WASHINGTON, D.C. – On the 10th anniversary of the State Department’s removal of Vietnam’s designation as a “country of particular concern” (or CPC), the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) sees a country that has made progress but still has a long way to go before it fully respects religious freedom. USCIRF also watches with concern as the Vietnamese National Assembly is poised to vote on a new law governing religion.
“Vietnam is at a crossroads,” explains USCIRF Chair Thomas J. Reese, S.J. “Its government needs to stop oppressing believers and enact legislation that respects religious freedom. If it does not, USCIRF will have to continue calling for its designation as a country of particular concern.”
The freedom to practice one’s faith or beliefs in Vietnam has come a long way since the dark days following the 1975 communist takeover. Many individuals and religious communities are able to exercise their religion or belief freely, openly, and without fear.
Nevertheless, the Vietnamese government’s complicity in or indifference to egregious violations of religious freedom in many parts of the country is deeply troubling. In some areas, local authorities harass and discriminate against religious organisations that do not have government recognition, and in others, they threaten religious followers with eviction from or demolition of their places of worship or other religious buildings—in some instances carrying out these threats. Law enforcement officials continue to arrest and imprison individuals due to their religious beliefs or religious freedom advocacy, including Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh; Khmer Krom Buddhist the Venerable Thach Thuol; Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Van Minh; and Buddhist Patriarch Thich Quang Do. Others are beaten by police or government hired thugs.
The scope and scale of these violations make clear that Vietnam still is a long way from respecting the universal right to freedom of religion or belief as defined by international law and covenants.
Vietnam’s law on religion and belief, which the National Assembly is expected to consider later this month, presents the government with a stark choice: either it can opt for positive change that reflects international religious freedom standards or it can maintain the status quo.
The measure includes some positive language. The new law would extend legal personality to some religious organisations, reduce the time that religious organisations must wait for government registration, encourage the establishment of religious schools, and transition from requiring government approval for certain actions by religious groups (like moving clergy or holding events) to simply requiring notification.
However, many religious organisations and international observers view the proposed law as fundamentally flawed because it would increase the government’s control over religious life and make activities it deems “illegal” subject to the force of law. The bill also would limit freedom of religion or belief through vaguely worded and broadly interpreted national security provisions.
The new law should respect religious freedom. Registration requirements, if they exist at all, should be voluntary, easy, and non-intrusive; internal operations, like the assignment of clergy and the scheduling of activities, should not be managed by the government; and believers should be protected from officials who abuse their authority.
USCIRF urges the United States to continue discussions with the Vietnamese government about its religious freedom policies, including the religion law and its implementation, emphasising the importance of adhering to international human rights standards.