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Vietnam Targets Christian Protestants in Crackdown, says Group - 2003-01-21

A human rights group has accused Vietnam of persecuting Protestant Christian minorities in its Central Highlands region. Human Rights Watch says more than 100 minority Protestants were arrested last year.

The New York-based group released a 19-page report saying communist authorities in Vietnam are routinely beating and detaining Montagnard Christians in the restive Central Highlands.

It says members of the minority Protestant group are imprisoned without trial, accused of separatist activities.

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnamese officials had banned Christmas celebrations and outlawed gatherings of more than three people in an intensifying campaign.

Human Rights Watch says the crackdown is targeting church leaders and asylum seekers trying to flee the country.

The crackdown is part of what rights activists call a concentrated effort to stamp out Evangelical Christian churches in the area.

The Evangelical congregations, which often meet in people's homes, represent the fastest-growing religion among the minority tribes in the Central Highlands. But they are also illegal.

Vietnam's communist government allows only religions that submit to state approval of their leadership - a condition the Evangelical Protestants refuse to meet.

Vietnam has blamed the Christian churches for helping stir up anti-government sentiment, which led to mass riots in three provinces nearly two years ago. More than 20,000 hill tribe people reportedly participated in the protests.

Human Rights Watch said the government crackdown that began after the protests has not slowed. It says more than 100 Montagnards were arrested last year, including about 30 in December.

More than a thousand Montagnards have fled to neighboring Cambodia since February 2001. The United States has agreed to resettle most of them. The Montagnards fought on the side of U.S. forces against the North's communist troops during the Vietnam War.

Vietnam did not respond to the report immediately, but in the past has denounced Human Rights Watch for "distorting" the situation in the Central Highlands. The area has been off limits to foreign journalists and monitors for nearly two years.