PARIS, 20 March 2018 (VCHR) – The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) is deeply disturbed by reports of attacks against 24 Hmong Christians in the north-western highlands in an apparent attempt to force them to renounce their faith. Such attacks and acts of harassments against religious communities have multiplied recently in Vietnam, despite the introduction of the new Law on Belief and Religion in January. In fact, the authorities are invoking the law to criminalize legitimate religious activities, creating a climate of impunity for a wide range of violations of freedom of religion or belief.
“Religious persecution is a growing phenomenon” said VCHR President Võ Văn Ái. “Vietnam is targeting religious followers whose sole wish is to live their faith in peace. For the authorities, this simple wish is a crime”.
According to reports from Vietnam, on 1st March 2018, 24 Hmong people who had recently converted to Christianity were attacked by a mob led by the village chief. Four of the victims had to be hospitalized after the attack, with injuries to their heads and arms. Prior to the attack, the local authorities had warned that the converts would be expelled from the village if they did not renounce their faith. This coercion by the authorities violates the right to freedom of religion or belief enshrined in the Vietnamese Constitution and Article 18 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees everyones’ right of everyone to “have or adopt a religion of their choice”.
The attack is part of a pattern of growing harassments against ethnic minorities in the northwest and central highlands where conversion to Protestantism is high. Of the one million Hmong in Vietnam, there are an estimated 300,000 Christians, a proportion much higher than rest of the population. These small Christian groups in the remote highland areas are being forced to join the larger, state-registered denominations (i.e. the Evangelical Church of Vietnam North and South). This is not only impractical – the churches are based in the large towns – but local Christians also object that state-registered churches have compromised on religious practices in order to obtain registration, for example by complying with the authorities’ demands that they do not pray in public, or give up certain religious practices. Those who do not conform to these demands risk harassments and persecution, as in the case of the Hmong.
The Law on Belief and Religion requires mandatory registration and imposes tight controls on religious activities. Members of religious communities who cannot, or who choose not to register, such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) are extremely vulnerable (UBCV leader Thích Quang Độ has spent almost 35 years in detention for demanding the re-establishment of the legal status of the independent UBCV). Since the beginning of the year, 10 members of the independent Hoa Hao group have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 12 years under false pretexts of “national security” violations. The authorities have recently invoked the law to criminalize legitimate religious activities, such as celebrating mass and other religious festivals.
At the same time, prisoners of conscience belonging to religious groups suffer particularly harsh detention conditions. They are frequently denied access to medical care, and even refused medicine brought by their families. The case of Pastor Nguyễn Trung Tôn is of particular concern. President of the unofficial group “Brotherhood for Democracy”, he was kidnapped by government-hired thugs and subjected to severe beatings in February 2017. Arrested in July 2017, he is now awaiting trial on false charges of “attempting to overthrow the people’s administration” (formerly Article 79 of the Criminal Code, now Article 109, which carries the death penalty). His health has seriously deteriorated in prison as a result of these beatings and poor detention conditions.