Vietnam on Thursday published a white book declaring that Hanoi respects and ensures freedom of religion, but unregistered religious groups told Radio Free Asia that they are not free to worship and that in fact the government oppresses them.
The publication, by the Committee for Religious Affairs, said that “there is no discrimination against beliefs and religions or conflicts among religions” and “followers of different beliefs or religions live in harmony in the community of ethnic groups in Vietnam.”
All religions are equal before the law and that the government does not discriminate against any religious beliefs, it said.
“No individuals or religious organizations, which operate in compliance with the law, are prohibited,” one clause states.
Compliance with the law includes registering the religion with the government. Currently the government has recognized 36 religious organizations belonging to 16 religions that include Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Caodaism, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Islam and Baha’i.
Those belonging to unrecognized religions are not allowed to operate freely. Hanoi considers the unregistered groups to be illegal and law enforcement has prevented these groups from meeting or carrying out religious rituals or ceremonies.
“The government often says [religious] organizations and groups need to register themselves to be recognized and operate in compliance with the law. However, even if we try to register, they will never approve,” said the Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, a key member of the Sangha of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam which has been banned and persecuted by Hanoi since 1975.
“If we register, [the government] will force us to do this and that, to follow their system and make commitments [to them],” he said. “If our registration is rejected and we continue to operate, they will find an excuse to arrest us.”
Tanh said the government routinely persecutes independent religious groups and supports only the groups it has established or was able to tame.
In recent years, RFA’s Vietnamese Service has covered the government’s destruction of several religious establishments belonging to the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, including several pagodas.
Local authorities in the southern coastal province of Ba Ria-Vung repeatedly threatened to dismantle the Thien Quang pagoda if followers refused to join the government-endorsed Vietnam Buddhist Church.
In the central province of Gia Lai, local authorities destroyed the Son Linh pagoda last year and have forbidden the abbot to rebuild.
“The monks at the Sangha of the [United Buddhist] Church sought permission to conduct religious rituals, but they [the local authorities] refused,” said Tanh. “They will only permit it if we join the state-owned Buddhist Church.”
The local Tuoi Tre Newspaper cited the white book as saying that “citizens are completely free to follow or not follow a belief or religion. The government ensures the religious activities of ethnic minority people that make up about 14 percent of the population.”
But RFA’s Vietnamese Service has documented repeated harassment of followers of the Central Highlands Evangelical Church of Christ, an unrecognized religious group that has many ethnic minority members from that region.
The church members are forbidden from conducting religious rituals and ceremonies on Sundays and even on Christmas Day.
Last year, an ethnic Hmong family of 13 were expelled from their village in the northern province of Nghe An for their Protestant beliefs. Village authorities opposed to the religion pasted notices on the family’s homes ordering them not to follow non-Hmong religions.
Another claim in the white book is that the government ensures prisoners’ freedom of belief and religion and has provided 54 prison libraries nationwide with nearly 4,500 copies of 17 religious books.
The Venerable Thich Khong Thanh, who has been imprisoned three times with a total of 10 years, told RFA that when he was in prison, he and others were persecuted.
“When I was reciting and chanting Buddhist scriptures, and some priests were praying, they came to suppress and made us incommunicado,” said Thanh. “They even confiscated all the Bibles and religious books people had sent us.”
Nguyen Van Dien, a Catholic who completed a 6-year prison term in late February, said that despite his request, he had been unable to see a priest while serving his sentence.
However, he was allowed to receive Bibles sent in by his family if the books were printed by the state-owned Religious Publishing House.
Meanwhile the families of activists Truong Van Dung and Bui Tuan Lam told RFA that they were not allowed to send religious books to the activists. Both are under investigation on the charge of “disseminating anti-state materials.”
In December, the U.S. State Department included Vietnam in its Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.
Two weeks later, a Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative said that the U.S. action was “based on biased assessments and inaccurate information about freedom of belief and religion in Vietnam,” and that Vietnam was willing to discuss openly and frankly with the United States in a spirit of mutual respect.
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