(CNSNews.com) - Members of the a congressional human rights commission want the State Department to reinstate Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) after hearing testimony Wednesday on the lack of religious freedom in the Communist-controlled country.
“I fear that when the U.S. granted Vietnam normal trade relations in 2001, we lost crucial leverage that puts pressure on the Vietnamese government to improve a very poor record on human rights,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said at the hearing. “Over the last year, we’ve seen Vietnam’s record on human rights and religious freedom take a turn for the worse.”
Wolf pointed to examples of religious persecution in Vietnam, including in the town of Con Dau, where authorities decided to “demolish all the houses in the parish, along with a 135-year-old cemetery on parish grounds, to make way for a green resort.” In May, police allegedly turned violent against parishioners holding a peaceful funeral procession to protest the demolition.
In his testimony, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) described what happened during the funeral procession: “Vietnamese officials and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods. More than 100 people were injured, dozens were arrested, and several remain in custody and, reportedly, severely beaten and tortured by Vietnamese officials. At least two innocent people, perhaps more, have been murdered by Vietnamese police.”
Smith said the Vietnamese government justifies the violence “because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village.” He added that they were not compensated for the displacement, and he said nothing justifies “government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses.”
Insisting that the Con Dau incident was not an isolated event, Rep. Wolfl said that he and some congressional colleagues are calling on the Obama administration to re-designate Vietnam as a country of particular concern. “I understand the State department will designate CPCs in the next few months, and I urge the State Department to add Vietnam back on the list. Considering Vietnam’s record, he said, it would “really be a black mark” on the State Department if Vietnam is not put back on the list.
The State Department reports that the majority of the 86 million people in Vietnam are Buddhist. Among them, many subscribe to what’s known as a “triple religion,” combining Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.
Due largely to the French influence in the country, Catholics make up another 8 to 10 percent of the population. Another 4 to 9 percent consist of those who subscribe to Hoa Hao, Cao Daie, Muslim and Protestant sects. The remaining people do not consider themselves religious.
Because of concerns about the lack of religious freedom, the State Department included Vietnam on the CPC list as recently as 2006. However, in that year, the State Department lifted the CPC designation, citing significant improvements.
According to the 2009 International Religious Freedom report – the latest submitted by the State Department – the Vietnamese government has recognized an increasing number of religious sects in recent years.
In February 2009, representatives from the Vatican met with Vietnamese government officials and issued a joint statement stating that “positive progress has been made in the religious life in Vietnam.”
However, the State Department’s report did point out several continuing problems, such as government restrictions on missionaries. The State Department also acknowledged reports that officials have impeded religious activities based on political activism, discouraged conversion to Protestantism and put a Catholic priest under house arrest.
The State Department points out that Vietnam’s 2004 “Ordinance on Religion and Belief” specifies that “the ‘abuse’ of freedom of belief or religion ‘to undermine the country's peace, independence, and unity’ is illegal.” The law, the State Department said, “also warns that religious activities must be suspended if they negatively affect the cultural traditions of the nation.”
Also testifying Wednesday was Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-La.), a Vietnamese-American Catholic whose father fought for the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War and was placed in a Communist re-education camp.
Cao insisted that torture in Vietnam continues to this day. “The Vietnamese government has shown no progress on the issue of human rights.” He said that Vietnam does not allow land ownership, but rather land use rights, allowing the government to strip farmers of their homes and farms and turn them over to private developers. “All land disputes with Catholic Church in Vietnam result in violence,” he said.
Rep. Wolf said that in addition to suppressing religious freedom over the last year, “the Vietnamese government has ratcheted up pressure on peaceful human rights and democracy advocates, arresting numerous bloggers, lawyers and political activists.” Wolf also took issue with the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, which “has repeatedly subordinated issues of human rights and religious freedom to trade and commerce.”
The congressional human rights panel also heard testimony from Ted Van Der Meid, commissioner at the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which Congress created in 1998 as part of the International Religious Freedom Act to examine and analyze the state of religious freedom in countries around the world.
“Sadly, we cannot conclude that religious freedom conditions have improved markedly in recent years,” Van Der Meid said in his written testimony. “Vietnam continues to backslide on human rights and there remain too many religious freedom violations, too many individuals detained for independent religious activity or peaceful religious freedom advocacy, too many cases of discrimination and forced renunciations of faith targeting new converts to Protestantism, and too many stories of government approved violence targeting Buddhists and Catholics.”
Van Der Meid said the Con Dau case is similar to a number of violent clashes between the Catholic Church and the Vietnamese government over property rights. “In the last several years, disputes over religious property have led to harassment, property destruction, detention, and violence, sometimes by ‘contract thugs’ hired by the government to break up peaceful prayer vigils,” he said. “In addition, lawyers for those detained at peaceful prayer vigils have been intimidated and briefly detained.”
Both Rep. Smith and Van Der Meid noted that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has met with officials in Hanoi and expressed concern for human rights in Vietnam. They urged her to back up her concerns with action. Smith emphasized that CPC status officially designates a country in which there is “ongoing and pervasive violence of religious liberties and the persecution of believers.” Vietnam, he said, “fits that definition like a glove.”
Smith faulted both the Bush and Obama administrations for failing to link human rights issues with trade issues.
The three congressmen testifying before the panel all reiterated their support for the legislation they introduced in July, H. Res. 1572, which condemns the Vietnamese government for the violence in Con Dau. Rep. Smith sponsored the bill, which has four cosponsors, including Reps. Cao and Wolf.
Also testifying at Wednesday’s hearing were relatives of the alleged victims of violent religious persecution in Vietnam, and T. Kumar, director of International Advocacy at Amnesty International.
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