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, ...

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