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KRET KROT, Vietnam – 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.
The government tour focused on state-sanctioned churches, not the fast-growing, unlicensed Protestant churches scattered across the highlands. Vietnamese authorities regard many of those as a cover for an independence movement with links to supporters in the U.S, but Montagnard overseas and human rights groups say the government is repressing religious beliefs in the name of fighting separatism.
Most of the several hundred people reported arrested in recent years have been Protestants, but followers of the little-known Catholic "Ha Mon" sect have also been targeted over the last three years. Across Vietnam, it is not just Christians who are targeted: The patriarch of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam was under house arrest for 20 years before his death in 2008.
In Kret Krot, a pepper-growing village home to the Bahnar ethnic group, police rounded up 62 Ha Mon adherents last year. The sect worships the Virgin Mary, and its members do not attend regular church services, according to Pham Van Dung, an official at a large church near the village.
One villager said he was unaware any link between those arrested and illegal activities.
"Maybe mistakes were made," said the 17-year-old, who gave a single name, Thuyen. "They were good people."
Regardless, four police officers who live nearby and patrol daily discourage people from joining the sect, he said.
"The police come and ask villagers not to follow the Ha Mon religion. They don't allow people to pray with the Ha Mon's Bible," Thuyen said.
Dung said that since the raid, many Ha Mon followers have fled to the jungle, where they spend much of their time in prayer.
In May, state media reported that eight of the 62 arrested were sentenced to between three and 11 years in jail for "undermining the policy of national unity." It's unclear how the other 54 arrests were resolved.
The sect members were accused of trying to get villagers to come to Ha Mon prayers so they could recruit them to the cause of independence with help from FULRO, the French acronym for the hill-tribe army that fought alongside U.S. Special Forces during the war.
"We are not arresting Protestant followers, but the followers of a church not recognized by the government," said Nguyen Thanh Cam, director of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs in Gia Lai. "These people are abusing religion to violate the law."
Many Montagnards fought with FULRO, a history that even now generates suspicion among many Vietnamese and support in the U.S. At least 12,000 Montagnards have received asylum in the United States, and some of them still call for an independent homeland for their kin.
Rong Ray, a former FULRO deputy commander who fought in the jungles of Vietnam for 12 years but now lives in the United States, said the Vietnamese state repeatedly brought up the name of his now-defunct group to imply there was a threat of violence to "discredit the Montagnard movement."
"The Vietnamese hate us because we fought and died alongside the Americans and because we are Christians," he said by telephone from North Carolina, home to the United States' largest Montagnard community.
On the government tour, authorities took the American delegation to a large new church that its pastor, Huynh Duy Linh, said had been funded in part with money from overseas Vietnamese Christians. Linh said there were seven other churches under construction, and he recounted a story about two Communist Party officials who had become Christians.
"It's only by the grace of God that we can do that," said Linh. "The need here is very big, and we can't meet the demands of our followers."
Chris Seiple, the head of the visiting Christian delegation, said Vietnam has made progress over the last 10 years, though work still needs to be done.
"In Vietnam, we have moved from persecution to isolated cases of harassment. I think Vietnam has made a choice it wants to get better at freedom of religion," said Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, a Washington-based group that promotes religious freedom. "There will be situations that will be bad sometimes, but in general we are moving forward."
But arrests continue, and so do cases of police harassment like the Hong's brief and informal house arrest. Her husband was sentenced to 11 years in jail last year for peacefully preaching against the state.
"This is not the only time and will not be the last time," Hong said. "They always try to find some way to create difficulties for our family."