countries where serious violations of religious freedom are said to occur.
But the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan was added to the list, which also includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
The US State Department announced its decision to remove Vietnam from the US list of ‘countries of particular concern’ with regard to religious freedom on the eve of President George W. Bush’s departure on an Asian trip, which includes attending the Asian Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vietnam.
It came as dissidents told BosNewsLife that at least one Protestant missionary was kidnapped this month by security forces, while Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported a planned crackdown on Protestants, especially among ethnic minorities. There have been also reports of torture and even killings of Christians.
The Montagnard Foundation Incorporated (MFI), which closely monitors the situation in especially the Central Highlands, said it noted in recent weeks that security forces surrounded hundreds of villages throughout the area “threatening to shoot those who disobey the lockdown,” or the predominantly Christian Montagnard minority.
Police have also confiscated hundreds of mobile phones from Montagnards, many of whom supported the US forces during the Vietnam War. "Such crackdowns have been a regular occurrence but this one has particular significance as President Bush is visiting Hanoi in mid-November, and the Vietnamese authorities fear a public demonstration may mar the event," said MFI Advisor Scott Johnson.
"Previously in 2001 and Easter 2004, tens of thousands of Montagnards converged on the highland towns protesting against government repression, whereupon the Vietnamese military used brutal force to crush their calls for freedom." Hundreds of 0 Montagnards are believed to be in jails on trumped up charges several human rights groups say.
"The Montagnards deserve more, and this is why President Bush needs to bring America’s honor to Hanoi with him and to speak out in defense of these people," said Johnson. "Today over 350 Montagnard prisoners remain in Vietnamese prisons, many convicted in secret one day trials on trumped up charges relating to protesting for human rights, for spreading Christianity or for attempting to flee to Cambodia," he explained.
"The horrors reported inside the prisons are appalling and only weeks ago on 30 August 2006 another Montagnard Christian named ‘Thup’ died in Ha Nam prison from abuse and torture,” Johnson said. Several recently registered churches in the region and elsewhere in Vietnam have also expressed concerns that secret police are monitoring them, BosNewsLife learned.
Despite the apparent concerns over the apparently shaky religious situation in Vietnam however, the State Department’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford defended the decision to remove Vietnam from the list of ‘countries of particular concern.’
"When I first traveled to Vietnam there were dozens of individuals imprisoned for their religious beliefs," said John Hanford. "Today, all of those people have been released. Prisoners included Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants and Wahow, some of whom had been in jail for many years."
Hanford added that there are still some problem issues with Vietnam, it has ceased and even outlawed some of the most egregious practices cited in 2004, including forcing thousands of Protestants in the central highlands region to renounce their faith.
He said Vietnam has reopened hundreds of Protestant churches it once shuttered and has, among other things, allowed hundreds of new Protestant and Roman Catholic clergymen to be ordained. Yet the MFI and other groups have denied that there is openness and speak of an ongoing crackdown on active Christians,
Hanford drew a sharp distinction between the record of Vietnam and that of Uzbekistan, which he said has become a country of particular concern because of harsh repression of some Muslim groups wrongly seen as being linked to political extremism.
"Muslims have long borne the brunt of the government of Uzbekistan’s harsh repression," he added. "The government continues to target observant Muslims for arrest, often considering conservative Islamic practice to be evidence of extremism and terrorism."
In statements that was expected to surprise religious rights groups, Hanford credited Saudi Arabia with making some positive commitments to the United States about easing religious curbs, including pledges to end religious incitement and rid school textbooks of negative references to Christians, Jews and followers of Muslim groups outside the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam.
Hanford also concluded that Chinese officials have announced the easing of curbs on so-called "home churches" and religious education for children, however he conceded that "arrests of some activists continue" and that improvements in religious freedom in China cannot be described as systemic. (With reports from Washington).