independent state. The leaders are in jail, followers who escaped have fled into the jungle and officers patrolling the muddy streets warn people to shun that offshoot of the faith.

But the crackdown didn’t affect activities at the village’s church — actually an old lady’s house with a white cross fixed to a corrugated iron wall — or a larger church a short hike away, where priests teach young boys math and Vietnamese language in neat classrooms.

A rare unescorted trip to villages in Vietnam’s tightly controlled Central Highlands revealed the Communist government’s twin approaches to religion: It allows state-sanctioned faiths to grow and even thrive, but continues to keep a close watch on all religious institutions. All perceived challenges to its rule, religiously inspired or not, are harshly repressed.

The country’s record on religious freedom is closely tracked by Washington. The U.S. seeks closer ties with Vietnam, a former enemy turned important counterbalance to China in Asia, but it also wants Hanoi to show greater respect for human rights. Concerns by Congress over human rights could torpedo a free-trade deal Washington is negotiating with Vietnam and other Asia-Pacific nations, U.S. officials say.

Religious tension runs particularly deep in the Central Highlands, home to most of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, who are known collectively as Montagnard. Many have embraced Christianity, in part to distinguish themselves from Vietnam’s majority Kinh population, which is largely Buddhist. The Kinh have migrated to the highlands in large numbers since the Vietnam War, igniting tensions over land and fears among minority groups that their culture and language are being diluted.

Human rights groups are not allowed in the Central Highlands’ Gia Lai province, and trips by journalists and diplomats are normally strictly controlled, making independent information difficult to come by. In 2011, before the Kret Krot arrests, Human Rights Watch reported that 250 Montagnards were imprisoned on national security charges. State media accounts of arrests, public trials and “renunciations” of faith are also common.

An Associated Press reporting team met pastors, priests and ordinary worshippers in the area late last month, both independently and as part of a government-arranged tour for a group of visiting American Christians. Those people presented by the government had a uniformly positive view of religious freedom in the highlands. Officials took a note of everything that was said in the meetings.

While the delegation was being bused around the town of Pleiku, police were effectively holding the wife of a jailed Baptist preacher under house arrest nearby. Tran Thi Hong needed to buy medicine for a feverish child, but police wrapped wire around her front gate to keep her from leaving. It was unclear whether the action was related to the delegation’s trip or to the presence of a foreign journalist; police declined to comment.