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VCHR urges EU to increase efforts to protect Freedom of Religion or Belief


PARIS, 24 June 2019 (VCHR) – The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), member of the European Platform against Intolerance and Discrimination (EPRID) today joins EPRID to commemorate EU Day on Freedom of Religion or Belief (24 June). The organisations urge the EU and its member states to take more concrete, urgent action to defend and protect the right of all people to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

“Across the world, freedom of religion or belief is under threat”, said Võ Văn Ái, President of VCHR. “In Vietnam, the Communist Party imposes draconian controls on all religious activities, and people face discrimination, harassments and imprisonment because of their religious convictions or beliefs. The EU, one of Vietnam’s largest trading partners, is currently finalising a landmark EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA). The European Parliament should not ratify EVFTA unless it includes concrete mechanisms to ensure the protection of human rights and freedom of religion or belief.”

In June 2013, the EU adopted Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief which set out how it intends to advance this fundamental right in foreign policy. According to research by the Pew Research Centre, around 80% of the world’s population suffer discrimination, oppression or violence because of their religion or belief. No religion or belief group, including theists, non-theists and atheists, are exempt from violations of this right.

EPRID Statement on EU FoRB Day

“Cultural and religious diversity is, now more than ever, colouring our lives and our societies. On this European Day of Freedom of Religion or Belief, the European Platform against Religious Intolerance and Discrimination (EPRID) calls on all governments to embrace, respect and protect this diversity. Respect for diversity is the cornerstone of a cohesive and harmonious society.

“The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is an essential element for social cohesion. It is crucial that European institutions and other relevant actors recognise the spiritual and moral dimensions of human life and place them at the very heart of EU policies and practices.

“Freedom of Religion or Belief includes all religions, faiths and philosophies of life, theistic as well as non-theistic and atheistic. On this day, EPRID stresses the need to protect this fundamental freedom. This can include legal, practical or other legitimate and necessary measures. Advancing this freedom protects our societies against divisive forces that advance false claims of national, cultural, or religious superiority.

“The European Day on Freedom of Religion or Belief marks the adoption of the EU Guidelines on the protection and promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief. EPRID stands in solidarity with all defenders of Freedom of Religion or Belief and with all victims of violations of this precious human right. The platform calls on all people, regardless of their position in society, to do their utmost to make freedom of thought, conscience and religion a reality, to defend and protect the victims, and to support all those who put their safety and security on the line to protect this fundamental human right.”

EPRID is a network of civil society organisations, religious bodies and individuals operating at EU level to advance FoRB for everybody. EPRID members include Association Internationale pour la Défense de la Liberté Religieuse, Bahá’í International Community, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Conference of European Churches, European Evangelical Alliance, European Union Office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Open Doors International, Quê Me: Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), International Buddhist Information Bureau (UBCV)

Conference on “Freedom of Religion or Belief and Human Rights: Vietnamese and Tibetan Buddhism under threat” (Washington D.C. 11th July 2018)

 

 

WASHINGTON D.C. 12 July 2018 – VCHR – Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) and the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) organized a Conference on “Freedom of Religion or Belief and Human Rights: Vietnamese and Tibetan Buddhism under threat” on July 11, 2018. The Conference was hosted by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and held at their offices in 732 North. Capitol Street NW, Washington D.C.

Speakers included Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, USCIRF Chairman, Congressman Alan Lowenthal, Congress-woman Zoe Lofgren,  Kristina Arriaga, USCIRF Vice-Chair, Arjia Rinpoche, former abbot of Kumbum Monastery in Tibet and head of Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, Indiana, Vo Van Ai, President of VCHR, Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, Robert Herman, Vice-President of Freedom House, Todd Stein, Senior Policy Advisor to Representative Chellie Pingree, and experts and human rights defenders from Europe, Asia and the US.

The Conference featured two panel discussions on “Religious Freedom and American Foreign Policy”, and “Strategies to Promote Freedom of Religion or Belief in Closed Societies: The Cases of Vietnamese and Tibetan Buddhists.” Speakers explored the importance of a proactive freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) component in US foreign policy; transatlantic and international cooperation in advancing FoRB; violations of FoRB and trade considerations; initiatives to support prisoners of conscience; FoRB and democracy; the role of Buddhism in promoting a civic culture of human rights, dignity and diversity in Vietnamese and Tibetan communities, and beyond.

 

Panel No. 1, from right to left: USCIRF Chairman Dr Tenzin Dorjee, VCHR President Võ Văn Ái, VCHR Vice-President Penelope Faulkner (moderator), ICT President Matteo Mecacci and US Congressman Alan Lowenthal
Panel No. 1, from right to left: USCIRF Chairman Dr Tenzin Dorjee, VCHR President Võ Văn Ái, VCHR Vice-President Penelope Faulkner (moderator), ICT President Matteo Mecacci and US Congressman Alan Lowenthal

 

Conference participants listen to a Message by UBCV Patriarch Thich Quang Do, sent from under house arrest in Saigon
Conference participants listen to a Message by UBCV Patriarch Thich Quang Do, sent from under house arrest in Saigon

 

In a messsage sent clandestinely from the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Saigon where he is under effective house arrest, UBCV Patriarch said: “Buddhists in Vietnam and Tibet share so much. We walk the same path of nonviolence and peace. We believe that compassion can overcome hatred, and we strive to free the world from suffering, ignorance and oppression. We also share the same punishment, torture and detention from governments that are determined to stifle our voice.

“Religious freedom is like a flower. It needs water, sunlight and good earth for its seeds to flourish and grow. Without them, it will die. Without freedom of expression, assembly, association – in brief, without democracy and human rights, religious freedom cannot be guaranteed. This is why we Buddhists keep speaking out for freedom, whatever the price.

“In Vietnam and Tibet today, the suppression of spiritual values by the communist regimes has led to a rise in crime and violence. Buddhism could contribute so much to addressing these problems and promoting a more caring, tolerant society if only it was free. I wish I was a bird, so I could fly to Washington to be with you today. But I am under house arrest in my pagoda in Saigon. I am isolated, but I am not alone. For I have your solidarity to support and comfort me”.

 

Congressman Alan Lowenthal and USCIRF Vice-Chair Kristina Arriaga take a photo with the portrait of Thich Quang Do
Congressman Alan Lowenthal and USCIRF Vice-Chair Kristina Arriaga take a photo with the portrait of Thich Quang Do

 

In his Opening remarks, VCHR President Vo Van Ai  noted that: “this is the first time Buddhism in Tibet and Vietnam are examined together – the positive contributions of Buddhism, the common policies used to stifle it by the communist regimes, and the real dangers we face if Buddhism is suppressed, not only for our countries, but for the security of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

“Vietnamese and Tibetan Buddhism have differences, but there is one thing of which we are all sure – that Buddhism is highly relevant in our modern world. In this year’s message for Vesak Day, which is now recognized internationally by the United Nations, UN Secretary-general Antonio Guterres wrote: “The Buddhist world view teaches us to see ourselves as a part of this world and not as its masters. And Buddhism’s emphasis on non-violence stands as a powerful call for peace. From peace, to climate change, to human rights, we see how much the teachings of the Buddha are so relevant in the work of the United Nations today. Now more than ever, Buddhist communities and all of us must give every day meaning to the Buddha’s message of tolerance, empathy and humanism.  We must resist those who seek to twist a call for love into a cry for hate”.

“It is true that, over 2,500 years before the Paris Agreement on Climate Change – which certain countries believe is not necessary – Buddha’s teachings included the protection of the environment and the right to life, not just of humans but also animals and plants.  As early as the 3rd Century, Buddhist monarchs such as King Asoka set up Edicts exhorting the people to plant trees and respect life; and early Vietnamse Buddhist Sutras such as the “Six Ways of Liberation” (Lục Độ Tập Kinh) taught the principles of liberating the individual, the community and the nation through nonviolent engagement, with such modern concepts as universal education, social equality and ecological rights.

“Most of all, Buddhism is a philosophy of peace. All Buddhists practice the Five Moral Precepts (Ngũ giới) which is the Buddhist code of ethics, and the “Six Harmonies” (Lục hòa), six principles for maintaining harmony within a group, based on understanding and mutual respect. In fact, these principles form the very basis of democracy – the respect of diversity and pluralism in all its forms. By developing this spirit of mutual respect, I believe we can create a climate of understanding and tolerance that is vital for our world today.

“Indeed, in this era of global terrorism and conflict, a peaceful philosophy such as Buddhism can play a vital role. In Asia, Buddhism is deeply rooted in countries such as India, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Tibet. It therefore has immense potential to help maintain stability in the region, and become a driving force for democracy, social justice and human rights.

“This is why Vietnamese and Tibetan Buddhism is under threat today, for our governments see it as a challenge. But if the Communists think they can suppress Buddhism by force, they are wrong. Buddhist teachings are based on two elements – Compassion and Wisdom. We are gentle people, but we resist. For we see reality as it is, and we will not bow down to tyranny. I firmly believe that one day, we shall overcome !”.

The full texts of speakers will be published shortly by VCHR and ICT.

 

VCHR Pesident Vo Van Ai makes Opening Remarks
VCHR Pesident Vo Van Ai makes Opening Remarks

 

 

 

News on Religious Freedom in Vietnam

2017

07/31/2017 (RFA): Vietnam Arrests Four Democracy Activists For ‘Attempted Subversion’
07/31/2017 (USCIRF): VIETNAM: Religious Prisoner of Conscience Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh Released
02/08/2017 (USCIRF) : VIETNAM: USCIRF Assesses State Department’s CPC Removal
06/30/2017 (Leicester Post) : Leicester Post: Vietnamese blogger Mother Mushroom jailed for criticising government
07/06/2017 (CSW): Call for release of religious freedom defenders

2016

04/20/2016 (Civicus) : Intolerance of civil society in Vietnam: An interview with Penelope Faulkner from the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights
04/27/2016 (EUObserver) : EU sacrifices human rights for Vietnam free trade
11/10/2016 (USCIRF) : VIETNAM: At a Crossroads, 10 Years after CPC Designation Removed

2015

11/19/2015 (RFA) : Monk of Banned Buddhist Church Reaffirms Commitment to Democracy in Vietnam

 

News (VCHR & IBIB)

2017

01/30/2017 (IBIB): In Lunar New Year Message, Thích Quảng Độ calls for Fearlessness to win freedom for Buddhism in Vietnam
02/24/2017 (VCHR) :EU Delegation raises serious human rights concerns during visit to Vietnam
02/28/2017 (VCHR) : Amnesty International group in US sends 70 letters to EP delegation to Vietnam calling for the release of Buddhist dissident Thích Quảng Độ
03/02/2017 (VCHR) : Pastor Nguyễn Trung Tôn kidnapped and beaten in Vietnam
03/09/2017 (VCHR) : VCHR regrets that US State Department’s Human Rights Report fails to raise the case of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Độ
03/15/2017 (VCHR) : Vietnam Committee on Human Rights denounces violations of Religious Freedom at UN Human Rights Council in Geneva
04/27/2017 (VCHR) : U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends designating Vietnam as “Country of Particular Concern” for religious freedom violations
05/02/2017 (VCHR) : EPRID shares best practices at EP Conference on “How religious and belief communities reach out to each other in words and deeds”
05/10/2017 (IBIB) : UBCV leader Thích Quảng Độ issues Vesak Day Message
05/12/2017 (VCHR) : Police threaten and harass UBCV Buddhists and Youth leaders during Vesak celebrations in Hue
05/15/2017 (VCHR) : Buddhist Youth Leader Lê Công Cầu goes on hunger strike to protest ban on visiting critically-ill UBCV leader Thích Quảng Độ
05/29/2017 (FIDH & VCHR) : Vietnam: Lengthy jail sentences for two dissidents upheld as crackdown continues
06/16/2017 (VCHR) : At the UN, Vietnam Committee on Human Rights denounces persecution of UBCV Buddhists and calls on UN Experts to visit Vietnam
06/29/2017 (The Observatory & VCHR) : Vietnam: Prominent Blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh sentenced to 10 years in prison
07/06/2017 (VCHR): At G20 Summit: VCHR calls on Vietnamese Prime Minister to release prisoners of conscience Thích Quảng Độ, Nguyễn Văn Đài and Đỗ Thị Hồng
07/21/2017 (VCHR): Crackdown on Buddhist Youth Movement’s Summer Camp in Huế
07/31/2017 (VCHR): Four human rights defenders arrested for subversion in an escalating crackdown on dissent in Vietnam

2016

09/04/2016 (VCHR) : Human Rights Organizations urge French President to speak out for human rights during visit to Vietnam
09/20/2016 (VCHR): VCHR and Hudson Institute hold Conference in Washington D.C. on Religious Freedom in Vietnam
11/19/2016 (VCHR): Vietnam New Law contravenes the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief
12/07/2017 (VCHR) : EU must press Vietnam to address serious human rights violations at upcoming human rights dialogue

International Reports and Ressources on Religious Freedom

2017

02/08/2017 (USCIRF) : Religious Freedom in Vietnam, Assessing the Country of Particular Concern Designation 10 Years After its Removal (USCIRF, February 2017)
04/25/2017 (USCIRF) : 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (Chapter on Vietnam)

2016

06/09/2016 (European Parliament) : European Parliament resolution of 9 June 2016 on Vietnam

2015

01/30/2015 (UN) : Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt – Addendum – Mission to Viet Nam (21 to 31 July 2014) (ref. A/HRC/28/66/Add.2)

UN: Press Statement on the visit to the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief

Hanoi, Viet Nam 31 July 2014

Introduction

In my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, I was invited by the Government of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam to conduct a country visit from 21 to 31 July 2014.

First of all, I thank the Government for inviting me here and maintaining constructive cooperation with my mandate. My esteemed predecessor, the late Abdelfattah Amor, had also visited Viet Nam in 1998. Since 2010, Viet Nam has actively engaged with the Special Procedures and invited six mandate holders, including myself, to conduct a country visit. Viet Nam is also a member of the Human Rights Council. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been most helpful throughout the preparation of the visit and the visit itself. It also facilitated a meeting with a prisoner.

I am grateful to all interlocutors from the legislative, administrative and judiciary branch of the Government, religious communities or institutions (recognized and unrecognized), the diplomatic community and UN agencies. I would like to thank the UNDP in Hanoi for their kind logistical support. Discussions held in Hanoi, Tuyen Quang, Ho Chi Minh City and Vinh Long were generally open, frank and constructive.

The planned visits to An Giang, Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces were unfortunately interrupted from 28 to 30 July. I received credible information that some individuals whom I wanted to meet with had been either under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, harassed or prevented from travelling by the police. Even those who successfully met with me were not free from a certain degree of police surveillance or questioning. Moreover, I was closely monitored of my whereabouts by undeclared “security or police agents”, while the privacy and confidentiality of some meetings could have been compromised. All these incidents are in clear violation of the terms of reference of any country visit.

Today, I present my preliminary findings and some main observations to which I wish to draw your attention. This press statement is not to be confused with the final report. The formal report is to be presented to the 28th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2015. In preparation of the report, I will continue to engage with and work in consultation with the Government and all relevant stakeholders to receive more information and clarification, especially on issues that relate to parts of the country I could not visit.

Brief overview on the religious landscape in Viet Nam

Viet Nam is home to a broad variety of religions and beliefs. The Government Committee on Religious Affairs informed me that there are currently 37 registered religious organizations in the country. According to the official statistics presented by the Government, the overall number of followers of recognized religions is about 24 million out of a population of almost 90 million. Formally recognized religious communities include 11 million Buddhists, 6.2 million Catholics, 1.4 million Protestants, 4.4 million Cao Dai followers, 1.3 million Hoa Hao Buddhists as well as 75,000 Muslims, 7000 Baha’ís, 1500 Hindus and others. The official number of places of worship comprises 26,387 pagodas, temples, churches and other religious facilities. Viet Nam takes pride in having hosted international conferences of religious leaders, in particular United Nation Day of Vesak, a summit of Buddhist dignitaries which took place in May 2014. I was also informed that the people of Viet Nam comprise 54 different ethnic groups. Ethic minority status and membership of a religious minority sometimes overlap.

While the majority of Vietnamese do not belong to one of the officially recognized religious communities, they may nonetheless – occasionally or regularly – practise certain traditional rituals, usually referred to in Viet Nam under the term “belief”. Many of those traditional rituals express veneration of ancestors. Moreover, there is also a reality of religious faiths and practices outside of the officially recognized religious communities. To get a clear and comprehensive picture of this reality is difficult, if not impossible. Whereas some Government experts estimated the number of followers of non-registered communities to be very low, I also heard conjectures that the number of people practising religions outside of registered communities – or wishing to do so – may be up to millions. Apart from very different estimates concerning numbers, I also received conflicting information with regard to the conditions under which people can enjoy their human right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

Many interlocutors emphasized the fact that the conditions for the exercise of religious freedom have generally improved in Viet Nam in comparison to the situation post-1975. This assessment was largely shared by representatives of religious communities who acknowledged that, despite ongoing challenges, they now have generally more space for practising religion than in the past. At the same time, the conditions under which individuals or groups can practise their religion or belief are unpredictable and often depend on good will of Government agencies, not least the local authorities. Moreover, members of religious minorities without official recognition continue to face enormous difficulties in exercising their rights to freedom of religion or belief, especially where their religious practices or rituals are considered not to match the “legitimate interests of the majority” – a phrase often invoked in some of the discussions.

Relevant legal provisions and their implementation

Legal norms regulating the practice of religion or belief

Viet Nam has ratified most international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whose article 18 protects freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief broadly.

The newly amended Vietnamese Constitution1 covers in its second chapter “human rights and citizen’s fundamental rights and duties”. In this context, the 2013 Constitution also refers to freedom of belief or religion in article 24. Representatives of the Government repeatedly highlighted that rights holders of this provision are all human beings, whereas the respective provision within the 1992 Constitution was confined to citizens of Viet Nam. This has been presented as an indicator of a generally more positive attitude towards freedom of religion or belief. Article 24 reads as follows:

“1. Every one shall enjoy freedom of belief and of religion; he can follow any religion or follow none. All religions are equal before the law.
2. The State respects and protects freedom of belief and of religion.
3. No one has the right to infringe on the freedom of belief and religion or to take advantage of belief and religion to violate the law.”

Viet Nam does not have a law regulating religious affairs. The most relevant legal document is the Ordinance on Belief and Religion adopted on 18 June 2004. Decree no. 92, of 8 November 2012, further specifies the provisions contained in the Ordinance. As an important clarification within the Ordinance on Belief and Religion, Article 38 confirms the priority of international agreements over provisions of the Ordinance whenever they differ2.

I have learned that a proposal to pass a law on religious affairs based on the current Ordinance will be submitted in 2015 and is expected to be adopted in 2016. Apart from the higher legal status of a law in comparison to an ordinance, the process of creating a new comprehensive law might offer an opportunity to introduce substantive revisions with the purpose of strengthening the right to freedom of religion or belief and its implementation in practice. When discussing this issue with Government experts on religious affairs, there have been indications that land issues will be better addressed while the freedom for foreigners to practice their religions or belief will also become easier. Others have also expressed their willingness to consider substantive changes to overcome the restrictive language of the 2004 Ordinance.

Restrictions of freedom of religion or belief

According to international standards, the exercise of the human right to freedom of religion or belief is not without possible limitations. At the same time, article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) lists a number of criteria all of which must be met for such limitations to be legitimate. Strict observance of all of these criteria is crucial to ensure that freedom of religion or belief becomes a reality.

Limitation clauses as provided in the relevant legal norms of Viet Nam are much broader than the limitation clauses enshrined in the ICCPR. Overly-broad limitation clauses may blur the contours of freedom of religion or belief thereby seriously jeopardizing its implementation in practice. What is missing in the Vietnamese legal norms concerning religion, first of all, is a clarification that the internal dimension of a person’s religious, moral or philosophical conviction – usually termed the “forum internum” – must be respected unconditionally and can never be exposed to any restrictions or interferences for whatever reasons, even in situations of a serious crisis or an emergency. The unconditional protection of the forum internum reflects the insight that forcing human beings to feign a faith which is not authentic or denounce their deeply held convictions may undermine their self-respect. The prohibition of any coercive interference with the inner nucleus of a person’s religious, moral or philosophical convictions therefore has the same elevated status in international law as the prohibition of slavery or the prohibition of torture. These are absolute prohibitions with no exceptions. In contrast, Article 24 of the 2013 Constitution, while making reference to freedom of belief and religion in general terms, does not provide for a specific protection of the forum internum dimension of freedom of religion or belief.

Unlike the forum internum, manifestations of religions or beliefs in the social sphere (“forum externum”) are not protected unconditionally by international law. It is therefore all the more important to specify the conditions for limitations in a clear and predictable manner. This should be done in the understanding that freedom of religion or belief, in all its individual and communitarian dimensions, has the normative status of a universal human right. The relationship between this freedom and its limitations thus should be seen as a relationship between rule and exception. Accordingly, the burden or argumentation does not fall on those who wish to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief: it rests with those who deem limitations necessary. In case of doubt the rule prevails, and exceptions always require an extra burden of argumentation, both at the level of empirical evidence and the level of normative reasoning.

In discussions with Government representatives I frequently heard broad references to “the Vietnamese law” in general. However, in order to meet the conditions for limitations set out in article 18 of the ICCPR, limitations must be more specific and fulfil additional criteria. Apart from being legally prescribed in a clear, precise and predictable manner, the limitations must be necessary to pursue a legitimate aim – the protection of “public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”3. Moreover, limitations must strictly remain with the realm of proportionality which inter alia means they should always be confined to a minimum degree of interference. These and other criteria are prescribed with the purpose of safeguarding the substance of freedom of religion or belief also in situations of a (seeming or factual) collision with other rights or important public interests.

By comparison, the relevant legal documents of Viet Nam give Government agencies broad space to regulate, limit, restrict of forbid the exercise of freedom of religion or belief. Article 14 of the 2013 Constitution lists a number of reasons for restricting human rights and citizens’ rights which, I presume, also apply to freedom of religion or belief. While the possibility to restrict human rights in the interest of “national defence, national security, social order and security, social morality and the health of the community”4 already differs from the purposes listed in article 18 of the ICCPR, the Ordinance on Belief and Religion also makes reference to purposes, such as “patriotism”, “national unity”, “people’s unity” and “national cultural traditions”. Furthermore, according to article 8, paragraph 2 of the Ordinance, “no one shall be permitted to abuse the right to freedom of belief and religion to undermine the peace, independence and unity of the country, to instigate violence or carry out war propaganda, or propaganda against State laws or policies; or to sow division among the people and religions; to disturb public order, to encroach upon the life, health, human dignity, honour or property of others, or to obstruct the exercise by the people of their civic rights or obligations; to carry out superstitious activities; or to commit other breaches of the law”.

During my discussions with Government officials of different agencies, including senior representatives of the judiciary, I heard many references to such overly-broad restrictions. The invocation of unspecified “social interests” may even lead to criminal prosecution, in accordance to Article 258 of the Penal Code. Its first paragraph reads as follows: “Those who abuse the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of belief, religion, assembly, association and other democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interest of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens shall be subject to warning, non-custodial reform for up to three years or a prison term of between six months and three years.” What I find particularly concerning in this paragraph is the absence of specified acts that would amount to an “abuse” of religious freedom of other democratic freedoms. Members of the People’s Supreme Court did not give any further specifications as to the meaning of the term “abuse”. The wide and vague formulation in Article 258 gives the relevant authorities a carte blanche to sanction people for all sorts of activities – and their underlying attitudes – which are deemed to somehow run counter to the interest of the State. From the many discussions that I have had, this is not a merely theoretical problem, as article 258 of the Penal Code has been invoked frequently in practice and has been applied to restrict freedom of religion or belief and other human rights. When the question of prisoners of conscience was raised, I was told that no such case exists. Given the vague formulations and the high number of cases charged under article 258 of the Penal Code, one wonders how the authorities can preclude such a possibility.

Administrative stipulations on religious practices

The Ordinance on Belief and Religion contains a broad number of regulations that the religious communities have to comply with in order to be able to operate. These regulations receive further specification in Decree no. 92. For instance, religious communities are requested to get registration status with the Government Committee for Religious Affairs; they have to apply for specific permits for the construction or renovation of houses of worship; they have to present to the local authorities an annual overview of planned activities; they have to inform the authorities about the ordainment of religious clergy; they have to get approval from the relevant local authorities to conduct public ceremonies, etc. The stipulations contained in the Ordinance and the Decree include obligations concerning information and notification as well as provisions for formal approval before conducting certain religious activities. The Decree also specifies the timeframes within which the authorities are requested to respond to applications submitted to them. In the case of a negative decision, they are obliged to state the reasons.

My preliminary findings are not meant to provide a comprehensive assessment of the very detailed administrative provisions contained in the Ordinance and the Decree as to whether they appropriately reflect respect for freedom of religion or belief. Instead, I will concentrate on a problem which came up in almost all of ours discussions, i.e. the requirement for religious communities to receive registration status with the authorities. According to article 16 of the Ordinance, organizations are required to meet a number of criteria to obtain the status of a legally recognized religious organization. Inter alia, these conditions are aimed to ensuring respect for the “fine customs and habits and interests of the nation”5. Without going into procedural and substantive details, I would like to focus on two particularly important aspects.

The first aspect concerns the nature of registration. Is it an offer or is it a formal requirement? When discussing this question, I received different answers, and there seems to be some lack of clarity. Whereas a number of Government representatives unambiguously stated that without legal registration by the authorities communities would not be entitled to operate, others indicated that a non-registered community could be allowed to exercise some basic religious functions, such as holding religious gatherings in private homes. Even within this more accommodating interpretation, however, the scope of freedom of religion or belief strikes me as remaining extremely limited and unclear.

In this context, the term “recognition”, as used of the Ordinance and mentioned in many conversations, may warrant a short clarification. The exercise of the human right to freedom of religion or belief, by individuals and/or in community with others, cannot be made dependent on any specific acts of administrative recognition or approval. As a universal right, freedom of religion or belief inheres in all human beings and thus has a normative status prior to any administrative acts and procedures whatsoever. The preamble of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts with “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Obviously, “recognition” here points to the basic insight that any meaningful interaction among human beings presupposes respect for human dignity and human rights. “Recognition” in this fundamental sense of respect for human dignity and human rights thus precedes any “recognition” in terms of specific administrative acts.

Accordingly, the right of an individual or group to their freedom of religion or belief can never be “created” by any administrative procedures. Rather, it is the other way around: registration should serve this human right, which itself must be respected as preceding any registration. In keeping with this general understanding, registration should be an offer by the State, not a compulsory legal requirement. The situation of non-registered religious communities thus assumes the quality of an important test question about the understanding of the normative status of freedom of religion or belief in general.

The second point I would like to make concerns the availability of some alternative legal personality status for communities which are not registered as religious organizations. Given the rather high threshold set out by article 16 of the Ordinance, it seems important that religious or belief communities have a reliable option to obtain some alternative form of legal personality status, if they so wish. Under freedom of religion or belief, States have a responsibility to provide an appropriate legal and institutional infrastructure which allows religious and belief communities to operate freely, without undue burdens and without discrimination. This includes the option for religious and belief communities to obtain legal personality status which they may need to undertake important community functions, such as purchasing real estate, employing professional staff, operating charity organizations, establishing training institutions for clergy or educating the younger generation, etc. Without the availability and actual accessibility of an appropriate legal personality status, the long-term development prospects of religious and belief communities, in particular smaller groups may be in serious peril. I was informed that there is a possibility for religious communities to register as associations, but I have not yet been able to find out to which extend this option has actually been used.

Having had various discussions with Government representatives on the issue of registration, I am convinced that this is an area of concern which requires legislative and other measures. I would recommend that the envisaged new legal reforms (1) clarify that freedom of religion or belief, qua its status as a human right, precedes any acts of administrative approval and can be exercised by individuals and groups of people prior to, and independent of, any such acts of registration; and (2) give religious communities more easily accessible and reliable options to obtain a suitable status of legal personality to facilitate the free development of an appropriate infrastructure. The Government Committee for Religious Affairs should play a crucial role in instructing and training local authorities about the interpretation of relevant regulations in accordance to universal human right.

The issue of legal recourse

Article 30 of the 2013 Constitution enshrines everyone’s right to lodge complaints with competent State authorities. Indeed, the efficient realization of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, largely depends on the availability of suitable legal recourse. Everyone should have recourse, without being required to meet undue thresholds or burdens, to legal instruments to be able to challenge decisions taken by the authorities if they feel their rights have been infringed upon. Independent courts should be entrusted with the assessment of such complaints, in accordance with all principles of due process. The main purpose of legal recourse is not to identify possible wrongdoings by individual members of the administration, but to ensure a consistent implementation of human rights for everyone.

When asking for examples of cases in which people have successfully challenged alleged infringements of their freedom of belief and religion, as enshrined in article 24 of the Constitution, I heard that such cases are not known in Viet Nam. Even members of the People’s Supreme Court were not aware of a single case. This is surprising – even more so against the background of quite a number of conflicts over land issues which have been brought to my attention. Some of these conflicts seem to involve a dimension of freedom of religion or belief, for instance, when land previously used for religious cemeteries or houses of worship has been taken for purposes of economic development.

When discussing the issue of legal recourse, reference was usually made to the possibility of filing petitions addressed to local levels up till higher levels of the administration. However, this option cannot count as equivalent to an independent judiciary in charge of securing everyone’s human rights, including in situations of conflict between individuals or groups of people and the administration. Although I heard about a few cases in which petitions filed with higher authorities, including the Prime Minister, have helped to ease conflicts, in many other cases, petitioners have not seen any reaction at all. In yet some other cases, the higher level of the authorities merely referred the issues back to the local authorities for reconsideration, i.e. the case may end up in a limbo. From the perspective of the rule of law, this situation is far from satisfactory.

Autonomy of religious and belief communities

Negative attitudes towards non-recognized religious communities

Government representatives repeatedly emphasized that religions can and should contribute to the development of the country, not least by promoting social, ethical and civic values. This expectation is reflected in the Ordinance on Belief and Religion which provides in article 2, second sentence: “Dignitaries and clergypersons shall have the responsibility to educate regularly believers about patriotism, exercise of civic rights and obligations, and the sense of law observance.”

Based on the assumption that religious values and the interests of the State largely coincide, many religions have become members of the Fatherland Front, led by the Communist Party of Viet Nam. The biggest religious organization within the Fatherland Front is the Viet Nam Buddhist Sangha (VBS). Other officially recognized religious communities also cooperate in large parts within the Fatherland Front.

When I discussed this issue with the VBS in its central office in Hanoi, I learned that the Sangha comprises nine schools of Buddhism originating from the Mahayana tradition (dominant in Viet Nam), the Theravada tradition and others. While cooperating in a spirit of solidarity, the various schools would also be able to maintain their distinctive characteristics and identities, including different linguistic heritages. This was corroborated in conversations held in two Khmer pagodas in Ho Chi Minh City which cherish the Theravada version of Buddhism. However, while acknowledging the internal diversity within the VBS, I noticed a very dismissive attitude towards Buddhist practices outside of the VBS. Some dignitaries operating within the VBS claimed they had never heard of independent Buddhist groups within Viet Nam. Others alluded to mere “private opinions” of some individuals driven by morally problematic ambitions which would not be worthy of serious attention. The ascription of trivial “selfish” interests to people practising Buddhism or other religions outside of the official channels was a feature repeatedly coming up in conversations. This seems to coincide with the frequent invocation of “majority interests” which, it was assumed, should prevail over the rights of minorities or individuals.

I would like to emphasize in this context that freedom of religion or belief is not merely a minority issue. As a human right, it relates to all human beings, regardless of whether they follow a majority religion or belong to a minority community or to no religious community at all. The treatment of minorities, however, deserves particular attention, since it is usually indicative of the general – tolerant or less tolerant – climate in a society. Where minority communities can operate freely and independently, members of a majority typically also have more space for practicing their religion in the way they see fit. And respect for the views of individuals, including dissident views, facilitates the free flow of ideas in a society in general, thereby also enriching the interaction of people within the majority. However, I have noticed that in some discussions “majority interests” were invoked with the obvious intention to dismiss claims of minorities as irrelevant or to even delegitimize them as morally problematic. This also happened when the issue of independent religious communities – such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Viet Nam (UBCV), independent groups of Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Protestants and others came up.

During my meetings with representatives of independent Buddhist communities I heard complaints about ongoing repression, including police summons, house arrests, imprisonments and confiscation of property, which would prevent individuals from exercizing their freedom of religion or belief in even a minimal way. Although I have not been able to make an appropriate and detailed analysis of all their complaints, which would require much more information from all concerned parties, the general attitude of delegitimizing non-official religious practices, which I have encountered in many conversations, are clear indicators that independent Buddhist communities currently cannot exercise their freedom of religion or belief. Moreover, some Buddhist monks who identified themselves as “Khmer Krom” would wish to have more autonomy not only within the VBS but also outside of this official Buddhist umbrella. The situation of the independent communities of Hoa Hao Buddhism, too, seems to be difficult.

A religion hardly known outside of Viet Nam is Cao Dai, which combines traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity with some new teachings. As in the case of Buddhism, Cao Dai followers are divided between those who have become members of the Fatherland Front and those who insist on their independent religious practice. The relationship between the two groups seems to be tense. Whereas the officially recognized organizations of Cao Dai accuse dissenting groups of having a “separatist mind” and creating “confusion” among the people, the independent Cao Dai followers see the authenticity of their tradition jeopardized by Government interference which, they claim, has led to some imposed changes of the Cao Dai religion. While I am not in a position to assess the theological details of this conflict, I would expect that the Government ensure the free functioning of independent Cao Dai communities and facilitate their development in a way which they themselves see fit. The current situation of independent Cao Dai groups is certainly not in line with freedom of religion or belief, since the communities lack appropriate facilities for worship and teaching and allegedly face pressure to join the official organizations.

Training and appointment of clergy

The number of training institutions for the clergy of different religions – Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Cao Daism and others – has significantly increased in recent decades. I was informed by the Government that at present approximately 45 religious training institutions exist in the country. While religious communities decide on the main parts of the curriculum – i.e. the teachings of theological doctrines, practices and ceremonies, the history of the community and other issues – the curriculum also includes courses on the history and laws of Viet Nam and Marxism/ Leninism, provided for by the Ministry of Education and Training.

Religious communities can appoint and ordain their clergy in accordance with their own rules. They reportedly do not need approval for their decisions from the authorities, but are required to register ordained clergy. Concerning dismissals of clergy or monks, which are apparently rare, decisions are also generally taken by religious communities, in accordance with their religious laws. However, I also came across allegations of Government interference in some cases in which monks were defrocked. I have not been able to establish the details required for a clear assessment of such cases. The very limited options for autonomous religious community life, however, certainly leads to a structural situation in which appointments or dismissals may de facto be largely influenced by the interests of the Government.

Property and land issues

During the visit, many property issues were brought to my attention, not only by members of non-recognized communities, but also by representatives of communities which cooperate with the Government in the Fatherland Front. Many of these property claims concern real estate and/or land. In the interest of economic development and other modernization projects, some religious communities have lost – or are in danger of losing – large parts of their land. I repeatedly heard requests that property which had taken away from religious communities should be given back.

Usually property disputes require precise information of complicated details, which I have not been able to gather. I will therefore limit myself to a few general remarks. The availability of real estate and land is one of the basic preconditions for religious community life. Clear and well-established ownership thus becomes an important factor defining the autonomy of religious communities – or the lack of autonomy. The fact that all land belongs to the State creates an element of insecurity for communities. Furthermore, some communities show a strong cultural or religious attachment to particular pieces of land, for instance, the burial places of their ancestors. A special case in this context is the Cham community who practises a combination of Islam and Hinduism. The Cham people see themselves as an indigenous population and strive to be recognized under this category.

Representatives of the Government openly admitted that land conflicts exist in Viet Nam – as in many other countries. At the same time, they questioned whether such conflicts could affect freedom of religion or belief. At least in some cases, however, religious demands obviously play an important role. For instance, representatives of Protestant groups told me about cases in rural areas in which different Protestant parishes were merged into one single parish for purposes of “easier management”. Reportedly, such merging was not always handled in due respect for the distinct features of different Protestant denominations and the needs of parishioners.

Conflicts over land issues, in particular involving religious sentiments, always require sensitive handling in the interest to provide acceptable solutions for all interested parties. The previously mentioned lack of effective legal recourse – in particular within the judiciary – has strong relevance also for the situation of land and other property issues related to religious communities. In my conversations with representatives of various religious communities – including communities which cooperate with the Government within the Fatherland Front – I noticed high degrees of frustration about inefficient legal procedures. As a result, some religious communities feel they are largely left at the mercy of local authorities.

Religious practices in particular circumstances

Prison inmates

As previously mentioned, article 24 of the 2013 Constitution refers to all human beings rather than to citizens. It therefore also includes prisoners who, even if they may have temporary lost their full rights as citizens, should in any case be able to benefit from freedom of religion or belief as a universal human right. When discussing this issue I received conflicting information. Government agencies generally emphasized that prison inmates can practise their religion within the confines of the prison provided this does not negatively affect other prisoners and the general functions of prison life. Other people with experiences of prison life alleged that religious practices are hardly accommodated in prisons; even the reception and possession of religious books or materials would usually be prohibited. This issue certainly deserves more attention.

The institution of prison chaplains, i.e. clergy of different religions, who cater for the spiritual needs of prison inmates, on their requests, does not exist in Viet Nam. However, representatives of the Viet Nam Buddhist Sangha explained they would increasingly offer services in prisons, including lectures for the social and moral edification of prisoners. Catholic priests, too, have occasionally offered religious services to prison inmates. Protestant pastors with whom I discussed this issue said they were not aware of any spiritual assistance given to Protestant prison inmates.

Soldiers

The Vietnamese military does not have a system of military chaplains who regularly cater for the religious or spiritual needs of soldiers. Similarly to the situation in prisons, however, the VBS seems to get increasingly involved. I was told that Buddhist monks pray for soldiers who serve the nation under complicated conditions. They may also teach meditation technics which can help soldiers to better come to terms with their difficult task and living conditions.

Conscientious objection to compulsory military service is not known in Viet Nam, and the option of an alternative civilian service for individuals who object to taking arms for conscientious reasons does not exist.

Reports about violations of freedom of religion or belief

I have heard a number of serious allegations about concrete violations of freedom of religion or belief in Viet Nam. Reported violations include heavy-handed police raids; repeated invitations to “work sessions” with the police; close surveillance of religious activities; disruption of religious ceremonies and festivals; house arrests, at times over long periods; imprisonments, also sometimes over long periods; beatings and assaults; dismissals from employment; loss of social benefits; pressure exercised on family members; acts of vandalism; destructions of houses of worship, cemeteries and funeral sheds; confiscations of property; systematic pressure to give up certain religious activities and instead to operate within the official channels provided for religious practice; pressure to denounce one’s religion or belief. I also met with one prisoner of conscience in the prison in which he is currently detained.

To different degrees, such allegations came from members of independent Buddhist communities, individuals belonging to various Protestants communities (some of which have been officially registered), some local groups of Catholics, followers of independent organizations of Cao Dai, followers of some new religious teachings, like Duong Van Minh, and others. As a result of pressure and persecution, some people have left or fled the country on religious grounds. I would also like to underline, that official registration status with the Government is no guarantee that freedom of religion or belief is fully respected.

Let me clarify the fact that the purpose of a country visit of Special Rapporteurs is not to make comprehensive assessments of individual cases. A comprehensive analysis of individual cases would require much more information in order to get the full picture of relevant facts from the perspectives of all involved parties. Instead, the purpose of a visit by a Special Rapporteur is to assess the credibility of different allegations concerning human rights problems and abuses. Without prejudice to the accuracy of all specific facts of all individual cases brought to my attention, I am convinced that serious violations of freedom of religion or belief are a reality in Viet Nam – in particular, but not only, in rural areas.

This general assessment is not only based on interviews and documents provided by human rights defenders and members of different religious communities, it is also closely connected with the systematic observations made earlier in this press statement:

  • the generally dismissive, negative attitude towards the rights of minorities and individuals practising religion outside of the established channels;
  • the frequent invocation of unspecified “majority interests” or interests of “social order”;
  • overly-broad limitation clauses concerning human rights in general and thus also freedom of belief and religion;
  • vague formulations within the Penal Code, in particular Article 258 concerning the “abuse” of democratic freedoms;
  • the absence of sufficiently efficient and accessible legal recourse within the judiciary, etc.

These conditions create a structural vulnerability for certain individuals and communities, which actually matches the reports about specific incidents.

I would like to underline in this context that in my many discussions with members of religious communities, some of which are formally registered with the authorities and even cooperate within the Fatherland Front, people have shown a general awareness of ongoing restrictions of freedom of religion or belief. It is all the more surprising that leading members of the judiciary apparently have never heard about any cases in which alleged infringements of freedom of religion or belief have been brought before a court.

An important aspect coming up in many discussions concerns the divide between urban and rural areas. The conditions of religious communities may considerably vary, according to different practices in different parts of the country. Moreover, it seems that policies taken by the Government Committee on Religious Affairs are not always efficiently communicated to the authorities at local levels.

Concluding remarks

The terms of reference for country visit by Special Rapporteurs inter alia include guarantees concerning “confidential and unsupervised contact with witnesses and other private persons” and “assurance by the Government that no persons, official or private individuals who have been in contact with the special rapporteur […] in the relation to the mandate will for this reason suffer threats, harassment or punishment or be subjected to judicial proceedings”. These conditions have not been respected, as I mentioned earlier and are in breach of the principle of confidentiality. This interrupted the later part of the visit.

This interruption is all the more regrettable as I have noticed some positive developments at the central level. Most representatives of religious communities agreed that, in spite of ongoing serious problems, their space for religious practices has increased in recent years. Religious communities which had been forbidden post-1975 are now allowed to operate. Moreover, some representatives of Government agencies expressed their willingness to consider substantive revisions within the process of replacing the current Ordinance on Belief and Religion by passing a law governing these issues. Indeed, this opportunity should not be missed. It might become a turning point for Viet Nam’s protection of freedom of religion or belief.

A litmus test for the development of freedom of religion or belief in Viet Nam is the conditions of independent religious communities. Under the current situation, their possibilities to operate as independent communities are extremely unsafe and restricted, in clear violation of article 18 of the ICCPR to which Viet Nam is a State Party. The upcoming law on religious affairs should clarify that registration with Government agencies is an offer rather than a legal requirement. At the same time, communities should have easily accessible and reliable options to obtain legal personality status in order to build an appropriate infrastructure. Another obvious priority concerns the availability of effective and accessible legal recourse needed to rectify possible infringements on the freedom of religion or belief of individuals or groups.

Let me conclude by reiterating my thanks to the Government of Viet Nam for having invited me to visit. I trust that the Government will honour its guarantee that none of the persons with whom I worked during the visit and with whom I have been in contact in relation to the mandate will be threatened, harassed or punished or be subject to judicial proceedings after the country visit. I will maintain in contact with them and monitor their safety. Any incidents of reprisal will be reported to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

I am happy to offer my expertise as Special Rapporteur to the Government of Viet Nam as it works to improve the legal and infrastructural conditions for the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief for everyone. I will also continue to work in constructive spirit with the Government.

 


Notes:

1. The final version of new constitution was adopted by the National Assembly on 28 November 2013.

2. See Article 38 of the Ordinance: “In the case where an international treaty concluded, or acceded to, by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam contains a stipulation that contravenes stipulations by this Ordinance, the stipulation of the international treaty shall prevail.”

3. Article 18, paragraph 3 of the ICCPR.

4. Article 14, paragraph 2 of the 2013 Constitution.

5. Article 16 paragraph 1 of the Ordinance on Belief and Religion reads as follows:
1. An organization shall be recognized as a religious organization if it meets all the following conditions:
Being an organization of people sharing the same religious belief, of which the religious dogmas, canon laws and rites are not contrary to the fine customs and habits and the interests of the nation;
Having a charter and/or statutes depicting the goal, objectives and action orientation that are in close association with the nation and not contrary to stipulations by the law;
Having its religious activities registered and conducted on a stable basis;
Having a lawful office, organization and representative;
Having a name not duplicating that of any other religious organization that has been recognized by the competent State authority.

 

Tricycle : Buddhism, Under Vietnam’s Thumb

 

Thich Nhat Hanh and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam both want the state of religious repression to change. They have very different ideas of how to help.

By Jared Roscoe

After nearly forty years in exile, the world’s second-most-famous Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh, returned to Vietnam in early 2005. The international excitement generated by his homecoming—the thousands of Vietnamese who flocked to see him speak, the extensive headlines—overshadowed the criticism that also accompanied his return: strong, unequivocal criticism by the Buddhist church that was Thich Nhat Hanh’s spiritual home decades ago. The leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), the traditional independent Vietnamese Buddhist organization that has been under a decades-long ban in Vietnam, attacked the renowned monk, whose books and teachings have influenced generations of western Buddhists. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the subsequent installation of a totalitarian communist government, Vietnam has been one of the world’s most egregious violators of basic human rights—including the freedom to practice one’s religion. The UBCV argued that the Vietnamese government would sell Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit to the international community as a tacit endorsement of the piecemeal reforms undertaken to show improvement in religious freedoms and human rights. Many saw the reforms as unsubstantial, including the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated leaders of the UBCV: Thich Huyen Quang, who passed away in July 2008, and human rights-advocate Thich Quang Do, who has been under house arrest for over twenty years.

Thich Nhat Hanh saw his visit as a chance to help heal divisions in his homeland, decrease tensions between the communist government and Buddhism, and encourage the practice of Buddhism among the youth of Vietnam. “This meets the needs of Vietnamese people. It’s time for reconciliation, for the real unification of the country,” said Phap An, a monk and top aide to Thich Nhat Hanh. The UBCV, on the other hand, understood Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit as politically naïve and even “un-Buddhist.” The UBCV’s international spokesman, Vo Van Ai, declares that collaboration with the Vietnamese government has the effect of “helping Hanoi to bury Buddhism alive… reducing a 2,000-year tradition of independent Vietnamese Buddhism to a mere political tool of the Communist Party, and reducing Buddhism’s great philosophy of salvation to a litany of quasi-superstitious rites.”

Tibet. The word summons thoughts of a Buddhist homeland, the recent and persistent repression by the Chinese government, and the perpetual exile of the Dalai Lama. And with the recent violence and political unrest in Burma, with the powerful images of the peaceful defiance of Buddhist monks, Burma has become a synonym for the repression of Buddhists, too. But Vietnam? For many Westerners, the associations surrounding Vietnam still revolve around domino theory, communism, and the Vietnam War. Some can still recall the stirring images of self-immolation undertaken by Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War.

Absent from Vietnam today are the wide-scale protests of Burma and Tibet. There are no powerful images of robed monks marching through the streets of Saigon because the government has limited the number of monks allowed to practice. The oppression in Vietnam is subtler, yet just as real. Since its inception a decade ago, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (UCIRF), the bipartisan governmental agency charged with monitoring religious freedom around the world, has consistently placed Vietnam in the ranks of familiar human rights-violators such as Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia.

The history of Buddhism in Vietnam is inextricably tied to its political history as a territory under Chinese control for many centuries. This occupation, and contact with the Khmer in the southwest, led to a remarkably diverse religious tradition in Vietnam, one in which Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism have coexisted and mixed for centuries. One of Vietnam’s unique homegrown religious traditions, Cao Dai, is a syncretic blend of many of the world’s major religions and indigenous practices. (Independent sects of Cao Dai’s also face harassment and discrimination from the Vietnamese government.) At many times in the history of Vietnam, religion has played an important role in politics. During Vietnam’s golden era in the tenth through fifteenth centuries, Buddhism flourished and many top political advisers were widely respected Buddhists. In the early fifteenth century, however, the Ly dynasty pushed Buddhism aside, forcing those Buddhists who failed competitive civil service exams into lay life. Emperor Le Thai To submitted monks to surveillance and prohibited the construction of Buddhist temples without his authorization. Then, during the civil war of the sixteenth century, the Nguyen dynasty used Buddhism to consolidate Vietnam through popular measures such as the construction of new Buddhist temples.

Buddhism continues to be intimately linked to social and political life. A close associate of Thich Nhat Hanh accused UBCV of hiding “flags of the old regime” of South Vietnam, implying that the UBCV’s mission is political and not spiritual. Yet it seems impossible to separate the political from the spiritual when it comes to daily practice. Vo Van Ai responds, “Practicing Buddhism means implementing Buddhist teachings in one’s daily life. This involves (a) developing one’s ultimate knowledge to combat ignorance and (b) taking action to save sentient beings from suffering. If one lives these two principles to the full, there is no frontier between faith and politics.”

Indeed, one concept for which Thich Nhat Hanh is particularly well known is “engaged Buddhism,” which is the application of wisdom gleaned from meditation and Buddhist teachings to help alleviate suffering in the world, whether political, economic, or social. “Mahayana Buddhism encourages engagement at every level,” explains Vo Van Ai. “This is not a modern interpretation. Early Vietnamese Buddhist sutras such as the Luc Dô Tâp Kinh (Book of Six Ways of Liberation) dating back to the second century A.D., taught these principles of individual engagement: ‘When the Boddhisattva hears the cries of his people, he must set aside his own troubles and throw himself into the combat against tyranny, whereby saving the people from suffering.’” We also must keep in mind the bodhisattva, who having attained a level of enlightenment, postpones nirvana with the commitment to help all other sentient beings. Vo Van Ai describes the example of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, “who descended into Hell to save all those in torment and pledged to stay there and renounce becoming a Buddha until the very last person had been saved.”

Today, the Vietnamese government prohibits independent practice of Buddhism; only state-sanctioned Buddhism is allowed. While people are now allowed to attend a Buddhist temple, perform rituals, and burn incense, the intellectual and emotional heart of Buddhism has been cut out by the Vietnamese government. In Vietnam, if you practice the ethical core of Buddhism—right speech, right action, and right livelihood—you will likely end up in jail for “propagandizing against the state.” The Vietnamese Constitution declares that an individual should have the freedom to worship as one chooses. In practice, this freedom is significantly limited. The Vietnamese government is careful not to allow the growth of centralized, organized religions that could serve as a challenge to the authority of the Communist Party. The Vietnamese government has made the major religions in Vietnam a wing of the Communist Party. Now, you can practice your beliefs—unless you happen to believe in a different path to enlightenment than the one the government offers; or if, for example, you believe that you have a duty to speak out against unlawful government seizures of peasant land, or a duty to participate in a local citizen-organized effort to alleviate poverty or flood damage. The appearance of Buddhism is intact, but the free practice of Buddhism in everyday life outside of the temple is limited. Protests against the official government monopoly on Buddhism, including peaceful demonstrations petitioning for the recognition of Buddhist organizations, have been met with strong resistance and trumped-up charges. In 2007, ten ethnic Khmer monks peacefully seeking independence from state-sanctioned Buddhism were derobed and detained. To name one of many instances of persecution of UCBV members, in 2006 a UCBV leader in Khanh Hoa Province, according the U.S. State Department, “faced severe harassment [and] reportedly was forced out of the pagoda she founded” for her association with the banned UCBV. USCIRF Commissioner Leonard Leo, in his testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in late 2007, stated, “[A]mong the Buddhists, peaceful demands for independence are treated as a threat to government control. In addition, peaceful expression of views or demonstrations for greater religious freedom—and the legal and political reforms needed to ensure it—are treated as a challenge to the government’s authority.”

True to the UBCV’s predictions in 2005, the state-controlled Vietnam News Agency issued a statement trumpeting the long-exiled monk’s return: “Thich Nhat Hanh praises Vietnam’s open-door policy on religious beliefs.” Not long after Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit, the United States government lifted the designation of Vietnam as violator of religious freedom due to perceived improvements in religious freedom in Vietnam—despite the opposition of the USCIRF and many members of Congress. Washington then normalized trade relations with Vietnam and cleared the path for Vietnam to join the World Trade Organization—a longstanding economic goal for the country. Since then, the direction of human rights reforms in Vietnam, once seen by some as improving, has reversed itself. “Now we have a situation where Vietnam has obtained the sought after trade benefit, but continues to abuse human and religious rights of its citizens who are peaceful democracy advocates or who wish to worship as their beliefs dictate,” says Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam. “The Bush Administration surrendered the most effective tool America had for obtaining compliance with internationally recognized human rights.”

At the outset of his 2005 trip, Thich Nhat Hanh explained to Agence French Presse that he and his group “want to listen carefully to understand the reality.” His aim is to interact directly with all sides of the debate. “Our policy,” he continued, “is to listen to everyone, the Buddhists who are not happy and the governmental agents who are facing difficulties. Sometimes, one needs months to sit down and talk.” But Vo Van Ai and the UBCV do not see how reconciliation is possible with a brutal regime. At the recent World Movement for Democracy’s 5th Assembly in Kyiv, Vo Van Ai invoked Mahatma Gandhi, saying, “If you see a madman attack someone with a knife, you must seek not to kill the madman, but to remove the knife from his hands.” He elaborated further, saying, “The UBCV’s engagement for human rights is simply a positive interpretation of the Five Precepts. UBCV Buddhists promise not to kill. But when Vietnam arbitrarily puts its citizens to death, they oppose state repression. They promise not to lie, but when Hanoi stifles free speech, muzzles the media, and imprisons journalists who speak the truth, Buddhists engage in the battle for freedom of expression and the press.” Thich Nhat Hanh continues his popular tours in Vietnam—most recently in May 2008—accompanied by many headlines but few stories about the repression of human rights.

For its part, UBCV continues its struggle to promote religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam, knowing full well that its actions draw the ire of the Vietnamese government. In 1995, for example, Thich Quang Do was sentenced to five years in prison for organizing a UBCV rescue mission for flood victims. The Vietnamese government does not officially allow the UBCV to operate, but the UBCV organizes local chapters that pursue humanitarian, educational, and informational activities in poor areas of the country. Each time a new chapter is set up, the UBCV sends a letter of notification to the local arm of the Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese government responds by kicking monks out of their pagodas and harassing local Buddhists and board members of the UBCV, threatening their jobs and organizing Soviet-style “denunciation” sessions. “There is no such thing as ‘dissidence-lite,’” insists Vo Van Ai. Local sections of the UBCV act as a skeleton form of civil society, which Vo Van Ai believes will be a “vehicle [for] the people’s demands for greater freedom and human rights.”

Despite pressure from the Vietnamese government, the UBCV has been able to bring relief aid to flood victims, support farmers and peasants expelled from their lands, and inform people of their rights by distributing Vietnamese translations of key international conventions. Thich Quang Do helped the UBCV start a microcredit initiative to help Buddhists and others in financial trouble because of their activism. Undoubtedly, the Vietnamese government will continue to suppress the UBCV and religious freedom because they see the threat that an informed public would pose to their oppressive rule. “At the bottom line, in Vietnam, like in any other dictatorship, there is no easy way to advocate human rights without exposing oneself (and one’s family) to reprisals,” says Vo Van Ai. Nevertheless, “the commitment of every Buddhist to ‘right speech’ is not a rule that one can bend to live a quiet life. A Buddhist who holds convictions must be ready to take the consequences.”

Jared Roscoe attends New York University School of Law and blogs for No Record Press

http://www.tricycle.com