Lighting the darkness: FULRO's jungle Christians
Phnom Penh Post
Friday, 25 September, 1992
By Nate Thayer
MONDULKIRI - Accompanied by a chorus of crickets and the steady drumming of rain on the leaf roofs of their huts, scores of Montagnard fighters and their families gather in the jungle darkness each night to pray and sing.
Having long ago fled ideological restrictions in Vietnam for a religious sanctuary deep in the forest, the soldiers are members of FULRO-the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races-which has fought for a separate homeland in Vietnam for their hilltribe people since 1964.
Lamps fueled by chunks of slow-burning tree resin give light to the few shared tattered bibles and hymnals as Christian songs of worship echo through the otherwise uninhabited forest. Familiar gospel hymns are sung in the tribal dialects of the mountains.
For many at FULRO's scattered guerrilla bases, the ability to pray freely was a main motivation to flee their villages in Vietnam's central highlands 17 years ago.
"The communists will not let us pray. They say that Christianity is an American and French religion, so we came to live in the jungle," said Lt.-Col. Y Hinnie. "In our land under the communists, people pray at home secretly or in the ricefields. They cannot worship together like we do in the jungle. Here we are free."
Each of the five jungle encampments in the FULRO rear base area have an Evangelical church, while there is a lone Catholic church in the main guerrilla camp. Nearly 40 people share a single bible for the daily Catholic Mass and at weekend services. The church consists of pews of wooden logs lined neatly in a clearing, a towering rough-hewn cross behind the altar.
Similar Evangelical churches, cut into clearings surrounded by 30-meter high hardwood trees, are packed with more than 350 worshippers for the daily two-hour evening service and brief early morning prayers. Each church has its own pastor, and worshippers bring large green leaves as hassocks to kneel on the damp forest floor.
These believers are the legacy of Christian missionaries who lived in the Central Highlands until 1975, when the last of them were expelled by the current government in Viet-nam. Many of the missionaries had mastered the local dialects, translating Bibles and hymnals into the region's Rade, Jarai and Koho languages.
The guerrillas also tune into weekly radio sermons delivered in their native languages by a powerful shortwave radio station in Manila operated by the Christian Missionary Alliance.
A guerrilla congregation reels off the names of "their" missionaries like a litany: "In Pleiku, Mr. Long and Mr. Fleming and in Dalat, Helen Evans, she is from America too. Ken Swain from Darlac, he preaches in our language on the radio every Saturday now."
FULRO officials say some of the missionaries' involvement with the Montagnards went beyond simply bringing the scriptures to the area. They said some of them were active in the waning days of U.S. involvement in the early 1970s in running guns to the guerrillas.
Following the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime in 1975, FULRO leaders say, the communists set about systematically dismantling Christian churches. Many of the Montagnards' religious leaders were arrested and killed after the communist victory in 1975, they say.
"They take our pastors, preachers and Christians and put them in jail," said FULRO's military Commander-in-Chief Col Y Peng Ayun. "We don't hate any one man because we are Christians, but we can never trust the communists," he added.
Two prominent Montagnard pastors from Ban Me Thuot, Y Ham Nic Hrah and Y Lico Nie, died in the early 1980s after many years of harsh conditions in prison, according to the guerrillas. "Here, we worship no matter what," said Pastor Budar Su Khong, 52, from Dalat. "Jesus said 'Come to me whoever is tired, and I will bring you rest.' We are very tired. Please take a message to Christians in other countries to pray for us, and we will pray for them."
(On Sept. 19, UNTAC deployed three soldiers from Sector IV headquarters in Stung Treng to FULRO' encampment. They will be permanently based there to provide protection until the U.N. decides how to respond to FULRO's requests for help.)