U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced at a Press Conference in Washington D.C. today that Vietnam is on a list of 8 countries designated as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), i.e. countries whose governments have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations of religious freedom”. The list was announced as the State Department made public its 2004 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. The report classed Vietnam in a group of countries that “implement totalitarian or authoritarian measures to control religious practices and beliefs”. This is the first time the U.S. has placed Vietnam on the blacklist of the world’s worst religious freedom violators. The other countries are Saudi Arabia and Eritrea (also listed for the first time), and Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan.
Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the U.S. government may take active steps to oppose abuses of religious freedom and promote religious tolerance in CPCs. Policy options range from public condemnations to travel restrictions, or even economic sanctions. Recommendations for CPCs are made to the President, State Department and Congress by the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, a body of independent experts mandated by the IRFA to monitor the status of religious freedom around the world.
“The designation of Vietnam as a CPC is an important step forward for religious freedom in Vietnam, and it is good news for all the victims of persecution” said Vo Van Ai, Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau and International Spokesman of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) . “For almost three decades, Vietnam has persecuted peaceful religious movements with total impunity. Now that Vietnam has been designated as a CPC, the U.S. government can take concrete steps to combat religious repression and press Vietnam to uphold its international obligations to guarantee the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief”.
The U.S. decision comes after a year of escalating religious repression in Vietnam. In October 2003, despite a landmark meeting between Prime Minister Pham Van Khai and UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang in April 2003, the authorities launched a brutal crackdown on the UBCV, arresting UBCV leaders and placing hundreds of UBCV pagodas under Police surveillance. UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, and his Deputy Thich Quang Do were placed under house arrest on charges of “possessing State secrets” and are still detained at their monasteries in Binh Dinh Province and Ho Chi Minh City. During a visit to Vietnam in October 2003, the U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, John Hanford III, requested to visit Thich Quang Do but the Vietnamese government refused.
In April 2004, hundreds of ethnic Montagnards were beaten and many killed as Security Police violently crushed peaceful protests against religious persecution and State confiscation of land. Other religious followers including Protestants, Catholics, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai and all followers of non-State-sponsored religious bodies are subjected to routine harassment, surveillance and detention for the peaceful expression of their religious beliefs.