Vietnam's Rights Record Under Scrutiny

Believers Continue to Face Restrictions

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MARCH 21, 2010 ( Recent reports show that there is still a serious lack of religious freedom in Vietnam. The March 15 release from prison of Father Nguyen Van Ly was a rare bit of good news after many months of constant pressure from the government.

Father Ly had spent three years in jail and during that time suffered strokes. He was released to enable him to receive medical treatment, according to March 15 by the Associated Press.

According to the article Father Ly is one of Vietnam’s best-known human rights activists and has spent more than 15 years in prison since 1977. Last July, 37 U.S. senators sent a letter to Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet calling for the his release. Some reports reckoned that after his treatment the government may send him back to prison.

The news came just after the publication on March 11 of the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 Annual Report on Human Rights. In the chapter dedicated to Vietnam the report outlined limitations on human rights.

On the matter of freedom of belief the report observed that while the law prohibits physical abuse police commonly mistreated suspects physically during arrest or detention. Some instances of this abuse took place when members of unrecognized Protestant churches tried to hold services in Vietnamese provinices.

The report did maintain that there have been improvements in relation to freedom of worship, but it also admitted that restrictions on religious groups still exist. For example, religious groups must be officially recognized or registered, and the activities and leadership of individual religious congregations must be approved by the authorities. The registration process can also be «slow and non-transparent,» according to the report.


The most severe controls occur when the government considers that religious groups could be engaged in political activism, or somehow present a challenge to its rule, the report said.

In spite of these limitations the report said that participation in religious activities continued to grow significantly.

According to the State Department the Catholic Church reported that the government continued to ease restrictions on the admission of new clergy and did not object to the installation of three new bishops in 2009. As well, some Catholic priests reported a continued easing of government control over activities in certain dioceses outside of Hanoi.

However, not all U.S. government officials are so convinced that religious freedom is improving in Vietnam. On March 12 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a press release criticizing the arrest of Le Thi Cong Nhan.

Le Thi Cong Nhan is a prominent human rights and religious freedom dissident, according to the release. She was released from prison two months short of completing a three-year sentence for «anti-government activity,» but she was detained again just a few days later for telling reporters that her time in prison confirmed her «faith» in the peaceful «struggle for human rights and democracy in Vietnam.»

«USCIRF has given the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress compelling evidence of severe and ongoing religious freedom violations in Vietnam,» the press release stated.

USCIRF also cited testimony given at a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing a few days previously, by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell. He acknowledged that Vietnam was «backsliding» on human rights and religious freedom issues.

Increasingly harsh

Human Rights Watch is also critical of the lack of religious freedom in Vietnam. A press release accompanying its World Report 2010, published on Jan. 21, referred to «the climate of increasingly harsh political repression in Vietnam.»

According to Human Rights Watch the government is intent on silencing any opposition in the lead-up to a Vietnamese Communist Party congress in 2011.

Along with the arrest of political activists the release noted the crackdown on Catholic parishioners in central and northern Vietnam who opposed government confiscation of church properties.

According to the 2010 report last year Vietnamese courts sentenced at least 20 government critics and independent church activists to prison. This added to the existing hundreds of other peaceful political and religious activists serving long prison sentences in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch observed.

In contradiction to the State Department report Human Rights Watch maintained that religious freedom deteriorated in 2009. «The government targeted religious leaders and their followers who advocated civil rights, religious freedom, and equitable resolution of land disputes,» it said.

It noted, for example, the clashes between police and thousands of Catholic parishioners in Quang Binh who were protesting government confiscation of church properties. In July as many as 200,000 Catholics peacefully protested in Quang Binh after police destroyed a temporary church structure erected near the ruins of an historic church. According to Human Rights Watch police used teargas and electric batons to beat parishioners. The police arrested 19 people and later charged seven of them with disturbing public order.

Another example was an attack by a government-orchestrated mob, who violently dispersed followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Buddhist monk who has advocated more religious freedom.

The report also recounted how last year in the Central Highlands authorities arrested dozens of Montagnard Christians accused of belonging to unregistered house churches.

On several occasions police beat and shocked Montagnards with electric batons when they refused to sign pledges to join the government sanctioned church, the report said.

No change

So far 2010 isn’t looking any better for religious freedom in Vietnam, as a number of reports testify. On Jan. 8 Asia News reported that the crucifix in the cemetery of the parish of Dong Chiem was destroyed.

According to Asia News Father John Le Trong Cung before the destruction of the cross the faithful intervened to ask the police not to pursue the sacrilegious action, but the hundreds of police in riot gear present reacted with brutality.

Then, on Jan. 18, Compass Direct News reported that Sung Cua Po, who converted to Christianity in November, 2009, was beaten by local officials in the northwest province of Dien Bien until he recanted his Christian faith.

On Jan. 25 UCA News published a report on the difficulties faced by the Hanoi Archdiocese.

Many priests were stopped from visiting local Catholics, said Father John Le Trong Cung, secretary at the Hanoi archbishop’s house, according to UCA News.

The following month a group made up of nuns and lay people in the diocese of Dong Chiem were brutally attacked by local authorities, according to a Feb. 26 report by Asia News.

On February 24 a group of nuns from the Sisters of Cross Lovers, who came from Ho Chi Minh City, together with dozens of lay faithful, were attacked and beaten by officers in plain clothes, at the entrance to the town.


The Guardian Weekly, in its issue of March 3, published a report titled «Vietnam’s religious living in fear.»

«For many of Vietnam’s 8 million Christians, Sundays – once simply a time of celebration and reflection – are now mixed with caution and fear, worshiping in secret,» the article commented.

In a message dated Nov. 17, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI wrote to the president of the Vietnamese episcopal conference, Bishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon of Da Lat.

The message was sent on the occasion of the beginning of a jubilee year in Vietnam, to mark 350 years since the establishment of its first two apostolic vicariates and 50 years since the hierarchy was put in place.

«The Jubilee is also a special season, offered for renewing the proclamation of the Gospel to one’s fello
w citizens and for becoming increasingly a Church that is communion and mission,» the Pope said. A mission the church in Vietnam will continue to carry out, in spite of opposition from government authorities.

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