An agreement to repatriate to Vietnam nearly one thousand tribal Christians who fled persecution in 2001 is causing concern among international human rights watchers.

"These refugees are being pressured to go back with only the flimsiest of guarantees for their safety to an area where the government is still resolutely persecuting tribal Christians," one source said privately.

Hundreds of Vietnam's 500,000 tribal Christians in the Central Highlands fled to neighboring Cambodia after the authorities launched a vicious anti-Christian campaign in mid-2001 in response to February street protests over land rights and religious persecution.

The agreement announced January 22 between the governments of Vietnam, Cambodia, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will send 1,000 asylum seekers back to their homes within weeks. According to the UNHCR spokesperson, Jahanshah Assadi, it is a "voluntary program" and Hanoi has pledged not to punish or discriminate against the returning refugees.

However, others say the agreement is a "sell out" for three reasons. First, it is not a voluntary program as the UNHCR claims. There are concerns the refugees are being forcibly repatriated -which is against UNHCR guidelines.

Second, the UNHCR has admitted that it can only conduct follow-up visits to "some" of the Christians after their return and would not be able to ensure that all of them were being fairly treated.

Third, the Vietnamese government continues to persecute Hmong tribal Christians and produces extensive propaganda denouncing Christianity as an unacceptable and rival belief system to communism. A December 5 article in a Ministry of Justice newspaper contained a "confession" by a former Hmong Christian, who wrote, "I must believe in the Party and decide to abandon the Vang Chu ["Lord of Heaven"] religion and re-establish our ancestral altar."

Vietnamese authorities, shaken by the February 2001 protests, jailed scores of Christian leaders, some of whom received sentences ranging from six to 12 years. Many other Christians told of how they were forced by police to drink animal blood mixed with rice wine in an effort to make them reconvert to traditional animism.

When the Vietnamese government granted legal status to the major Protestant denomination, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) in April 2001, it became clear that they did not view the tribal Christians as part of the arrangement, even though at least two-thirds of ECVN members are from the tribal areas.

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Observers are calling on Western Christians to pressure their governments to clarify the status of these 1,000 asylum seekers who have a "well-founded fear of persecution" and to ensure that they will not be forced to return. Advocates are asking the United States to use trade agreements as leverage to stop the repatriation.

Related Elsewhere

Previous Christianity Today coverage of this story includes:

Christians Targeted in Vietnam's Highlands | Crackdown follows massive anti-government protests. (June 26, 2001)

Recent mainstream news includes:

UN deal on Vietnam refugees sparks watchdog criticism — AFP (Jan 25, 2002)
Vietnam and U.N. agree hilltribe repatriation terms — Reuters/Yahoo! Asia News (Jan 22, 2002)

The U.S. State Department's 2001 Report on International Religious Freedom says that the Vietnam government "continues to restrict those organized activities of religious groups that it declares to be at variance with state laws and policies."

Voice of the Martyrs recently reflected on Vietnam's religious freedom in an article posted on

Vietnamese-Americans have protested the clampdown on religious freedoms in the country.

In June, The Asia Times reported that the number of fleeing Christians has "frustrated and embarrassed the Vietnamese government."

For more articles on Vietnam, see Christianity Today'sWorld Report and Yahoo's full coverage.

Previous Christianity Today articles about Vietnam include:

Empty Legal Rights | What you can do to help persecuted Christians in Vietnam. (Jan. 15, 2002)
Activist Christian Pastor Arrested In Vietnam | Public Security Police have busted up Mennonite services four times this year. (August 24, 2001)
Viet Nam Protestants Call Conference 'Miraculous' | But tribal minority Christians fear future persecution. (Feb. 14, 2001)
'We Are Always In Persecution' | Vietnam's Christians are arrested, tortured, and fined, even though the government claims to promote religious freedom. (Jan. 10, 2001)
Vietnam Protestants Call Conference 'Miraculous' | But tribal minority Christians fear future persecution. (Feb. 14, 2001)
Vietnam Jams Hmong Christian Radio Broadcasts | Government tries to curb spread of Protestant Christianity along Chinese border. (Sept. 1, 2000)
Authorities Destroy 'Church' in Vietnam | Crude structure in Ho Chi Minh City slum had been erected only hours earlier. (July 27, 2000)
Napalm Victim Now Agent for Peace | Canadian Christian remembers tearing burning clothes from her flesh. (Feb. 8, 1999)
Jesus Can Still Mean Jail | The plight of Vietnam's 700,000 evangelical Christians. (Nov. 11, 1998)
House Pastors Jailed in New Crackdown | Seven Vietnamese pastors imprisoned. (Jan. 6, 1997)