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U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report describes serious violations of freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam

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PARIS, 27 October 2015 (VCHR) – Vo Van Ai, President of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) welcomed the annual Report on International Religious Freedom issued by the U.S. State Department on the situation of religious freedom in the world.

In the report, made public on 14 October, a 14-page chapter on the situation in Vietnam describes widespread restrictions and abuses of religious communities, especially those not registered with the authorities, ranging from “assault, short term detentions, prosecutions, monitoring, restrictions on travel, and denials of registration and/or other permissions.” Even registered religious communities could not operate freely, the report stated, as “the government continued to restrict their activities in education and health and required authorization for many other activities”.

“The U.S. State Department’s report portrays the grave situation of freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam, with abuses against all religious communities. I warmly applaud the efforts of Ambassador-at-Large David Saperstein and the Office of International Religious Freedom in documenting this situation. Given the report’s findings, the State Department’s next step should be to urgently designate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) as recommended by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2015 report. Otherwise, Vietnam will continue to violate its citizens’ freedoms with impunity” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.

The International Religious Freedom (IRF) Report depicts a deliberate policy of repression in which “government authorities, particularly at the local level, continued to limit the activities of unregistered religious groups, and members of these and other groups reported convictions, assaults, excessive use of force, detentions, monitoring, hindering of movement, denials of registrations and other permissions, and other harassment”. It also gives cases of religious followers being forced to recant their faith, which is forbidden under Vietnamese law.

Under religious legislation such as the 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief and Decree 92, religions are subjected to a vast system of control. Religious communities must register with the state in order to carry out their activities, and submit to the systematic control and oversight of the authorities. Groups which cannot, or choose not to register with the authorities, such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) are illegal and exposed to arbitrary repression. “Unregistered Buddhist, Cao Dai, Hao Hoa, and Christian religious groups regularly reported some provincial authorities used local registration laws to pressure, intimidate, threaten, extort, harass, and assault their members”, and “some local authorities systematically and openly used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close management of their leadership structures, training programs, assemblies, and other activities”, said the report.

The IRF Report notes that, whereas the Vietnamese Constitution guarantees religious freedom, it also “has language that prohibits citizens from “taking advantage of a belief or religion in order to violate the law.” “In addition, the penal code establishes penalties for practices that undermine the state’s national unity policy”. This refers to the broadly-defined “national security” crimes in Vietnam’s Penal Code such as “abusing democratic freedoms” (Article 258), “undermining the unity policy; sowing divisions between the religious and non-religious people” (Article 87), which carry harsh prison sentences. Although these provisions have been strongly denounced by the United Nations and the international community, Vietnam continues to invoke them to sanction religious communities for alleged “political activity”. The State Department notes that ethnic Christian minorities are particularly impacted by these laws, as they are accused of “separatism” by the state.

Alongside the restrictive legislation cited in the IRF Report, the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights is particularly concerned by the new Law on Belief and Religion under preparation in Vietnam. Currently in its fifth draft, this new law is in many aspects more restrictive than current legislation. If adopted as such, it would impose stricter controls and regulations on religious communities, and reduce the scope of their activities. The draft has been forwarded to the National Assembly for debate.

The IRF Report cites the case of the UBCV leader Thich Quang Do, 87, currently under house arrest without charge at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), who received a visit from the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Tom Malinowski in August this year. “UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do stated authorities prevented followers from visiting him or regularly questioned them after any such visit, although he could meet diplomats within his pagoda. UBCV leaders said the government continued to restrict their movement. Authorities closely monitored these activities, the leaders said. ”

Thich Quang Do has been detained for the past 30 years for his advocacy of religious freedom, human rights and democracy. According to the IRF Report, the State Department regularly raises the case of Thich Quang Do with the Vietnamese authorities, and has called for his release.

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