Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Vietnam's communist government is introducing a new ordinance that claims to uphold citizens' rights to religious freedom, but critics - including church leaders inside Vietnam - say the authorities are, on the contrary, trying to restrict the freedom to worship.
The move comes at a time when advocacy groups are pressing for U.S. Senate passage of legislation passed last month in the House of Representatives, which ties increases in U.S. aid to improvements in Vietnam's human rights record.
Previous efforts to get the Vietnam Human Rights Act enacted were stymied by Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate. Arguing that the move would hinder rather than help reforms, Kerry used his position as chairman of the foreign relations committee's East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee to block further progress (See earlier story).
The lengthy Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, which comes into effect on November 15, "assures citizens of their basic rights regarding religious freedom" and says these rights "cannot be violated by anyone," according to the official Vietnam News Agency.
But a commentary by three Catholic priests in Vietnam, made available by Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, sees the document instead as part of an effort by Hanoi to "mislead the naive" into thinking Vietnam has freedom of religion.
Chan Tin, Nguyen Huu Giai, and Phan Van Loi asserted that the ordinance "violates the legal rights of all religions and the rights of all religious people," and urged the government to withdraw it.
Although article one of the document states unambiguously that freedom of religious believe is guaranteed by the state and cannot be violated, virtually every one of the 40 articles that follow threaten to do just that, they argued.
"Article one grants religious freedom, then the following articles gradually withdraw that freedom until nothing is left."
They pointed to numerous references to a requirement to register - in some cases, annually - or to seek permission, approval or recognition before carrying out religious activities.
From past experience, the priests said, "registering" does not simply mean reporting to the authorities and then going ahead with a planned activity. "It means waiting for the authorities to grant permission before you can begin anything."
And getting that approval is not guaranteed, either.
"The State grants local authorities the power to give permission or not to give permission depending on their own will, according to their own convenience, subject to their own feelings, case by case - perhaps also dependent on a bribe."
Tin, Giai and Loi questioned the legitimacy of communist officials having the power to make judgments on age-old religions.
"For centuries the world has recognized these religions while the Communist Party has been in existence for less than a hundred years," they said.
"But now the Vietnamese communist state claims the right to decide which religion is recognized and which religion is not recognized, which religion is permitted to operate and which religion is not permitted to operate. What arrogance and stupidity!"
Among the most worrying clauses for critics are articles eight and 15.
The first forbids "abuse" of religious freedom to "undermine peace, independence and national unity." It also forbids religious leaders or groups from disseminating "information against the State's prevailing laws and policies."
Article 15 provides for the suspension of religious activities deemed to "violate national security" or "negatively affect the unity of the people or the nation's fine cultural traditions."
A leading critic of Vietnam's human rights record, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), has called the religion ordinance an "Orwellian move" on Hanoi's part.
"This new law is the most capricious and arbitrary policy imaginable - designed to snare and incarcerate believers for undermining peace, independence and national unity, whatever that means," he said in a statement last month.
Smith, who is vice-chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said Vietnam "needs to come out of the dark ages of repression, brutality and abuse and embrace freedom, the rule of law, and respect for fundamental human rights."
Smith was the sponsor of the Vietnam Human Rights Act, which the House approved last July.
The Vietnamese government, which responded angrily to passage of the Act, insists that it does uphold religious and other freedoms.
Nguyen Thanh Xuan, deputy head of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, recently told the Vietnam News daily that the Communist Party and the state "have made many efforts to ensure the people's rights regarding religious freedom."
He listed the sanctioning of nine religious organizations since 1994; the existence of six Catholic seminaries and three institutes of Buddhism; the fact that more than 300 Buddhist monks and nuns and more than 100 Catholic priests had been sent to study abroad; and the publication of nearly five million copies of religious books and Bibles over the past five years.
Plea to senators
A significantly different picture comes from Shandon Phan, advocacy coordinator for the U.S.-based Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam (CRFV).
Since 2001 -- when Kerry first blocked the Vietnam Human Rights Act -- religious repression had not only continued, but intensified, Phan said Tuesday.
The CRFV cited numerous incidents, including the destruction of more than 400 Christian churches in the central highlands, the confiscation of properties of non-conformist churches, and the detention of Buddhist leaders.
The government also "forced thousands of Montagnard to renounce their faith," Phan said, referring to the predominantly Protestant "mountain people" of the central highlands.
Phan said the Human Rights Act was significant because, unlike other congressional resolutions, the legislation provided for action if Vietnam continued to disregard international criticism.
"Many dissidents and religious leaders, who currently are imprisoned or under house arrest, have repeatedly expressed their support of this bill."
Phan saw a direct link between worsening repression in Vietnam and Kerry's actions three years ago.
"Since 2001, immediately after the bill was blocked, the Vietnam government has increasingly escalated their oppression policy since they have had reasons to believe that as it is not that difficult to reach out to Washington DC to lobby a few Senate members to block the bill."
In 2001, Kerry said that he and another opponent of the legislation, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) "are concerned that denying aid to Vietnam would actually slow human rights improvements."
Phan said it didn't make sense to speak about "constructive engagement" if the approach "failed miserably" to advance human rights.
"The House has clearly spoken out with their vote," Phan said. "We only hope that our U.S. Senators would consider our community's concern and the interest of 82 million Vietnamese people."
"The bill has become a defining issue for our community in this election time."
See earlier story:
Refugees from Vietnam Unimpressed with Kerry (Aug. 31, 2004)
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