Freedom of Religion in Vietnam (or lack thereof)

Vietnam continues to view and treat religion as a social problem and potential threat to national security.  The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has designated Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern since 2001.

 In November 2012, the government of Vietnam approved a new decree that rendered most house churches illegal as of Jan. 1, 2013.
The government restricts religious freedom through legislation, registration requirements, and by harassing and intimidating unsanctioned religious groups. 

Many of Vietnam's more than 50 ethnic minority groups face persecution because of both their ethnicity and Christian faith. Several ethnic Christians have died while being tortured. Persecution is more severe in the north than in the south.

Churches must provide the authorities with details of their programs a year in advance. 

The Voice of the Martyrs Canada[1] sources report an increase in arrests and interrogations of Christian leaders in the past year.

The UN special rapporteur for belief and religion, Heiner Bielefeldt, who visited Vietnam in mid-2014, reported major concern for the many unregistered churches and other religious groups about which the Vietnamese authorities are often condescending and dismissive. 

A deep, politically-constructed narrative called Dai Doan Ket, or the Great National Unity, appears to be the standard against which religions are tolerated and deemed to be sufficiently conformed to Vietnamese tradition and culture. 

This Dai Doan Ket standard for meting out space for religions differs radically from Western, human-rights thinking, which holds that fundamental human rights are universal, and which dominates international standards, as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Strongly influenced by this Dai Doan Ket paradigm, the proposed new law is the long-promised, penultimate legislation in the area of religion. 

The Draft Law No. 92 confirms micromanagement of religion as it gathers up previous ordinances and related implementing decrees, and adds even more management minutia into one big, intimidating bundle. The new legislation was to provide for registration of churches and religious organizations - to give more space and freedom for registered groups. This, unfortunately, is not the case. Instead, it has become “religious freedom by micro-management” and a disappointment to many religious groups in Vietnam.

Examples of the affects of Draft Law No. 92 include:

  • disruption of religious worship services and ceremonies;
  • arrests and detainment and sometimes public shaming of leaders;
  • shutting down of meeting places; and
  • limits have been placed on travel for leaders to curtail evangelism.

The situation has also created considerable tension in relations between registered and unregistered Evangelical groups.

The requirements for a church organization to register are unrealistic.

For example, as observed by analysis Reg Reimer[2], if a church organization applied the day Decree 92 was effective, Jan. 1, 2013, and it met all the requirements, and the government replied in a timely manner, which it rarely does, it would be 2036 before registration could be achieved. This includes a 20 year period during which the unregistered church must operate stably and not violate “the law.”

An unregistered church is by definition illegal.

The UN Special rapporteur observed that “official registration status with the Government was no guarantee that freedom of religion or belief is fully respected.” 

This over-bearing bureaucracy also seems to contradict Vietnam’s own Constitution on the matter.

Article 24 of Vietnam’s 2013 Constitution says;

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of belief and religion, and has the right to follow any religion or to follow no religion. All religions are equal before law.
  2. The State shall respect and protect the freedom of belief and religion.
  3. No one may violate the freedom of belief and religion, nor may anyone take advantage of a belief or religion in order to violate the law.

Article 14, Section 2 of the latest Constitution defines the limitations on religious and other freedoms. The section implies it narrows the grounds for restrictions, but in fact they remain wide and allow for much arbitrary interpretation:

  1. Human rights and citizens' rights may not be limited unless prescribed by a law solely in case of necessity for reasons of national defense, national security, social order and safety, social morality and community well-being.

This section provides the basis to derogate rights and freedoms, including religious freedom.

The Committee on Religious Affairs, a large bureaucracy created by the Party and State to 
manage religious matters, resides within the Ministry of Interior, sometimes translated as the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The Director of the Committee on Religious Affairs is required to be a Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Interior. The current head is Mr. Pham Dung, a general from the security services. The committee organizes the implementation of all religion laws and regulations through a huge bureaucratic structure that parallels Vietnam’s administrative structure.

As observed by Reg Reimer in his analysis[3], in the area of religious freedom, Vietnam would do better to realize that the passing of this far-reaching new law on belief and religion, with dozens of articles still requiring newly formulated implementation regulations, and the clarification and entrenchment of the Committee on Religious Affairs’ role within the Ministry of the Interior, will much more likely move the political system toward more micromanagement and control of religion rather than toward more religious freedom.

CASE STUDIES:

  1. Hian and Phung were apprehended by Vietnamese authorities while transporting Bibles in Vietnam on the 10 May 2016. The police confiscated their motorcycles, which were provided by Open Doors, and sent them to jail in Southern Laos.[4]

 

  1. Tran Thi Hong was arrested and beaten by law enforcement for meeting with a human rights delegation from the US. Hong is the wife of Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, currently imprisoned for charges against the Vietnamese government.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Hong says that on the morning of April 14 2016, local officers from Gia Lai Province forced her to go to the community ward. “Two men held my legs, two others held my arms, threw me inside the police car, and sent me to the community center. They brought me to a room in the third floor, and a woman who was waiting there slapped my face. I asked them why they were beating me, then two other ladies dragged me and pulled my hair.”

Hong says her captors asked her to cooperate, which she refused because the arrest and the beatings were unreasonable. “They told me I had to tell them what happened during the meeting with the freedom of religion delegation, and I didn’t reply. They stamped on my feet, hit my face and my body, and I lost my voice.”[5]

  1. Ho Chi Minh City Bible School[6] has often been the target of police activity in recent years. The Bible school leader, Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, stated in December 2014 that the school was attacked and destroyed for the seventh time since June 2014. The government sees this Bible School as a threat.

“One of the things that Pastor Quang is involved in is training the church leaders from some of the minority ethnic tribal groups across Vietnam, and then they go back to their villages to lead churches, to plant churches.”After large scale attacks in June 2014, the water and electricity for the school were cut off, and in October, all roads to the school were barricaded.[7]

  1. In 2013, Open Doors International reported that in that year: 50 Christians were arrested, many pastors and church leaders remain in prison, and a Hmong church elder died in police custody.[8]
  2. All the witnesses agreed that the Vietnam regime is tightening up on freedom of expression and association as well as imprisoning religious leaders, dissidents, and human rights defenders, some with long sentences.

Further, the regime has adopted insidious practices designed to disrupt religious expression. One particularly egregious violation of freedom of religion is the government’s common practice of requiring renunciation of faith.

Speaking live from Vietnam on March 26 2014, Father Phan Van Loi said, through translation, that many practical activities of the Catholic Church are limited or forbidden by the regime’s decrees. Religious organizations are not recognized as legal entities. The government controls the recruitment, ordination, and assignment of the clergy, he said. It also strictly controls travel abroad of church members and clergy.[9]

[1] Voice of the Martyrs Canada Country Report: https://www.vomcanada.com/vietnam.htm
[2] Reg Reimer, Vietnam's Religion Law, ANALYSIS: The 'Great National Unity' requires a great big bureaucracy; Published: May 8, 2015: https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2015/05/3844615
[3] Reg Reimer, Vietnam's Religion Law, ANALYSIS: The 'Great National Unity' requires a great big bureaucracy; Published: May 8, 2015: https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2015/05/3844615
[4] Open Doors USA: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/tag-blog-post/two-men-arrested-for-transporting-bibles/
[5] Ibid.
[6] http://www.persecution.com/public/newsroom.aspx?story_ID=%3d373238&featuredstory_ID=%3d343730
[7] Mission Network News: https://www.mnnonline.org/news/quiet-persecution-vietnam/
[8] World Mag: https://world.wng.org/2013/10/vietnamese_christians_face_arrest_violence
[9] The Epoch Times: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/598710-religious-persecution-in-vietnam-government-spies-forced-renunciations-of-faith/

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