VIETNAM More arrests of Montagnard Christians despite Hanoi’s advances with the Vatican

The fate of 11 Christians, including six Protestants (Degar) and five Catholics from the Ha Mon community, is shrouded in mystery. They had been sentenced in the past, and when their sentences expired “there is no further news” and “they seem to have disappeared.” The basis for the sentence was “religious activity or affiliation.” Concern about these repressions persists despite the openness towards the local Church and the Holy See.

Hanoi () – Vietnam is once again experiencing cases of ethnic and religious persecution against the Montagnard religious minority, which has been persecuted by Hanoi since the war in the 1970s. According to a report by an international activist group, there has been serious concern for some time about the fate of 11 Christians imprisoned for their faith, who “are no longer heard from” and who seem to have “disappeared into thin air.” Washington-based International Christian Concern (ICC) reports that the group – made up of six Protestants and five Catholics – received sentences of a total of 90 years and eight months in prison between 2011 and 2016. Among them are Protestants Degar Ro Mah Pla, Siu Hlom, Rmah Bloanh and Rmah Khil, accused of “undermining the national unity policy”, and Catholics Runh, A Kuin, A Tik, Run and Dinh Kuh, from the Ha Mon community, both of whom are not approved by the government.

“Eleven Vietnamese Montagnard Christians who have been imprisoned for their religious activity or affiliation in the Southeast Asian nation have gone missing, raising concerns about the treatment of imprisoned followers of Christ in Vietnam,” the ICC statement said. According to the Campaign to Abolish Torture in Vietnam, there are about 90 Montagnards currently imprisoned or released under conditions that severely restrict their civil rights. “The missing Christian prisoners reflect a larger problem within Vietnam’s legal framework for the nation’s minorities,” the ICC statement concluded. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contacted by Radio Free Asia (RFA), declined to comment on the news, which has raised concerns among international activist movements about their fate.

Last January, a hundred pilgrims from Dak Lak province – an area populated by some thirty minority tribes – were tried for an attack on two headquarters of the People’s Commune that left nine dead on the ground. Of them, at least 10 were sentenced to life imprisonment on terrorism charges. The rest received prison sentences of between three and a half and 20 years, most of them on terrorism-related charges.

For years, the hill tribes suffered religious persecution by the government, a legacy of the Vietnam War era, when the hill people sided with the United States in an attempt to establish an autonomous nation. Over time, the authorities in Hanoi continued to repress them, accusing them of “secession” and expropriating their lands on this pretext. Many have sought refuge in Cambodia, but the Phnom Penh government has repeatedly sent them back, violating UN regulations on political refugees. Their membership in the Christian community also represents another element of suspicion, combining ethnopolitical attacks with religious persecution.

Persecutions and arrests that continue to this day, in a historic phase in which Hanoi has embarked on a path of rapprochement with the Church, strengthening relations with the Holy See and welcoming recently to Monsignor Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States. A further step towards a (soon) future re-establishment of full diplomatic relations and with the hope, not even too remote, of welcoming Pope Francis for an apostolic trip unthinkable until recently.

About 7% of the country’s 97 million or so inhabitants are Catholic. Speaking about Vietnam’s reality during a mass in the capital’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the Vatican’s “foreign minister” spoke of “living stones” whose testimony “affects me deeply.” There is great anticipation and expectation surrounding the possible visit of the pontiff, which follows the important steps taken in recent years in relationships and for which Local authorities have already issued an invitation.

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