VIETNAM – New law still doesn’t ensure religious freedom
Vietnamese politicians have just passed the country’s first ever bill which would appear to enshrine religious freedom. The exact details of the Law on Belief and Religion have not been made public yet but Christian groups fear the right to worship freely is still not assured.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted in its 2016 annual report that while “the government has made dramatic openings with respect to religious freedom,” officials – at both the national and local levels – can also treat certain religious leaders and communities with hostility, as supposedly “threatening to the state.” There are concerns the new law will not get rid of loopholes allowing discrimination and abuse.
The Aid to the Church in Need Religious Freedom in the World report 2016 states “ If the government does not put a stop to acts of violence against, and maltreatment of , independent religious organisations– both registered and unregistered – no -one can pretend that this country has achieved the standards of religious freedom expected of a state under international law.”
Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide said: “When the possibility of a law on religion was first mentioned, some were hopeful that it would address the obstacles to freedom of religion or belief in the existing regulations. “Unfortunately, throughout the drafting process, the law continued to focus on the control and management of religious activities, rather than the protection of religious freedom.
“Basic guarantees of the right to freedom of religion or belief must not be undermined by onerous registration requirements, and groups which cannot or choose not to register must not be excluded from the enjoyment of this right” he added.
Currently grave violations of human rights are still being committed in Vietnam, such as the government requiring religious groups to register with the state. Christians are worried the bill will continue to allow the government to force faith groups to register with them in order to be allowed to meet together and practice. The practice is similar to the situation in China, where Christianity is illegal outside state-monitored and sanctioned churches.
Unregistered religious groups are at greater risk of harassment and persecution by government officials. However, the state can also wield its authority by trying to control registered groups, imprisoning human rights activists and cracking down on protests. 4,000 Catholics were reportedly beaten this past spring for protesting a toxic waste dump that caused an environmental disaster.
There is some hope that the situation for Christians may improve following the recent visit of Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang to the Vatican. He spoke privately with Pope Francis about “the good relations existing between the Holy See and Vietnam, [which are] supported by a common spirit of dialogue and a constant search for the most appropriate instruments so they can make further progress.”
The meeting highlighted the collaboration between the Church and state in various spheres of society in Vietnam. The talks are part of ongoing efforts by the Vatican to build a stronger relationship with Vietnam, a country where religious freedom has been suppressed for decades.