The government of Vietnam continues to commit systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom by harassing, detaining, imprisoning, and discriminating against leaders and practitioners from all of Vietnam's religious communities. Religious freedom conditions in Vietnam remain poor, and the overall human rights situation has deteriorated in the past two years. The government has targeted popular religious leaders, intellectuals, free speech and democracy advocates, and members of ethnic and religious minority groups, who are accused of encouraging "peaceful evolution," a term used to describe anyone suspected of quietly eroding the Communist Party's legitimacy. Since 2002, the Commission has recommended that Vietnam be designated a "country of particular concern" or CPC. In September 2004, the State Department followed the Commission's recommendation and designated Vietnam a CPC.

In response to this designation, the government of Vietnam released from prison several prominent democracy, free speech, and religious freedom advocates, including Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, Nguyen Dinh Huy, and Thich Thien Minh. While the Commission particularly welcomed the release of Fr. Ly, who was imprisoned after submitting written testimony to a Commission hearing in 2001, there are reports that security forces continue to accompany him at all times. Two others released with Fr. Ly, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que and Thich Thien Mien, are reportedly also under constant police surveillance.

The Vietnamese government also responded to the CPC designation by issuing two legal documents to clarify and implement Vietnam's 2004 Ordinance on Religious Beliefs and Religious Organizations. In February 2005, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai issued "Instructions on Protestantism," which purports to allow Protestant "house churches" in the Central Highlands and northwest provinces to operate legally, if they renounce connections to groups that Hanoi has accused of organizing anti-government protests. The new instructions also prohibit forced renunciation of faith efforts by government officials, but do not specify criminal penalties for those who carry out these practices.

In March 2005, the Prime Minister issued Decree 22, establishing specific requirements and deadlines for government approval of all religious groups, venues, seminaries, conferences, donations, festivals, ceremonies, and the selection and training of religious leaders. Although the regulations affirm the rights of Vietnamese citizens to freedom of religion and belief, there are also prohibitions on any religious activities that "undermine peace, independence and national unity; incite violence or wage war; disseminate information against prevailing State law and policies; sow division among the people, ethnic groups, and religions; cause public disorder; do harm to other people's lives, health, dignity, honor, and property; hinder people from exercising their public obligations; spread superstitious practices and commit acts to breach the law." These limitations go far beyond those permitted under international human rights law; they are broad, vague, and have been used in the past by the Vietnamese authorities to justify the imprisonment of religious leaders and other serious human rights abuses. The primary benefit of the new decree appears to be streamlining the process of registration and obtaining permits; deadlines for an official response are outlined in the decree and, in some cases, religious groups can expect a written explanation on why their application was denied.

It remains to be seen how these new instructions and regulations are interpreted and enforced by security forces and local officials. The new laws codify existing rules and practices, yet, with the exception of the prohibition on forced renunciation of faith, they contain few protections against continued violations of religious freedom. They do not constitute sufficient progress to warrant either waiving action under the CPC designation, as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, or removing the CPC designation.

Over the past 15 years, the government of Vietnam has slowly carved out a noticeable "zone of toleration" for authorized religious practice. At the same time, it has actively repressed, and targeted as subversive, unauthorized religious activity, particularly among ethnic minority Christians in the Central Highlands and northwest provinces, "house-church" Protestants, leaders of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, and followers of religious minority groups such as the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai. This repression continued in the last year.

Religious leaders from the banned United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) continue to face harassment and most are imprisoned or under house arrest. UBCV founders, the Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang and the Very Venerable Thich Quang Do, remain under house arrest in Qui Nhon and Ho Chi Minh City respectively. They face charges of possessing "state secrets," which carry with them a possible death sentence. There is urgent concern for Thich Huyen Quang's failing health and access to medical care while under detention. Pressure on the UBCV leadership continues, despite Prime Minister Pham Van Khai's March 2002 promise that arrests and harassment would end.

The crackdown in the Central Highlands continues following last year's Easter weekend (April 12-13, 2004) demonstrations. At that time, ethnic Montagnards were attacked by police, military, and other civilians during what were described as largely peaceful protests concerning land rights and religious freedom. Reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International state that at least 10 demonstrators were killed and dozens wounded. In addition, an undetermined number of Montagnards sought asylum in Cambodia. Vietnamese security forces are currently stationed in Montagnard villages, tracking down those who participated in the demonstrations and pursuing asylum seekers into Cambodia. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has been granted limited access to Montagnard asylum seekers on the border by the Cambodian government. At least 700 Montagnards are now being processed for resettlement or repatriation in Phenom Penh. But restrictions remain on travel to the affected border regions and there is no protection granted to Montagnards who are repatriated to Vietnam. Credible reports are emerging from Gai Lai province that recently repatriated Montagnards were detained and beaten and are now held under house arrest.

Given the lack of judicial transparency, accurate figures on the number of religious prisoners in Vietnam are difficult to obtain. According to the State Department, close to 120 Montagnard Christians remain in prison either for religious activities or participation in public demonstrations for land rights and greater religious freedom. At least 10 Hmong Christians are in prison in the northwest provinces of Lai Chau and Ha Giang. Six Mennonite leaders, including the outspoken activist and human rights lawyer Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, were sentenced in July 2004 for up to three years in prison after a brief scuffle with security forces who had been harassing church members. On April 12, 2005 an appeals court upheld the sentences of Pastor Quang and Evangelist Pham Ngoc Thach; three of those arrested with Pastor Quang were released after serving their sentences. Le Thi Hong Lien remains in prison despite reportedly suffering from physical and emotional problems. At least three Catholic priests from the Congregation of Mother Co-Redemptrix remain in prison for distributing religious books without permission. They were charged with security-related offenses and sentenced to 20 years. One of the three, Fr. Pham Minh Tri, has reportedly developed severe dementia while in prison, but has not been granted humanitarian parole. The State Department reports that at least one member of the Hoa Hao sect of Buddhism is in prison, though Hoa Hao groups in the United States claim the number to be much higher.

There continue to be troubling reports that Vietnamese security forces use harassment, detention, church closings, beatings, and fines to force ethnic Hmong and Montagnard Christians to abandon their faith in both the Central Highlands and northwest provinces. In pursuit of this goal, the church and offices of Rev. Nguyen Cong Chinh, superintendent of the Mennonite churches in the Central Highland city of Kontum, were destroyed twice in the last year.

Communist party and government officials interfere in the internal affairs of all organized religious communities, registered or unregistered. The government continues to impose limits on the number of candidates allowed to study for the Roman Catholic priesthood and requires prospective seminarians to obtain government permission before attending. Though relations with the Vatican are improving, the government continues to control the appointment and promotion of Catholic clergy and plays an active role in the selection of bishops, effectively vetoing those papal appointments of which it disapproves. Church property seized in 1975 also remains in government hands. Leaders of the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai religious communities are subject to surveillance, harassment, and discrimination. Though both organizations were granted official status, their governing management boards are dominated by individuals appointed by the Vietnamese government. Board positions are denied to long-standing and recognized Hoa Hao and Cao Dai leaders.

In November 2004, the government of Vietnam issued a long-awaited Ordinance on Religion. Although the Ordinance affirms the right to freedom of religion or belief in the first clause, the remaining provisions extend government control by requiring religious groups to seek permission for virtually every religious activity. The Ordinance also continues to ban religious practice outside the officially recognized religious organizations, as well as any religious activity that threatens the vaguely defined notions of national security, national unity, and public order. The Ordinance does standardize religious management practices that had been subject to local variations. Nevertheless, while it purports to protect the rights and security of religious believers in Vietnam, the Ordinance also offers government officials more extensive control over all religious activity.

Commissioners and staff have traveled to Vietnam and met with Vietnamese government officials and religious leaders. In addition, the Commission has met with officials in the Administration, Members of Congress, the Acting UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and congressional staff about current U.S. policy and the Commission's policy recommendations.

In February 2004, then-Commission Chair Michael K. Young testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's hearing "Trade and Human Rights: The Future of U.S.Vietnamese Relations." He discussed Vietnam's record on religious freedom, as well as the Commission's recommendations for U.S. policy. In October 2003, Commission Vice Chair Nina Shea testified at a joint Congressional Caucus on Vietnam and Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearing on Vietnam entitled, "Vietnam: A People Silenced."

The Commission issued press statements after the release of Fr. Nguyen Van Ly and the Prime Minister's "Instructions on Protestantism." The Commission also sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recommending policy options for Vietnam as a consequence of that country being named a CPC.

Following the designation of Vietnam as a CPC, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • identify those Vietnamese agencies and officials who are responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom and vigorously enforce section 604 of IRFA with respect to Vietnam, rendering inadmissible for entry into the United States any Vietnamese government official who was responsible for or directly carried out such violations; and
  • re-prioritize human rights programming and technical assistance in Vietnam by dedicating no less than $1 million for FY 2005 and FY 2006, if discretionary funds are allocated to Vietnam above its annual earmark, to new or existing programs that will directly promote freedom of religion and belief and related human rights in Vietnam.

With regard to religious freedom conditions in Vietnam, in addition to recommending that Vietnam be designated a CPC, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • make clear to the government of Vietnam that ending violations of religious freedom is essential to the continued expansion of U.S.-Vietnam relations, urging the Vietnamese government to:
    • establish a non-discriminatory legal framework for religious groups to engage in peaceful religious activities protected by international law without requiring groups to affiliate with officially registered religious organizations; for example:
      • allow the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam to register and operate independently of the official Buddhist organization, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha;
      • allow leaders chosen by all Hoa Hao adherents to participate in the Executive Board of the Hoa Hao Administrative Council or allow a separate Hoa Hao organization to organize and register as the Hoa Hao Central Buddhist Church with the same privileges as the Administrative Council;
      • allow Presbyterian, Assembly of God, Baptist and any other Protestant denominations that do not wish to join either the Southern Evangelical Church or the Northern Evangelical Church of Vietnam, to register independently; and
      • allow Cao Dai leaders opposed to the Cao Dai Management Council to form and register a separate Cao Dai organization with management over its own affairs;
    • establish a legal framework that allows for religious groups to engage in humanitarian, medical, educational, and charitable work;
    • amend the 2004 Ordinance On Religious Beliefs and Religious Organizations and Decree 22, and other domestic legislation that may restrict the exercise of religious freedom, so that they conform to international standards for protecting the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief;
    • enforce the provisions in the Prime Minister's "Instructions on Protestantism" that outlaw forced renunciations of faith and establish in the Vietnamese Criminal Code specific penalties for anyone who carries out such practices;
    • repeal Decree 31/CP of the Vietnamese Criminal Code which empowers local Security Police to detain citizens for up to two years without trial, as this decree is routinely invoked to detain religious followers and members of non-recognized religious denominations;
    • set up a national commission of religious groups, government officials, and independent, non-governmental observers to find equitable solutions on returning confiscated properties to religious groups;
    • release or commute the sentences of all those imprisoned or detained on account of their peaceful manifestation of religion or belief; including, among others, UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do and six UBCV leaders detained in the 2003 crackdown, members of ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands and northwest provinces, and the six Mennonites arrested in July 2004, using the list compiled by the State Department pursuant to Section 108 of IRFA;
    • re-open all of the churches, meeting points, and home worship sites closed during 2001 in the Central Highlands and northwest provinces;
    • investigate and publicly report on the beating deaths of Hmong Protestant leaders Mua Bua Senh and Vang Seo Giao, and prosecute anyone found responsible for these deaths;
    • halt the practice of diplomatic pressure, offering of bounties, or cross-border police incursions into Cambodia for the purpose of forcibly repatriating Montagnards; and,
    • allow representatives of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), or some other appropriate international organization, unhindered access to the Central Highlands in order to monitor voluntarily repatriated Montagnards consistent with the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed on January 25, 2005 between the UNHCR, Cambodia and Vietnam and provide unhindered access for diplomats, journalists, and non-governmental organizations to members of all religious communities in Vietnam, particularly those in the Central Highlands and the northwestern provinces; and
  • expand existing programs and initiate new programs of public diplomacy for Vietnam, including,
    • expanding funding for additional Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) programming for Vietnam and to overcome the jamming of VOA and RFA broadcasts;
    • targeting some of the Fulbright Program grants to individuals and scholars whose work promotes understanding of religious freedom and related human rights;
    • requiring the Vietnam Educational Foundation, which offers scholarships to Vietnamese high school age students to attend college in the United States, to give preferences to youth from ethnic minority groups areas (Montagnard and Hmong), from minority religious communities (Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Catholic, Protestant, Cham Islamic, and Kmer Buddhist), or former novice monks associated with the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam;
    • providing grants to educational NGOs to bring Vietnamese high school students to the United States for one year of study;
    • creating new exchange programs between the Vietnamese National Assembly and its staff and the U.S. Congress;
  • continue to expand its economic development, democracy, education, good governance, and rule of law programs in Vietnam by:
    • working with interested nations and international donors to create a development fund for ethnic and religious minorities that targets business creation, micro-enterprise development loans, and grants to improve agricultural, educational, health, and technical training, a fund that would prioritize areas with both rural poverty and significant human rights problems;
    • expanding existing rule of law programs to include regular exchanges between international experts on religion and law and appropriate representatives from the Vietnamese government, academia, and religious communities to discuss the impact of Vietnam's laws and decrees on religious freedom and other human rights, to train public security forces on these issues, and to discuss ways to incorporate international standards of human rights in Vietnamese laws and regulations.

In addition, the U.S. Congress should appropriate additional money for the State Department's Human Rights and Democracy Fund for new technical assistance and religious freedom programming. Funding should be commensurate to new and ongoing programs for Vietnamese workers, women, and rule of law training.


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