HANOI, Nov 9 (AFP) – Communist Vietnam protested Wednesday at a US State Department decision to keep it on a blacklist of countries deemed to be violators of religious freedom.
Washington had some good words for Vietnam in the annual State Department report on religious freedom released Tuesday but was not convinced Hanoi had done enough to merit removal from the list.
The report notably cited the “lack of normalized relations” with several religious groups.
“We protest the US decision to continue listing Vietnam among ‘countries of particular concern’ on religious freedom,” said foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung.
“This is a wrong decision, which does not correctly reflect the situation of religious freedom in Vietnam,” he said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said governments of the eight blacklisted nations — China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan are the others –- “have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom over the past year.”
Vietnam was added to the blacklist last year but the State Department entered into an “agreement” with Hanoi in May this year adressing a number of important concerns.
“We are committed to seeking improvements in each of these countries, improvements like those we have actually seen in Vietnam which have been further advanced by agreement on religious freedom that our governments signed just this last May,” Rice said.
“If Vietnam’s record of improvement continues, it would enable us to eventually remove Vietnam from our list of countries of particular concern.”
John Hanford, US envoy for international religious freedom, noted that Vietnam had released 14 prominent prisoners and eased registration and reopening of some of the churches previously closed in the Central Highlands region, home to ethnic minorities.
He said Washington was “particularly encouraged by the promulgation of new laws governing religious activities and efforts to ensure their implementation.”
Noting the US acknowledgement of “positive developments”, the Vietnamese spokesman urged Washington “to have a more realistic view and arrive at a correct decision … in order not to upset the recent positive progress in bilateral ties.”
But Vo Van Ai, director of the Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau, welcomed the US decision.
“Vietnam’s claims to respect religious freedoms are ‘for export only’,” he said in a statement faxed to AFP. “In reality, the government pursues a consistent policy of repression against all independent religious communities.”