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Vietnam To Allow Central Highland Protestant Churches

February 5, 2005 12:53 a.m.

HANOI (AP)--Prime Minister Phan Van Khai will allow outlawed Protestant "house churches" in the restive Central Highlands to operate if they renounce connections to a former guerrilla group that Hanoi has accused of organizing massive anti-government protests, state-controlled media reported Saturday.

Under the decree issued Friday, the house churches, which had been banned by the government, will be allowed to operate if they revoke all ties to FULRO, the French acronym for the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, a guerrilla group that fought alongside the U.S. during the Vietnam War, Liberated Saigon newspaper said.

The underground churches are operated by followers of Dega Protestantism, an unsanctioned form of evangelical Protestantism that Vietnam has condemned as being linked to a separatist movement.

"If the religious followers there have pure religious needs, commit to abiding by the law, do not work for the reactionary FULRO, and have no connection to Dega Protestantism, the local governments will create conditions for them to carry out normal religious activities at home or at suitable places in their villages," the newspaper quoted the decree as saying.

The prime minister called for local governments to "seriously and effectively implement these specific tasks," but it was unclear exactly when the decree would take effect.

The decree also said Protestant followers in Vietnam's northern mountainous provinces will also be allowed to practice their religion.

However, the ruling calls for severe punishments against illegal religious activities, and local governments will publicize the names of those who disguise themselves as Protestant clergy to engage in anti-government activities, the newspaper said.

Vietnam has been under extreme international pressure in the past year over alleged religious repression and human rights abuses. The U.S. government and the E.U. have publicly condemned Hanoi's poor human rights record.

Last Easter, thousands of mainly Christian ethnic minority villagers in the Central Highlands - known as Montagnards - took to the streets to protest against government confiscation of lands and repression of their faith, triggering alarm in Vietnam's leadership. Similar protests broke out in 2001.

The government placed the entire region under lockdown and sent in the military and police to quell the uprising. International human rights groups said at least 10 protesters were killed, and condemned the beatings and arrests of dozens of other Montagnards. Vietnam maintains only two died.

Hanoi blamed the U.S-based Montagnard Foundation, led by a former FULRO leader, Kok Ksor, with fomenting the unrest. Ksor has maintained that his group is working for the rights of indigenous people, who are among the country's poorest and most disadvantaged groups.

Vietnam also cracked down hard on practitioners of Dega Protestantism, forcing public renunciations of faith.

Hanoi maintains that no one is persecuted for religious reasons. However, only six government-sanctioned religions are recognized and permitted to worship.

Last year, Vietnam was named by the U.S. State Department as one of the most intolerant countries in the world regarding religious freedom. Under the designation, U.S. President George Bush has until March 15 to decide whether to impose economic sanctions on Vietnam.

This month, Hanoi released two of its most prominent dissidents -Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly and Dr. Nguyen Dan Que -as part of a Lunar New Year prisoner amnesty.