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Hanoi Tiptoes Around Religious Freedom

Serious Concerns Still Remain

By Father John Flynn

ROME, FEB. 13, 2007 (Zenit) - The Vietnamese government is making an effort to improve its often-criticized record in the area of religious liberty.

In a step that the Vatican press office said marked "a new and important step toward the normalization of bilateral relations," Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met with Benedict XVI on Jan. 25.

Relations between the Vatican and Vietnam, the communiqué continued, have "over the last few years, made concrete progress, opening new spaces of religious freedom for the Catholic Church in Vietnam." Vietnam and the Holy See do not currently maintain diplomatic relations.

Commenting on the importance of the visit, the London-based newspaper Financial Times on Jan. 25 observed that Vietnam's Communist rulers have eased some of the controls over religion in recent times. This relaxation, however, has not been extended to all groups. The paper noted that the government is alarmed by the spreading of evangelical Protestant churches in the mountain regions of the country, and has taken strong steps to prevent their growth.

Even for the Catholic Church, a number of controls remain in place. According to the Financial Times, the Hanoi authorities must approve new seminaries, the enrollment of seminarians, the organization of religious classes and conferences, the construction and renovation of religious facilities, the ordination of priests and the promotion of clergy.

Vietnamese authorities, nevertheless, are keen to defend their record. On Feb. 1 the government published a white paper on religion. A press release issued the following day by the Vietnamese Embassy in the United States argued that the government "has consistently implemented an unswerving policy of great national unity without any discrimination on the basis of belief or religion."

According to tables at the end of the white paper, the two largest religious groups in Vietnam are Buddhists, with 10 million followers, and the Catholic Church, with 6 million. The country's population is estimated at 84 million.

Government policy

A look at the white paper itself reveals, however, that the Communist authorities see religion more as a force to be harnessed for the good of the country, than for its intrinsic value.

The document points to a resolution passed in 2003 on "religious affairs," which revised the country's policy on religion: "This became the policy for the party and the state of Vietnam regarding religion for the period of reform and renewal."

The content of the resolution was summarized as follows by the white paper: "Religious activities and religious affairs in this new period should: Strengthen the unity among followers of different religions within the context of great national unity; develop the general strength of all ethnic groups; contribute to successful implementation of the country's industrialization and modernization; and build and defend the stability of the homeland."

On numerous occasions the white paper argues that the laws guarantee respect for religious freedom. At the same time it notes, "Followers may not negatively impact national customs and tradition or community unity." As well, believers are expected to follow regulations established by government agencies.

Even more clearly, the document states: "The state holds the responsibility to govern society, including religious organizations and religious activities."

In spite of these limits, late last year Vietnam was dropped from the U.S. government's list of countries that severely violate religious freedom. The country was placed on the list in 2004.

The move came shortly before President George Bush's visit to Vietnam, reported Reuters on Nov. 13. The news service reported that John Hanford, the U.S. ambassador at large for the Office of International Religious Freedom, had said that Vietnam had "made significant improvements toward advancing religious freedom."

Hanford cited the release of religious prisoners, the reopening of churches, and an end to the practice of forcing tens of thousands of people -- chiefly Protestants -- to renounce their faith.

Under pressure

The policy change met with criticism from within the U.S. government. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent federal agency, "expressed strong disappointment," in a press release issued Nov. 13, "that the State Department dropped Vietnam from the list of 'countries of particular concern.'"

"Violations such as forced renunciation of faith and new arrests and detentions of religious leaders continue in Vietnam," said USCIRF in the note. The agency did admit, however, that Vietnam has released some religious prisoners and promised legal ...

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