Countries around the world have begun to respond to a report recently released by the U.S. State Department regarding religious freedom. While some countries have acknowledged the report, several nations around the world have criticized the report, including Vietnam, China, and Myanmar, which the department maintained as “totalitarian regimes” restricting religious freedom in their societies.
Vietnam's government said it “strongly protested'' the U.S. designation of the Southeast Asian nation as one of eight countries that most deprive their citizens of religious freedom.
Under the 1998 U.S. International Religious Freedom Act, countries named as those “of particular concern'' face actions that may include economic sanctions. The U.S. State Department added Vietnam to the list Wednesday, citing worsening conditions for groups including minority Protestants.
“It is a wrongful decision, based on erroneous information and an inaccurate reflection of Vietnam's situation,” the country's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The decision “by no means benefits the common efforts of the governments and peoples of Vietnam and the U.S. to build a relationship of stability and lasting cooperation.”
Economic relations have blossomed since 1995 when Vietnam and the U.S. opened diplomatic relations, however the two countries still disagree over human-rights issues, with the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi often raising with Vietnamese officials the cases of prisoners whom the U.S. regards as political or religious dissidents.
“There are strong differences of opinion on human rights and religious freedom,” outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Raymond Burghardt told the American Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City last month, according to the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council Web site. “There is deep distrust in the U.S. on Vietnam, and vice- versa.”
Several thousand Protestants in Vietnam's Central Highlands demonstrated in April in support of religious freedom, and “authorities reportedly violently suppressed the protests, including beating or killing some of the protesters,” the State Department said.
Both Protestant and Catholic leaders in the Central Highlands said, “Restrictions on religion added to an already volatile situation caused by land disputes, local corruption, and historical discrimination in education and employment,” according to the department’s report.
The report also said that Vietnam holds at least 44 religious prisoners and detainees, with at least 11 others held in conditions resembling house arrest for reasons related to the expression of religious beliefs.
In response, Vietnam's government said the Central Highlands protesters were “deceived and induced to take part in acts that caused public disturbances.” The government respects freedom of religion and there are no religious prisoners in the country, the Foreign Ministry said yesterday.
The U.S. shouldn't “undermine the broad interests of the two countries,” the ministry added.
Meanwhile, China also rejected the U.S. State Department’s comments on its record on religious rights and urged Washington to stop preaching foreign governments what to do.
China "firmly opposes the U.S. practice of interfering in the religious affairs of other countries," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said when asked to comment on Washington's criticism on the communist nation's religious policies.
He also described as "irresponsible" the U.S. annual practice of issuing reports on religious matters and telling what the foreign governments must do.
"Freedom of religious belief is protected by China's constitution and other laws," the spokesman claimed.
The Department said in its report that China intimidates, harasses and detains Christians and believers of other faiths who don't register with the government.
The report listed China among "countries of particular concern" which makes the nation subject to U.S. sanctions because of religious intolerance.
Myanmar's military government on Thursday also rejected the U.S. State Department report, saying the U.S. should first set its own house in order.
"Ironically, the countries accusing Myanmar of religious intolerance are themselves experiencing religious conflicts, reminding us of a popular Western expression, 'People in glass houses, shouldn't throw stones,'" a government statement said.
The report added to a string of criticism that the junta has faced internationally for suppressing democracy and jailing political dissidents, including keeping Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. The government also has been accused of using forced labor and rape as a weapon of war.
"Myanmar is a country which prides herself on the fact that all the major religions of the world flourish side by side in complete harmony and understanding," the junta statement said.
According to official statistics, almost 90 percent of the country's 50 million people are Buddhists, 4 percent Christians and 4 percent Muslims. There is also a small Hindu minority.
However, according to the report, religious freedom is seen by the junta through the prism of political dissent, and even the Buddhist monks are known to have been jailed for speaking up about democracy.
The government statement did not directly respond to the accusations but said "it is absolutely improper and insensitive to accuse other nations or governments on the basis of hearsay evidence."
In addition to Vietnam, China, and Myanmar, the report also maintained Cuba, Laos, and North Korea as “totalitarian regimes” restricting religious freedom in their societies.
The department said that Cuba and the five Asian nations regarded some or all religious groups as enemies of the state and that the practice of religion was often seen by them as a threat to power.
Other nations that responded negatively to the report include Saudi Arabia and Eritrea.