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New decree will make life even harder for faith groups

Vietnam moves to tighten religious control

New decree will make life even harder for faith groups
Faith groups must register their activities in full under the new decree reporter, Ho Chi Minh City

November 29, 2012

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Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli's visit to Gia Lai province did not go well this week.

The Vatican diplomat was banned from meeting Catholics at Bon Nu B and Plei Bong after authorities said the two mission stations “have not been recognized as religious organizations belonging to the Catholic Church.” He was also barred from visiting places that had not been approved in advance.

Religious groups in the country can take this as a signal of what is to come. Earlier this month, the government issued a decree requiring religious groups to report to it more often and much more thoroughly in order to continue their practice, in what some say is an effort to more tightly control religious activities.

The decree, signed by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, says that religious groups must register their practices with the People’s Committee at the local level. Registrations must include the number of followers, places of worship, schedule, forms of practices, the religion’s principles, and representatives’ names and residences for the group.

Church sources said Catholics from local ethnic minority groups are already prevented from gathering at their houses for prayers. Petitions to build chapels are refused, while makeshift wood-and-leaf chapels are deemed “illegal houses” and destroyed by local authorities, they said.

The decree takes effect January 1 and specifies that religious activities for the coming year must be registered by October 15. 

In addition to the onerous registration rules, the decree has stiff requirements for what groups can register. “They must have a steady faith practice for at least 20 years and violate no laws since their faith practice has been approved,” the decree says.

Transfers of religious workers and officials must be registered with district-level authorities and confirmed by the local commune-level People’s Committee. Religious associations and educational facilities must also be registered.

A nun from a foreign congregation told that her congregation started to work in Ho Chi Minh City six years ago.

“If we petition the government [for our activities], will our work be suspended and will we be accused of working without government permission for a long time?” she asked.

The nun, whose congregation provides free basic education for poor families, suggested the government should support foreign congregations that are working to serve the underprivileged and marginalized.

“We work for the common good but have to live as criminals. We are given such unfair treatment,” she said. 

Some religious leaders and priests are saying the decree goes against governmental respect for freedom of belief and religion.

They plan to petition the government for a review.

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