By Will Taylor
WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 6, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Although religious freedom in Vietnam is moving in the right direction, overall the situation remains poor, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Testimony provided by the agency’s commissioner, Leonard Leo, during a Dec. 6 congressional human rights caucus hearing, outlined the federal agency’s observations from a fact-finding trip conducted by one of its delegations last autumn. The trip included stops in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue and the Central Highlands.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal commission, consisting of nine private citizens who advise the U.S. president, secretary of state and Congress on how to promote religious freedom and associated rights around the world.
Based on discussions with high-ranking government officials, religious leaders, and assorted Vietnamese citizens, the traveling delegation acknowledged noticeable progress in the Southeast Asian nation and affirmed that, since 2004, the conditions of freedom of thought, conscience and religion have moved in the right direction and have generally improved.
Good and bad
During this period the government of Vietnam released prisoners of faith, reopened closed churches, and generally expanded its toleration for worship for most of the country’s religious communities.
But, the delegation also pointed out that given the nation’s international obligations to protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion — as per its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1982 — the country is not yet it need to be, and their human rights record overall still remains very poor.
During the past year specifically, the situation deteriorated, USCIRF learned, as the government of Vietnam moved decisively to repress peaceful expressions or demonstrations for even greater religious freedom — protests it viewed as challenges to its authority. The government also confiscated lands belonging to monasteries and churches, and then distributed or sold those properties to state-owned companies and government officials.
Furthermore, dozens of independent religious leaders and religious freedom advocates — as well as free speech activists, labor unionists and political reform advocates — have recently been arbitrarily arrested and sentenced to jail terms, or placed under home detention and surveillance. Most of the protesters have been subject to regular intimidation, harassment and threats.
One large-scale protest involved the Church and even brought the intervention of the Vatican. Beginning Dec. 18, thousands of Vietnamese Catholics protested in daily prayer vigils before the former nunciature of Hanoi, to ask the government to return it to the Church. The building had been confiscated by the communist leadership in 1959.
The archbishop of Hanoi confirmed Feb. 1 that the Vietnamese government is restoring to the Church the use of the building, AsiaNews reported.
Leo spoke with ZENIT about USCIRF’s more disturbing findings: “There are concerns out there, and there are facts that are troubling.
“There are serious issues involving what in the commission’s view are various prisoners of concern, all charged under vague national security laws which the government use as a way of repressing freedom of expression, thought and conscience — officials continue to maintain that the individuals they approach are national security risks, but there’s no question when you look at the individuals involved what kind of activities they are engaged in, that we’re dealing with people who are addressing the human condition as a part of their religious vocation.”
Concerning the Catholic community, Leo noted the most recent problems regarding the Hanoi protests. He said the USCIRF delegation found that the Vietnamese government routinely makes no effort to justify its confiscation of property, and that it tries to escape the issue by pointing to other “reforms” that they’ve implemented.
Asked whether Vietnam’s conditions of freedom of religion will continue to deteriorate in the foreseeable future, Leo stated, “We want Vietnam’s rhetoric on religious freedom to match reality, but it will depend a lot on how the international community responds; when the international community and the United States are engaged, the government of Vietnam believes they need to implement reforms. So I think it’s going to depend on how much attention we can direct to what is going on in country.”