Vietnam is making progress on religious freedom but has failed to guarantee rights to some Christian and Muslim minorities, according to a new report presented to the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday. Following a visit to Vietnam last year that was marred by harassment and surveillance of religious figures, Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN’s special envoy on religious freedom, said many faith activities in the country remained subject to excessive red tape by the socialist government. “Whereas religious life and religious diversity are a reality in Vietnam today, autonomy and activities of independent religious or belief communities — that is, unrecognized communities — remain restricted and unsafe, with the rights to freedom of religion or belief of such communities grossly violated in the face of constant surveillance, intimidation, harassment and persecution,” Bielefeldt said in his report presented in Geneva. Minority Christian Montagnards and Cham Muslims were among groups subjected to the worst persecution, he added. In recent months, dozens of Montagnards have crossed the border into Cambodia intending to seek asylum. However, most have been sent back to Vietnam by Cambodian authorities. The government’s insistence on controlling religions through state bodies remained a key problem, creating tensions between those sanctioned by the government and others insisting on independence, the report said. Bielefeldt’s trip to Vietnam in July last year was overshadowed by government efforts to watch and intimidate people he tried to meet with in three provinces, a charge the government denied in its right of reply presented in Geneva on Tuesday. “While there was room for further improvement, Vietnam believed that efforts and achievements in the promotion of freedom or religion or belief should have been reflected in the report in an objective and comprehensive manner,” the Vietnamese government said. Religious life in the country was “vibrant,” it added, with 95 percent of the population practicing a faith or belief. The UN report puts that figure much lower, estimating that 24 million of 90 million follow a recognized religion. Of those, 11 million are Buddhists, 6.5 million Catholics and 2.5 million are followers of Cao Dai. In a statement coinciding with the release of the UN report, Christian Solidarity Worldwide called on the government to make freedom of a religion “a reality” rather than a state-controlled showpiece, particularly for minority Christians and Catholics. Vietnam has in recent years attempted to mend its relationship with the Vatican after years of broken ties following the Vietnam War in 1975. At the start of 2011, the Holy See appointed Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli as its first envoy to Vietnam, a non-resident position that has included regular visits to the country, and in September both sides held talks aimed at restoring full ties. New Archbishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon noted warming relations between Hanoi and the Vatican following his selection by the pope in January, the same month Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, made his first trip to Vietnam.
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