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New law in Vietnam 'will curtail free practice of religion'

ASEAN lawmakers, human rights and religious groups call on government to revise a controversial draft law

ucanews.com reporter, Phnom Penh

ucanews.com reporter, Phnom Penh

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New law in Vietnam 'will curtail free practice of religion'

A file image of a Catholic procession during Holy Year celebrations at So Kien Church, in the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Nam during November, 2009. (Photo by AFP)

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Southeast Asian lawmakers joined more than 50 human rights and religious groups in calling on Hanoi to revise a controversial draft law on religion expected to pass in coming weeks.

Members of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights joined Vietnamese and international rights and religious groups in an open letter to Vietnam's President Nguyen Kim Ngan, urging his parliament to reject a law which they say falls short of its stated intent to protect freedom of religion.

The Law on Belief and Religion has been in discussion for more than a year and has been revised several times, but the letter says that a number of provisions will curtail free practice of religion.

"An examination of the draft law that was published on the National Assembly website shows that the nine-chapter draft law contains some improvements, but also continues to place unacceptable restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief and other human rights," according to the letter dated Oct. 6 which had rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights and Christian Solidarity Worldwide among its signatories.

"Specifically, basic guarantees of the right to freedom of religion and belief continue to be undermined by onerous registration requirements and excessive state interference in religious organizations' internal affairs," according to the letter.

While the Catholic Church, as a "recognized" religion, has enjoyed relatively warm ties with the communist government, it too has expressed concerns over provisions of the law.

After the government in August sought input from the church and other recognized groups, the Vietnam Bishops' Conference said it was troubled by vague language and broad powers to prohibit religious activity. The conference also criticized the "narrow" (12-day) time frame given for the review.

"It is difficult to give extensive and profound ideas [in such short time]," wrote Bishop Pierre Nguyen Van Kham, Deputy General Secretary of the Bishops' Conference.

While religious freedom is ostensibly guaranteed in Vietnam's constitution, practitioners of "unrecognized" religious groups have been harassed, threatened and even killed.

In Vietnam's highlands, for instance, Montagnards who follow forms of Christianity and Catholicism that are not state-sanctioned have faced extreme abuse at the hands of local authorities. Similarly, Hoa Hao Buddhists and Cao Daists face ongoing harassment.  

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