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USCIRF Report lists Vietnam as one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom

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PARIS, March 22, 2012 (IBIB) – In its Annual Report for 2012 unveiled in Washington D.C. this week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has named Vietnam as one of the world’s worst religious freedom violators along with Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and recommended that these countries be designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the US administration for “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations” of religious freedom.

The USCIRF, a federal government commission that monitors global religious freedom, was created under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act to provide independent policy recommendations to the US President, Secretary of State, and Congress. Each year since 2001, the USCIRF has urged the US to place Vietnam on the CPC list. Vietnam was designated CPC by the State Department in 2004 and 2005, but removed in 2006 prior to the visit of President Bush to Vietnam for the APEC summit conference. Under the 1998 Act, the U.S. may impose a series of measures, including economic sanctions, on countries blacklisted as CPCs.

In its 21-page chapter on Vietnam, the USCIRF reported that “the government of Vietnam continues to control all religious communities, restrict and penalize independent religious practice severely, and repress individuals and groups viewed as challenging its authority”. It noted “marked increases in arrests, detentions, and harassment of groups and individuals viewed as hostile to the Communist Party” over the past four years, and an overall climate of religious repression in which “individuals continue to be imprisoned or detained for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy; independent religious activity remains illegal; legal protections for government-approved religious organizations are both vague and subject to arbitrary or discriminatory interpretations based on political factors.”

The USCIRF also observed that “the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship has grown quickly in recent years, but it has not led to needed improvements in religious freedom and related human rights in Vietnam.” The report urged the US government to use the CPC designation to press for “measurable improvements”, and adopt programmes to “protect and support those in Vietnam peacefully seeking greater freedom and the rule of law”.

The report detailed widespread abuses against the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), “Vietnam‘s largest religious organization with a history of peaceful social activism and moral reform”, noting that the UBCV had “faced decades of harassment and repression for seeking independent status and for appealing to the government to respect religious freedom and related human rights”. It deplored the detention of UBCV Patriarch Thich Quang Do and other senior monks, restrictions on humanitarian activities of UBCV Provincial Committees and the UBCV Buddhist Youth Movement, and harassment of UBCV followers.

Mr. Vo Van Ai, Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau and international spokesman of the Unified Buddhist Church in Vietnam (UBCV) welcomed the USCIRF’s report, commenting that it reflected the reality endured by UBCV followers and members of all other religious confessions in Vietnam. “Having failed to eradicate religion by force, Vietnam is increasing controls on religious activities and reducing religion to the practice of quasi-superstitious rites”, he said. “The recent nomination of Major-general Pham Dung, a high-ranking Public Security official as the Head of the Government Religious Board shows how Hanoi intends to pursue its religious policies in Vietnam”.

Mr. Ai stressed that UBCV members all over the country routinely suffer harassments and abuses in all aspects of their lives. Earlier this month, UBCV monk Thich Thien Phuc was intercepted by Police and subjected to interrogations and harassments as he attempted to visit Venerable Thich Thanh Quang at the Giac Minh Pagoda in Danang. The Giac Minh Pagoda, which is also the headquarters of the UBCV’s Buddhist Youth Movement and the UBCV Provincial Committee for Quang Nam-Danang, has been the target of systematic Police surveillance in recent years. Police prohibit the celebration of Buddhist festivals such as Vesak and Vu Lan at the Pagoda, and intercept all Buddhists who try to attend.

In Dong Nai province, UBCV monk Thich Vien Duc, Superior monk at the Buu Duc Meditation Centre has been repeatedly interrogated and harassed. In Quang Tri, UBCV monk Thich Tu Giao has been intercepted and threatened by Police, who broke into his Pagoda during the monks’ summer retreat and assaulted several Buddhists. In Hue, senior UBCV official Thich Thien Hanh reports routine Police harassments and intimidation at many UBCV Pagodas, including the Kim Quang Pagoda of which he is Superior monk, and at the Mai Vinh Buddhist Centre, which has been confiscated by the authorities.

Mr. Ai noted that religious freedom violations, notably against the UBCV, are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Instead of imprisoning UBCV leaders or staging well-publicized public crackdowns, the government’s policy is to quietly isolate UBCV leaders by maintaining them under de facto house arrest, threaten and intimidate Buddhist followers to prevent them attending UBCV Pagodas, and prevent UBCV Pagodas celebrating major Buddhist festivals, thus cutting off all contacts between the UBCV leadership and their followers.

This is exactly the strategy devised by the Communist Party in 1981 when it set up the State-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC) to supplant the UBCV. The architect of this policy, former high-ranking religious cadre Do Trung Hieu (1), described this policy in “Buddhist Unification”, a document circulated underground in 1994, which led to his arrest and subsequent imprisonment.

According to Do Trung Hieu, the Communist Party’s aim was to “transform Vietnamese Buddhism into a people’s association. Its structure should be inferior to that of an ordinary association, restricted exclusively to monks and nuns without any participation of lay-followers – a top-level structure without any popular structural base”.

The activities of the State-sponsored VBC, he said “should be confined exclusively to the celebration of religious ceremonies and worship in Pagodas. It must on no account be allowed any activities related to society or to the people… Thus, the mass following of Buddhist laity will never be allowed to structure its forces into organic units of the Church.”

(1) See “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”: A High ranking Communist official denounces the CPV’s policy to neutralise the Unified Buddhist Church of Viet Nam – Thich Tri Quang’s position on Buddhist reunification (Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, 6 June 1995)

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