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Handout/Montagnard Human Rights Organization

Middle passage

Persecution | Vietnamese refugees testify to safety in America and need for Obama administration-its first international religious freedom report due this month-to stand by those who remain behind

Issue: "Do the math," Nov. 7, 2009

On a Sunday morning at the First Montagnard Church of Raleigh, some 250 people from the Central Highlands of Vietnam read in unison a New Testament passage translated into Jarai, their native tongue: "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going."

It's a passage that resonates with this group. Over the last 23 years, thousands of Montagnards-an ethnic minority from Vietnam's Central Highlands-have fled their homeland, usually not knowing where they were going. Most have ended up in North Carolina with the help of refugee resettlement groups, struggling to adjust to a new way of life and worrying about those they left behind.

They've come here because life in the Central Highlands can be brutal, particularly for the mostly Protestant and Catholic Montagnards living under Communist rule. Adding to the severe mix: Montagnards allied with the United States and fought North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Their Christian faith and their U.S. loyalty have left Montagnards a target for oppression and persecution in a land where they were already alienated from the Vietnamese.

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But the Montagnards' plight is just one part of religious persecution unfolding in Vietnam. The Communist government oppresses other Christian groups in some parts of the country, and also targets Buddhists and other religious groups. Authorities recently shut down the famous Bat Nha Buddhist monastery in the Central Highlands, smashing windows, damaging buildings, and ordering the 379 monks to leave. Another target: activists and attorneys who speak out for greater religious freedoms and human rights in the country.

All of this leads to an important moment for the U.S. State Department. The department's Office of International Religious Freedom is scheduled to release its annual International Religious Freedom Report this month-the first such report from the Obama administration. Officials will reveal whether they will add or remove any nations on the department's list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for religious freedom. A growing chorus of religious freedom advocates and members of Congress say Vietnam should be on that list. But the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam doesn't seem so sure.

The department's decision is weighty: Religious freedom experts say that putting Vietnam on the CPC list in the past led to small, but important improvements on the part of the Vietnamese government. Leaving them off the list, they say, could reverse improvements-or lead to worsening conditions for religious groups facing growing oppression.

The CPC designation indicates a country is guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and prods nations to make changes. Vietnam made the list in 2004 and 2005, but the Bush administration removed the nation from the CPC list in 2006, partially paving the way for Vietnam to join the World Trade Organization in 2007. Commissioners at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) say that religious freedom conditions have deteriorated since then and that the State Department should put Vietnam back on the CPC list.

So far, the signals haven't been favorable: U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak has said he doesn't think there's enough evidence to return Vietnam to the list. Groups like USCIRF-and some members of Congress-disagree and have documented cases of religious persecution over the last two years. But some of the most compelling evidence comes from those who have fled.

Hri Rmah fled the Central Highlands in 2004, three years after her husband escaped the country and came to North Carolina. Rmah says local authorities constantly harassed her Montagnard family over their Christian faith, particularly her husband: "In 2001, they took him to jail because of his religion." Life for Rmah and her four children grew even more difficult until they were finally able to leave, she says. "It was very hard because the police came to my house all the time."

Five years later, Rmah's brow furrows when she talks about home. She's just attended the church service in Raleigh, a luxury her parents in the Central Highlands don't enjoy without harassment from local authorities. Rmah's father was imprisoned for two years for his Christian practice. Prison guards forced him to carry heavy buckets of water on his head, leaving him significantly disabled. Now, they come to his home to ask about Rmah and her family. "They still monitor my parents' religion all the time," she says.

Rmah dismisses the Vietnamese government's claim that it allows freedom of religion to Montagnards: "The Communists say one thing, but they do another."

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