HANOI, Vietnam, April 3 (AP) - Vietnam's Communist government bestowed official recognition Tuesday on about 250 Protestant churches located mostly in former South Vietnam, a church official said.

Le Quang Vinh, head of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, read a statement recognizing the Federation of the Evangelical Churches of Vietnam in a ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City, the official said. The ceremony was attended by more than 1,000 people, including government officials and church followers.

All organizations in Vietnam, including religious groups, are required to obtain government authorization under a policy aimed at preventing any independent power structure that could rival the ruling Communist Party.

The government had previously recognized six religions, including a much smaller Protestant group, the Protestant Evangelical Church in northern Vietnam, which claims only a dozen churches.

The southern evangelical Protestant churches, known as Tin Lanh (Good News) churches, have sought official recognition for years. Religious groups that are not officially authorized remain the target of severe restrictions and operate at the whim of local officials.

In early February, the southern Protestant group was allowed to convene a two-day meeting to elect a 25-member board and adopt a new charter, the first such conference for the group since the Vietnam War.

The broadening of religious recognition could eventually lead to official acceptance of other groups such as Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, and even independent Protestant ``house churches,'' diplomats said.

International human rights groups have criticized Vietnam for harassment and imprisonment of Protestant followers. There are reports that two ethnic minority Hmong Christians were arrested in November for carrying religious tracts from central Daklak province to northern Ha Giang province.

In February, thousands of members of ethnic minority groups protested in the Central Highlands over land grievances and complaints of oppression of their ``house churches.''

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