I wish to hail the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam on this thirtieth anniversary of its nonviolent struggle for religious freedom, human rights and democracy. Although I cannot be present, I want you all to know that your cause is close to my heart, and I will not cease my efforts on behalf of religious freedom, human rights and democracy – which are inseparable causes – until all the heroic Vietnamese people fully enjoy those rights to which they are entitled by the laws of God and man.
I would also like to send my greetings to Vo Van Ai, the overseas spokesman of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau, who has testified before my Committee and other committees in Congress, and who has done so much to keep America and the world aware of the plight of religious believers in Vietnam.
As many of you know, I visited Vietnam December 1-4 to see at first hand how Vietnam is treating its religious practitioners. I met with a wide range of people in Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon – government officials, religious figures, and democracy activists. I stressed to all government officials that future close relations with America will depend on real progress in religious freedom and human rights, and that there had been too little progress so far. I also stressed that if Vietnam truly wishes to develop economically and politically, it must tap the faith and enthusiasm of religious believers if it is to deal with the horrible problems all societies face : HIV/AIDS, drug addiction, trafficking in women, children and men. I told them that they must unconditionally free from prison and house arrest all prisoners of conscience, and that they must legalize the UBC.
But mostly I listened to Vietnam’s heroic advocates for religious freedom and democracy, and heard what they had to say. I spoke to Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants – over 60 of them, monks, priests, pastors, bishops, and ordinary laymen and women. I sought to encourage them : but their enthusiasm, their hope, their courage, gave me far more than I could give them. Their faith and courage has made them free, regardless of persecution, imprisonment and torture. When the authorities finally come to their senses, they will find thousands of Vietnamese ready and able to provide the leadership that will be necessary in a democratic Vietnam.
I met with Thich Thien Minh, your leader in Hue, in the pagoda where he is under house arrest. He emphasized that religion “must have an objective existence outside politics,” and that Buddhism has operated in Vietnam for 2,000 years outside political control. And he told me that the UBCV will never be part of or subservient to the Communists. Thich Thien Minh said that the Communists had increased, not diminished, their harassment of the UBCV.
In Saigon, I met with Thich Quang Do, your General Secretary in Vietnam, at his pagoda. He too is under house arrest. Thich Quang Do, like Thich Thien Minh, stressed that religious freedom and democracy are linked. He too noted that harassment had increased. But both men radiated the conviction that neither they nor their fellow believers would be deterred from their struggle for religious freedom and democracy, which can alone guarantee that freedom.
I cannot deny that there have been some limited improvements in Vietnam, but the government has still not understood the fundamental reality : that religious freedom is not something for it to dole out occasionally in small doses, mostly under foreign pressure. It still does not understand that religious freedom is the first freedom, which is rooted in the human dignity of every individual. It is something which a legitimate government recognizes and protects, not something a government grants. And once a government recognizes the dignity of the individual and genuine religious freedom, political democracy can and must follow.
I have already held one hearing this year, in June, devoted exclusively to religious freedom in Vietnam, and in November we dedicated much of our hearing on International Religious Freedom to Vietnam. We will be having further follow-up hearings next spring on religious freedom in Vietnam. I introduced last week a resolution in Congress which specifically calls on Vietnam to release Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do and Thich Thien Minh, and all prisoners of conscience. I have reintroduced the Vietnam Human Rights Act, and will work hard for its passage this spring. In this year’s Authorization for the State Department, which I sponsored and the House passed overwhelmingly, we have included important human rights provisions regarding Vietnam. Now we need to get the Senate to pass the Authorization bill.
This is a crucial year for freedom in Vietnam. Please let all your Representatives, and especially your Senators, know how important progress on human rights in Vietnam is to you, and ask that they support the Vietnam Human Rights Act.
Once again, let me express what a privilege it has been to work with you to bring freedom to Vietnam.