Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, December 07, 2007

Congressional briefing: religious freedom in Viet Nam

The Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a tri-panel briefing Thursday on religious freedom in Viet Nam. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-C.A.) served as briefing chair and, in her opening remarks, said: “During my eleven years working with Viet Nam I would say that the situation only got worse.”

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford had another view, though, saying that “there has been significant progress and a significant shift during the last two years” and it is important to recognize the “good things to be able to press on the problems. However, he did acknowledge that some Vietnamese provinces have adapted to the government’s new rules promoting religious freedom better then others. Regarding, recent gains, Hanford said that the Vietnamese government has recognized several religious groups, citing Baha’is as one example. By 2008, Hanford foresees the recognition of forty religious groups. He also mentioned the fact that the Vietnamese government has developed trainings related to religious freedom for its officials, but did say that it sometimes hard for local officials to adapt because the concepts are so new to them. Many in rural areas have never heard of Christianity before, Hanford said. Another success mentioned, was the fact that over one-thousand churches in the Central Highlands that were closed down have now been reopened.

On the matter of Viet Nam’s 2006 removal from the U.S. government’s list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for restrictions on religious freedom, Hanford said that when Viet Nam’s CPC designation was to be lifted, one of the requirements was the release the religious prisoners. According to Hanford, Viet Nam followed suit and released around fifty prisoners.

Hanford said that while work remains to be done, it is important to recognize Viet Nam’s progress, even if it is slow.

Sanchez did not agree with Hanford’s claim that Hanoi was making progress. “They might not be burning churches anymore but then they take their land where the churches are built,” she said.

Leonard Leo of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also testified, saying: “The zone of toleration for religious worship has greatly expanded for most of Viet Nam’s religious communities. Among ethnic minority Protestants, closed churches have opened and forced renunciations of faith have been greatly reduced. More Vietnamese are practicing religion than ever before, and the Vietnamese government realizes that it can no longer fully repress the demands of its people for the freedom to manifest and express freedom of religion individually or in community with others.”

However, Leo also said that it is clear that in some areas the provincial and local authorities are using their authority to restrict and abuse religious freedom. “The central government either ignores these problems or has not yet done enough to curtail them,” he said.

“We pressed officials in Hanoi to train and, as needed, punish local and provincial officials who restricted or abused religious freedom. We fully expect them to address problems in the provincial areas as they promised. We are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” Leo added.

In closing he remarked: “The U.S. government and its officials must continue to speak with a single, strong voice on human rights, including religious freedom. We must continue to convey to senior Vietnamese leaders that religious freedom is a top priority to us, that it is a critical issue in our bilateral relationship, and that the central government must take concerted action to end abuses and harassment of believers.”

T. Kumar of Amnesty International said that his organization’s reports show that there are at least 250 ethnic Montagnard religious prisoners in Viet Nam today. He also said that many of those detained are reported as political prisoners by the Vietnamese government when they are in fact religious prisoners.

Chris Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement asserted that he did not agree with Sanchez, saying “a lot has changed for the better in Vietnam today.” He added that “mutual understanding and respect” is needed as the Hanoi does not like to have fingers pointed at them.”

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