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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 reforms.

Nonetheless, it added, evidence from sources inside Vietnam indicate that religious prisoners remain confined. For example, only a fraction of the churches closed since 2001 have been reopened. Also, noted USCIRF, forced renunciations of faith continue in many different provinces, and Vietnam's new laws on religion are being used to detain or intimidate religious leaders who refuse affiliation with the approved religious organizations of the government.

The USCIRF press release continued: "Abuses and restrictions occur less frequently than in the past, however, there remain severe concerns for all of Vietnam's diverse religious communities."

Concern is shared by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch. The group released a 55-page report June 14 entitled "No Sanctuary: Ongoing Threats to Indigenous Montagnards in Vietnam's Central Highlands." The study details the imprisonment, interrogation and torture of the peoples of the mountainous region.

Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a press release that accompanied the report: "The Vietnamese government continues to persecute Montagnards once they are out of the sight of international observers."

In the report, Human Rights Watch observed that Vietnamese officials continue to force Montagnard Christians to sign pledges renouncing their religion, despite passage of new regulations in 2005 banning such practices. In addition, authorities in some areas restrict freedom of movement between villages -- in particular for religious purposes not authorized by the government -- and ban Christian gatherings in many areas unless they are presided over by officially recognized pastors.

According to the report, more than 350 Montagnards have been sentenced to prison since 2001, largely for peaceful political or religious activities.

Another critic of Vietnam is Amnesty International. Its 2006 Annual Report stated: "Religious practice remained under the strict control of the authorities, despite the release of several religious dissidents and the issuing of instructions intended to facilitate official recognition of churches.

"Members of churches seen as opposing state policies were harassed, arrested and imprisoned, and church property was destroyed."

Compass Direct, a Christian news service providing information on religious persecution, noted in a press release Jan. 9 that violations of religious freedom continue in Vietnam. They reported that day that authorities arrested 17 people at prayer meeting, held at the Vietnamese Mennonite church and residence of the Reverend Nguyen Hong Quang.

Those arrested included elderly persons and a pregnant woman. They were released in the afternoon, but only after officials had demolished part of the church/residence.

Religious rights group International Christian Concern (ICC) is also raising doubts concerning the perceived progressive situation of religious freedom in Vietnam.

In a Feb. 7 press release, ICC commented on remarks made by Ellen Sauerbrey, U.S. undersecretary of state for population, refugees and migration, after a recent visit to Montagnard villages. Sauerbrey had stated that Montagnards, who had participated in demonstrations held in 2004, and who have now returned, are not being punished.

The religious rights group, noting that many Montagnards are members of evangelical Christian groups, expressed skepticism, and said that they doubted that she had been allowed to visit sufficient villages in order to obtain an accurate picture of the situation.

As Vietnam continues its efforts to fully enter into the international community, human rights groups and churches alike will no doubt be keeping a keen eye on the country's
performance.

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