US group accuses Vietnam of persecution

Hanoi, Vietnam - Although Christmas celebrations are increasingly common among Vietnam's roughly 8 million Christians, a US-based advocacy organization said the Vietnamese government was trying to prevent ethnic minorities in the country's Central Highlands from celebrating the holiday.

The Montagnard Foundation in Spartanburg, S.C., which champions the rights of the hill tribes, alleged this week that security forces had massed in 62 villages in the Central Highlands to prevent Christmas celebrations. But pastors of several churches contacted by telephone said they had not seen attempts to rein in holiday observances.

''I've had no difficulty with local authorities," said the Rev. Tran Van Bay of the Catholic Duc An Church, in Gia Lai province. He expected between 2,000 and 2,500 worshipers at Christmas services and said there had been no objections to the electric-lit Nativity scene the congregation had erected.

Mai Hai, pastor of the Evangelical Church in the highland city of Buon Ma Thuot, expected about half of his 300 congregants at Christmas services. Local authorities did require Hai to register for a permit.

''I always have to register for any irregular service, apart from Sundays," Hai said.

Churches and missionary organizations in the United States have long accused the Vietnamese government of violating the religious freedom of the Montagnards. The most serious recent incidents took place during Easter 2004, when antigovernment protests by thousands of Montagnards in the city of Pleiku were forcibly suppressed.

In recent years, many of the Montagnards have joined small, Western-backed evangelical churches that are not recognized by the government's Office of Religious Affairs. Experts on Vietnamese religion say it is these unregistered churches, rather than mainstream denominations, that suffer from official repression in the predominantly Buddhist country.

Such repression allegedly ranges from denying permits to build churches to compelling believers to renounce their faith.

Vietnam's 2005 Ordinance on Religion bans forced renunciations of faith, but the US-based rights organization Freedom House says the practice has taken place recently in remote areas.

Au Quang Vinh, pastor of Hanoi Evangelical Church, said that while registered denominations such as his face no obstacles in Vietnam's major cities, they have been denied permission to build new churches in remote provinces like Lau Cai and Dien Bien.

''We don't have pastors in those areas, because we are not allowed to open a seminary to train them," Vinh said. ''Some families there will gather in private houses to hold Christmas services, but they do not have permission to do so."

For the past two years, the United States has placed Vietnam on its list of ''countries of particular concern" on religious freedom. But in October, it congratulated the country for recent progress that could lead to it being removed from the list in the future.

In Hanoi, meanwhile, both the religious and secular manifestations of Christmas are more and more popular. A huge crèche adorns St. Joseph's Cathedral, where 4,000 worshipers are expected Sunday. Christmas trees are popular in shops and many homes, and sightings of Santa Claus are increasingly frequent.

''The Christmas celebrations are more buoyant this year," said Nguyen Thi Anh, manager of the Tien Phong Bookstore. For the past two years Tien Phong has employed motorcycle delivery boys dressed as Santa for gift purchases over 100,000 dong -- about $7 -- during the holiday season.

''More people are buying gifts," Anh said. ''It's not just husbands buying gifts for their wives; teachers are buying gifts for their students."

The Hanoi newspaper Tuoi Tre (Youth) reported yesterday that stores were holding training seminars for Santas. In previous years, thin or high-voiced Vietnamese Santas had found it difficult to convince local children that they were real.