US Envoy Arrives in Vietnam Amid Ongoing Religious Problems

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A senior U.S. official is due to arrive in Vietnam Saturday to assess the state of religious freedom in a country some say is a serious violator.

The visit by John Hanford, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, comes at a time Vietnam's Buddhist dissidents are being detained and placed under house arrest, and they have announced a hunger strike.

The U.S. embassy in Hanoi said Wednesday that the aim of Hanford's visit was to learn more about the "status of religious communities and activities" and to continue talks with the government.

It said he would visit Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and the Tay Nguyen Central Highlands.

Earlier this month, police blocked a vehicle of Buddhist monks in the central province of Binh Dinh. They had been accompanying their patriarch, Thich Huyen Quang, and his deputy, Thich Quang Do, to Ho Chi Minh City.

The Paris-based International Buddhist Information Bureau said the monks from the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) were then involved in a 10-hour standoff with police.

Some 200 monks and another 1,000 Buddhists from the area reportedly surrounded the car to protect the leaders.

The two men have spent a total of more than 20 years in jail or under house arrest.

Sources in Vietnam, quoted by Radio Free Asia, said Thich Quang Do has declared a hunger strike at a Buddhist temple in protest against government oppression.

Last April, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai held an unprecedented meeting with the patriarch.

Two months later, his deputy - who in 2001 was nominated for the Nobel peace prize - was freed from jail.

These moves were widely viewed as a sign of positive changes in Vietnam's religious policies.

But the problems have continued. For instance, three monks who were involved in a standoff with Vietnamese security forces earlier this month have been placed under house arrest for two years, the authorities confirmed Thursday.

In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung denied religious freedoms were being violated, insisting the monks had broken the law.

The Paris-based bureau says it has also received reports of a police crackdown on Buddhists in Hue, where support for the UBCV is strong.

Monks there reported that phone lines to many UBCV pagodas had been cut and that plain-clothes security agents were permanently stationed outside 20 of the church's pagodas.

Vietnamese Buddhists have faced difficulties for decades.

They were the subjects of oppression under the Saigon-based, U.S.-backed government of Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1963, mass protests by Buddhists, some of whom set themselves alight in public, led to Diem's demise.

After Saigon fell to the communists in 1975, the UBCV was banned and then replaced by the state-controlled Vietnam Buddhist Church in 1981. Hanoi's policies have sparked continuous tensions between the authorities and the UBCV.

Vietnamese Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, have also faced persecution.

Back in 2001, Rhade and Gialai ethnic minorities protested against a crackdown on their Protestant faith.

Last September, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged Secretary of State Colin Powell to add Vietnam to a list of "countries of particular concern" (CPC) on religious freedom matters, a move that could lead to sanctions.

"This blatant disregard of the most basic human rights makes clear why Vietnam should be immediately designated a CPC," said the commission's chairman, Michael Young.

The Congress-funded commission also supports legislation, introduced in Congress last July, which seeks to cap non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam at 2003 levels unless the government meets a series of human rights standards.

The commission said earlier this year that since Congress passed the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement in September 2001, the already poor religious freedom conditions in Vietnam had further deteriorated.

In another incident, Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly, 57, was sentenced to 15 years in jail in October 2001 after giving written testimony to the USCIRF.

In a move seen as an attempt to appease human rights critics, a court last July reduced the sentence to 10 years.

The roots of Hanoi's mistrust for the country's Catholics date back as far as the 1860s, when France used anti-Catholic persecution as justification to annex Vietnam.

Following World War II, communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh defeated the French. More than one million Catholics fled to the south and were accused by Hanoi of siding with the enemy.

After 1975, Hanoi moved to install a state-run organization of "patriotic Catholics." The policy has had little success and has strained Vietnam's relations with the Vatican for decades.

Today, Vietnam's major religions are split between state-controlled organizations and those outlawed by the government.

Currently, the State Department lists six countries as CPCs - Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.

The USCIRF is pressing for the administration to add Vietnam, Laos, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan and Turkmenistan to the list.

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