The communist government of Vietnam is reportedly introducing a new Ordinance on Religion that claims to uphold citizens’ rights to religious freedom. However, church leaders within Vietnam and other critics say the authorities are, in actuality trying to restrict the freedom to worship.
According to the official Vietnam News Agency, the lengthy Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, due to take effect on November 15 “assures citizens of their basic rights regarding religious freedom” and says these rights “cannot be violated by anyone.”
Article one of the document also states, rather ambiguously, that freedom of religious belief is guaranteed by the state and cannot be violated. However Church leaders such as Chan Tin, Nguyen Huu Giai, and Phan Van Loi, argued that virtually every one of the 40 articles that follow threaten to do just that.
“Article one grants religious freedom, then the following articles gradually withdraw that freedom until nothing is left," the three priests said.
Chan, Nguyen, and Phan, Catholic priest in Vietnam, asserted that the ordinance “violates the legal rights of all religions and the rights of all religious people,” and urged the government to withdraw it.
The priests see the document as part of an effort by Hanoi to “mislead the naïve” into thinking Vietnam has freedom of religion.
As reported by the Cybercast News Service, the priests pointed to numerous references to a requirement to register – in some cases, annually - or to seek permission, approval or recognition before carrying out religious activities.
From past experience, the priests said, "registering" does not simply mean reporting to the authorities and then going ahead with a planned activity. "It means waiting for the authorities to grant permission before you can begin anything."
And getting that approval is not guaranteed, either.
"The State grants local authorities the power to give permission or not to give permission depending on their own will, according to their own convenience, subject to their own feelings, case by case - perhaps also dependent on a bribe," the priests said.
Two other clauses stirring great concern for Christians and critics are articles eight and fifteen of the Ordinance.
According to sources, the former forbids "abuse" of religious freedom to "undermine peace, independence and national unity." It also forbids religious leaders or groups from disseminating "information against the State's prevailing laws and policies."
The latter, provides for the suspension of religious activities deemed to
"violate national security" or "negatively affect the unity of the people or the nation's fine cultural traditions."
In response to the new Ordinance, the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF), an organization of about 30 unregistered house church organizations representing several hundred house churches, released a statement on Aug. 30 expressing their concern.
In the Letter, VEF stated, "This Ordinance will create many problems and disadvantages for the church, especially for our gatherings for worship. At the same time, it is likely to permanently outlaw our house church organizations, none of which have been recognized since 1975. Many articles in this Ordinance will also provide a legal basis for local authorities to hinder and persecute the church."
The letter also asked for Christians to pray for the government of Vietnam to withdraw the Ordinance, and to stop all forms of persecution and hindrances to the church's activities.
One of the most tightly controlled nations in the world, Vietnam has claimed to make efforts to ensure the people’s rights regarding religious freedom. However organizations such as the U.S.-based Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam (CRFV) have cited numerous incidents, including the destruction of more than 400 Christian churches in the central highlands, the confiscation of properties of non-conformist churches, and the detention of Buddhist leaders.
The Voice of the Martyrs reports that persecution is most intense for the ethnic minorities, especially the Montagnards from the hill country, partly due to their support for the South Vietnamese during the war.
Many of these people have attempted to flee to neighboring Cambodia. However, under an agreement with the Vietnamese government, the authorities there have been returning the refugees to Vietnam to collect a bounty. Those who are returned are imprisoned, tortured or killed. Despite the persecution, instead of being destroyed, the church in Vietnam is growing and becoming stronger. Christians now make up almost ten percent of the population.