Christianity started spreading among the Hmong in the highlands of northwest and central Vietnam in the late 1980s through a Hmong-language Christian radio program broadcast from Manila and has led to “a remarkable religious transformation … in the past three decades”, according to academic Seb Rumsby, writing for The Diplomat.
Among the one million Hmong there are now an estimated 400,000 Christians, and “the social, economic, and political impacts of religious change – from persecution and migration to lifestyle changes and new gender relations – are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore”, says Rumsby.
The Vietnamese government has reacted by publishing anti-Christian propaganda and maintaining restrictive policies, making it almost impossible for churches to register.
The government says its new Law on Belief and Religion, due to come into effect in January, will help its administration of religious affairs by, for example, simplifying the registration process. However, Vo Tran Nhat, Executive Secretary of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, told World Watch Monitor last year that it will add another layer of repression and control to an already pressurised Church.
Ethnic groups like the Hmong are also “very protective of their customs, their regions, and they have a lot of authority in their local governments”, Tim Muret of Christian charity Open Doors USA told Mission Network News last month. “They view Christianity as a threat basically, something that is challenging their culture, their heritage.”
Rumsby describes how new Christians abstain from drinking alcohol – seen within the tribe as an important part of male bonding – and no longer take part in traditional religious rituals and ceremonies. “Many Hmong shamans and non-Christians fear that their culture is being lost,” he says.
Raped and expelled
When Thao*, his son and daughter-in-law became Christians in 2016, his younger brother reported them to the local authorities.
One day, his brother showed up at Thao’s house with a mob.
“They tied me with a rope and a part of that rope was used to fiercely hit me six times,” Thao recalls. “After beating me, they brought me to the village culture hall and I was forced to sign a paper [renouncing my faith].”
The village secretary threatened Thao that if he didn’t give up his new faith, the government would be informed and he and his family would be expelled from the village.
Thao says that while he was searching for a new place to live, his brother raped his daughter-in-law. He says they have forgiven his brother but decided they could no longer stay in the village.
‘They take my land because I believe in God’
Vang*, a 28-year-old father of two from the same village as Thao in northwest Vietnam, was the first person in the village to convert to Christianity.
In April last year, shortly after Thao’s beating, Vang was targeted as well. He says his brother hit him so hard that it has left his arm permanently disabled.
Following the beating, the mob also destroyed his house. The wooden ceiling, walls, doors and windows were all smashed to pieces.
Vang says the destruction of his house was not just to put him and his family to shame; it was also meant as a “warning” to other villagers not to turn to Christianity.
After he decided to leave the village, Vang says “the government told me they will take my land and my animals [without compensation] because I believe in my God.”
*Names changed for security reasons.