Renewed Fears for Religious Freedom in Vietnam

Renewed Fears for Religious Freedom in Vietnam
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像
What you need to know

Human rights advocates are concerned about fresh restrictions on religious freedom in Vietnam.

Human rights organizations from around the world have called on Vietnamese lawmakers to reject a proposed new law on religious freedom until it is brought into line with international human rights standards.

Organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) have written an open letter to Vietnam’s National Assembly President Nguyen Kim Ngân expressing concerns that the law places unacceptable restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief and other human rights in the predominantly Buddhist country.

“Basic guarantees of the right to freedom of religion or belief continue to be undermined by onerous registration requirements and excessive state interference in religious organizations’ internal affairs," the letter says. “Indeed, this and the previous versions of the law inherit from previous rules and regulations this emphasis on government control and management of religious life which is contrary to the spirit and principle of the right to freedom of religion and belief.”

The group acknowledges the proposed Law on Belief and Religion has been improved from an earlier draft by including “provisions for the right to change one’s religion, as well as to follow or not follow a religion, the right of some detainees ‘to use religious books and manifest their belief or religion,’ and the right of religious organizations to participate in activities such as education, vocational training, medical care and social and humanitarian assistance.”

Nevertheless, Vietnamese lawmakers should ensure the law is in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the group says.

The majority of Vietnamese practice Buddhism. However, among the country’s 94 million people, more than 6 million are Catholics, up to 2 million are Protestants and 2 million people practicing the Cao Dai or Hoa Hao faiths. Additionally, there are smaller numbers of Muslims, Mormons and Falun Gong, as well as people following local religions or traditional worship.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), restrictions on religious activities by the Vietnamese government vary across geographical areas and among religious organizations, depending on their relationship with the state.

“This sends conflicting messages about Vietnam’s overall commitment to respecting and protecting freedom of religion or belief,” USCIRF said earlier this year.

In its latest report on Vietnam, the commission further highlighted the complicated situation of religious freedom and government oversight in the Southeast Asian nation.

“On the one hand, the country’s rich religious diversity, the absence of interreligious conflict, and the room for religious practice permitted to some groups in certain areas indicate a positive trajectory towards a rights-respecting environment; on the other hand, the government’s continuing heavy-handed management of religion continues to lead not only to restrictions and discrimination, but also to individuals being outright harassed, detained, and targeted with physical violence,” it says.

Still, continued abuses met the threshold for the USCIRF to designate the country as a “country of particular concern” — a designation it has given Vietnam for the past 15 years.

APHR chair Charles Santiago also observed that governments across Southeast Asia are passing repressive laws to restrict citizens’ human rights and freedom.

“The importance for laws that promote tolerance and uphold the rights to religious freedom, and, inversely, the need for legislation that tackles the dangers of hate speech and discrimination, cannot be understated at this time in our region,” says Santiago, who is also a member of the Malaysian Parliament. “With certain constituents and groups seeking to stoke and manipulate ethnic, social and religious divides, our focus has never been more needed on ensuring we, as legislators, use our positions to promote tolerance and religious freedom.”

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole