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Vo Van Ai welcomes U.S. decision to maintain Vietnam on black-list of “Countries of Particular Concern” for religious freedom violations

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Mr Vo Van Ai, Director of the International Buddhist Information Bureau (IBIB) and International Spokesman of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) welcomed the announcement by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to maintain Vietnam on a list of eight “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) for its grave violations of religious freedom. Eight countries including Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam were singled out as the world’s worst violators of religious freedom in 2005. “These are countries where governments have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom over the past year”, announced Secretary Rice as she unveiled the State Department’s 7th Annual Report on International Religious Freedom on Tuesday. Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the U.S. may impose a series of measures, including economic sanctions on countries blacklisted as CPCs.

Vietnam was designated as a CPC for the first time in September 2004. In May, the State Department signed an agreement in which Vietnam pledged to make improvements in religious freedom. Despite this agreement, however, according to the State Department’s Report, Vietnam continued to exhibit “state hostility towards minority or non-approved religions” in 2005, and was thus re-designated as a CPC for the coming year.

“Vietnam could have been removed from the CPC list if it had made genuine efforts to respect religious freedom and improve its human rights record. Regrettably, it has missed this important opportunity”, said Vo Van Ai. “Vietnam’s claims to respect religious freedom are “for export only”. In reality, the government pursues a consistent policy of repression against all independent religious communities”.

Mr. Ai noted that the outlawed UBCV remained a target of on-going religious persecution. Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, 87, and his Deputy Thich Quang Do, 76, remained prisoners in their Monasteries after almost 30 years in detention, confirmed as “victims of arbitrary detention” by the United Nations in May 2005. Members of UBCV Provincial Committees set up in Central and Southern provinces in July-September 2005 had been subjected to consistent harassment and interrogation by Security Police.

Just last week, on 4th November 2005, the Phu Nhuan District People’s Committee in Saigon rejected an appeal filed by UBVC monk Thich Vien Phuong against a fine of 15 million dongs for filming a video message by Thich Quang Do to the UN Commission on Human Rights (Decision 849/QD-UBDN, 4.11.2005). Police had arrested Thich Vien Phuong on March 30th and confiscated the video message, subsequently charging him with “producing films or video-tapes with contents that slander and infringe upon the prestige of organizations, the honour or dignity of individuals”. Thich Vien Phuong filed an appeal against this exorbitant fine – the equivalent of 43 months minimum wage in Vietnam – stating that he was simply exercising his right to freedom of expression enshrined in the Vietnamese Constitution (Article 69) and reaffirmed in Vietnam’s 2005 “White Paper on Human Rights”. Rejecting his appeal, the Phu Nhuan People’s Committee has ordered Thich Vien Phuong to pay the fine within 30 days.

At U.S. Congressional Hearings on Vietnam on 26th October and June 20th 2005, Vo Van Ai specifically urged the United States to retain Vietnam on the CPC list until it took minimal, concrete steps towards religious freedom, beginning with the immediate and unconditional release of UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, the re-establishment of the legal status of the UBCV and all other non-recognized religious movements. In a letter to the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on September 5th 2005, Mr. Ai said : “I believe there can be no true religious freedom as long as major religious bodies such as the UBCV remain banned. Therefore, until Vietnam re-establishes the legal status of the UBCV and all other “non-recognized” religious movements… I solemnly urge you to maintain Vietnam on the list of Countries of Particular Concern”.

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