Catholic parishioners in Nha Trang openly celebrate Sunday Mass. Communist authorities have become slightly more tolerant of major religions in recent years but critics argue persecution of the faithful continues. (Photo by Luke Hunt)
Relations between communist Hanoi and the major religions have mildly improved over recent years but any tentative gains will be tested by new laws designed to manage matters of faith which have been widely criticized for their ambiguities and for reinforcing diehard prejudices.
Despite this, Vietnam has tried hard to convince its many critics that the fifth draft of its Law on Belief and Religion, the first of its type here, would merely improve state administration of religious affairs.
But the communist government's long history of using arbitrary accusations to imprison or persecute religious people, particularly those belonging to isolated and unregistered groups, has many worried ahead of the legislation's expected pass through the National Assembly in December.
It was a point noted by David Saperstein, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, as he released the State Department's annual report on religious freedoms, which was critical of every country in Southeast Asia.
"There have been significant improvements," Saperstein said Aug. 12 in regards to amendments made to the draft laws and a loosening of restrictions over religious practices, particularly in the cities.
His report found that many clerical leaders "agree that religious freedom is gradually expanding" in Vietnam and this was marked by a higher tolerance of traditional religions by the communist authorities and recognition of denominations like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"But in the rural areas that message from the central government is not being felt in the same way," Saperstein said.
The Government Committee for Religious Affairs wants the draft law on faith and religion passed in order to increase its management scope and keep out unwanted elements who authorities insist are prepared to use religion to threaten national unity.
Despite improvements within the government, the committee still maintains a tight grip and, as Saperstein noted, "these issues are not unique to Vietnam."
"If people go to the seminary it requires government approval. If they're going to be ordained it requires government approval," he explained.
"If they're going to be hired at a house of worship — a monk in a pagoda, a priest in a church or an imam at the mosque — it requires government approval."
Catholics in a church in Nha Trang, a coastal resort city in southern Vietnam. (Photo by Luke Hunt)
The separation of powers between church and state has not been a hallmark of the communists since they took control of North Vietnam in 1954. Christians then fled to South Vietnam but were trapped when Hanoi contravened peace agreements, invaded and annexed the rest of Vietnam in 1975.
Hanoi does recognize 39 religious organizations within 14 religions that have more than 24 million followers, or about a quarter of the country's 90 million people.
However, disputes over church property seized by the communists persist alongside an awkward inability, by what is essentially an atheist government, to cope with people of faith.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said the Vietnamese government was efficient at restricting religious practice through legislation, registration, harassment, and surveillance.
In the countryside unsanctioned religions fare worse. Montagnard followers of the De Ga and Ha Mon forms of Christianity have faced persecution and fled into neighboring Cambodia.
Branches of the Cao Dai Church, the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, independent Protestant and Catholic churches in the central highlands, Khmer Krom Buddhist temples, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, have also felt the full force communist law.
"Vietnam uses its restrictions on religion both in rural areas, especially against ethnic minorities like the Montagnards or Khmer Krom, as well as in cities against those demanding the government respect rights, such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, or the Catholic Redemptorists," Robertson said.
"Congregations that are out of sight in remote locations are more likely to face government surveillance and harassment."
This behavior has prompted a formal request from parishioners, asking the Catholic Church, to open dialogue with higher-than-usual ranking government officials from Hanoi, as part of a push to end religious persecution.
In one high profile case, U.N. human rights officials have urged the government stop the persecution of Christian activist Tran Thi Hong who has been "repeatedly arrested and tortured." Her husband was jailed in 2011 for his job as director of the Vietnam-U.S. Lutheran Alliance Church.
Church services are often interrupted by the police. In June, a Sunday Mass conducted by Father Joseph Nguyen Van Than was halted in northeastern Vietnam when 30 police and officials forced their way in and conducted a spot-check of people's personal papers.
"They also beat three people who used their cell phones to video their acts and removed video clips from the phones," a source told ucanews.com.
In advocating the new law, Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh urged religions to fight the negative elements who abuse religion "to undermine national unity" — a common charge often used to jail dissenting voices.
"The state respects and guarantees religious freedom of the people but all religious activities must obey laws," Binh said in a statement.
But the bill has also faced criticism from within the Communist Party's own ranks — where dissent is rarely tolerated. Assembly deputy Khuc Thi Duyen criticized a regulation that religious institutions will only be recognized after operating for at least 10 years.
"That regulation was inappropriate and might be unfair to religious institutions," she said, adding it was "a restriction in the freedom to practice religion."
Human Rights Watch also produced a separate submission on this issue ahead of this month's Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, saying the draft law maintains mechanisms that allows authorities to persecute religious groups they dislike.
It cited clause five of article six prohibiting the abuse of freedom of religion to sow division among "the national great unity, harm state defense, national security, public order and social morale."
Terms like "national great unity," "national security," and "social morale" are vague and can be arbitrarily used by the authorities to punish bloggers and activists, it said.
It said under article 32, candidates for religious appointments must "have the spirit of national unity and harmony" while religious education must include "Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law" as core subjects under article 22.
Human Rights Watch noted that like current regulations the draft requires religious groups to register with the government for most things including annual festivals, conferences and conventions.
These points were picked up on by the Australian delegation. It urged Vietnam to ensure the new laws were consistent with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
This was of some comfort for more than 35 civil society organizations, who want the Vietnamese government to revise the draft further and conform with international human rights law in regards to recognized and independently practiced religions.
But the critics remain wary.
"The bottom line is the Vietnamese government generally sees religion as something to be manipulated and restricted, not respected — and so they are constantly waging a battle across the country to keep religion under state control," Robertson said.
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