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BosNewsLife (12/17/05) – A military build up continued Saturday, December 17, in Vietnam ’s Central Highlands where Vietnamese security forces reportedly invaded dozens of villages of predominantly Degar Montagnard Christians to prevent them from celebrating Christmas, BosNewsLife learned.

“The information we received so far is that 62 Montagnard villages have been occupied,” said Scott Johnson, spokesman of the Montagnard Foundation Incorporated (MFI), a US-based non-profit organization investigating Degar Montagnard persecution.

“This Christmas will not be joyful for the Montagnard Degar Christians and currently over 300 of our brothers and sisters remain in prison having been arrested and tortured by Vietnamese authorities,” MFI added. Some have been tortured with a form of crucifixion while being asked: “Where is your Jesus now?” the group claimed.

The Degar, referred to by French colonists as Montagnard, are the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands of Vietnam . The term Montagnard means “mountain people” in French and is a carry over from the French colonial period in Vietnam , experts say.

Most of the estimated 1-million Degar Montagnard people are Christians and seen by Vietnamese authorities as following a Western religion of the United States, according to human rights observers.

“The Vietnamese government has stepped up surveillance and intimidation of Degar Montagnard Christians leading up to Christmas in order to stop them from openly celebrating Christmas celebrations this year,” MFI noted in a report obtained by BosNewsLife. It said the military operation was focused on the provinces of Gialai, Daklak and Dak Nong.

While not addressing the latest military movements, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied attacks against Christians in the Central Highlands and said the reports were based on “fabricated information.”

MFI claimed however its information was based on eyewitness accounts from villagers with whom it has close relations. The reported military activities come however after “decades of persecution by the communist government of Vietnam ,” MFI said.

The persecution includes “confiscation of ancestral lands, torture, killings, unjust imprisonment and religious repression,” the group added. A November report from the administration of US President George W. Bush named Vietnam among eight countries “of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom. The list also mentions China , North Korea , Vietnam and Burma , also known as Myanmar .

“The Degar Montagnard Christians appeal now to our Christian brothers and sisters around the world to pray for them and hope that the Vietnamese government will show some respect for international law and our basic human rights,” MFI added.

Despite the apparent persecution MFI said that villagers reported they will “pray inside their homes and celebrate Christmas in their hearts and minds which the Vietnamese communist authorities can not control.”

Degar Montagnard Christians “inside the Central Highlands feel their Christmas is under siege and it is obvious that they will not have a chance to freely celebrate the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ this year,” the group stressed.

A MFI survey said however that that over 30,000 registered Degar Montagnard Christians in the area of Pleiku alone “have vowed they will defy Vietnamese communist authorities and will not renounce Christ.”

They also pledged to “never join the government sponsored church – regardless of the consequences. They have comforted and encouraged themselves with the words of Jesus, in the [Bible] book of Mark 13:9: “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them,” MFI reported.

The Montagnard Foundation said it asked “Christian brothers and sisters around the world to remember them” in prayers on Christmas Day 2005. Reports of the military activities came shortly after US-backed Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that “dozens of people armed with wooden sticks and rotten food” attacked a prominent 84-year-old Vietnamese dissident, while police allegedly looked on and later refused to take a report.

“About 50 people, maybe more, maybe less, gathered in front of our house,” former Communist Party intellectual Hoang Minh Chinh told RFA. “They encircled me and harassed me. They shouted, ‘You bastard, what did you do?’ You went abroad and said bad things about the government,” he said.

The December 1 attack is apparently latest in a series against Chinh, who is currently staying with his adult daughter in Hanoi following an August trip to the US where he testified in Washington to a US congressional committee on human rights violations in his homeland.

Yet Vietnam ‘s government disagrees with reports from dissidents and both Christian and secular human rights groups, including Amnesty International. “The Vietnamese Government always respects and protects human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of press and freedom of religion and beliefs,” said the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Le Dzung when asked by reporters about persecution claims.

“As we have repeatedly affirmed, in Vietnam there exists no suppression of religious freedom, forced renunciation of faith or detention for religions and political dissents. There are only those who were arrested for violating Vietnamese laws and treated in accordance with Vietnamese laws’ regulations,” he said in May this year.

“Many legal documents have been enacted by the Vietnamese Government with a view to creating favorable conditions for religious and belief practices, including the recent endorsement of Decree on Religions and Beliefs and the Prime Minister’s Instructions on Protestant Affairs,” the spokesman added on the Foreign Ministry website.

“Lately, the US State Department itself has acknowledged those positive developments,” he stressed in remarks published before the latest Bush administration report criticizing Vietnam ‘s record on religious rights.