Vietnam Protests State Department's Report on Religious Freedom

After being designated by the U.S. State Department as one of the world's worst offenders of religious freedom, the Southeast Asian country has lodged an official protest with the United States
( [email protected] ) Sep 23, 2004 12:52 PM EDT

After being designated by the U.S. State Department as one of the world's worst offenders of religious freedom, the Southeast Asian country has lodged an official protest with the United States, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

In addition to nations such as Saudi Arabia and Eritrea, the U.S. State Department added Vietnam to the list of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) last week, citing worsening conditions for groups including minority Protestants. Under U.S. law, nations engaged in violations of religious freedom deemed “particularly severe” are designated by the State Department as CPCs in its annual report on international religious freedom.

Immediately following the release of the 2004 report, Vietnam's government said it “strongly protested'' the U.S. designation.

“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 made last week. 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.”

On Monday, in a meeting with U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission John S. Boardman in Hanoi, Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien formally rejected being placed on the list of "countries of particular concern" and said the decision was based on distorted information, the Viet Nam News reported Tuesday.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Embassy spokesman Louis Lantner on Tuesday confirmed the meeting.

Nien, who wrote a letter of protest to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, also warned that the move could damage the former foes' expanding bilateral relations, the paper said.

The designation also carries the potential for economic sanctions, which can be imposed at the discretion of the U.S. president.

Vietnam joins Myanmar, China, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea on the worst-offender list issued last week.

In the report, Vietnam was accused of significantly restricting publicly organized activities of religious groups that are not recognized by the Vietnam government, or that it declares to be at variance with state laws and policies. The report mentioned that although some nonrecognized groups faced relatively few restrictions in practice, their status remained technically illegal. The government generally allowed persons to practice individual worship in the religion of their choice, and participation in religious activities throughout the country continued to grow significantly; however, strict restrictions on the hierarchies and clergy of religious groups remained in place. The government maintained supervisory control of the recognized religions, in part because the Communist Party (CPV) fears that not only organized religion but any organized group outside its control or supervision may weaken its authority and influence by serving as political, social, and spiritual alternatives to the authority of the government.

The report also said that the government continued to ban and actively discourage participation in what it regards as illegal religious groups, including the Protestant house churches. Despite the estimated presence of over 100,000 believers in the region, there are no officially recognized Protestant churches in the Northwest Highlands. Vietnam recognizes only six government-sanctioned religions.

A significant number of religious believers experience harassment or repression because they operate without legal sanction. Local officials have repressed unregistered Protestant believers in the Central and Northwest Highlands and other areas by forcing church gatherings to cease, demolishing or closing house churches, and pressuring them to renounce their religious beliefs, often unsuccessfully.

On numerous occasions throughout the country, small groups of Protestants belonging to house churches were subjected to harassment or arbitrary detention after local officials broke up unsanctioned religious meetings. There were many reported instances, particularly in remote provinces, in which Protestant house church followers were detained, beaten, or fined by local officials for participation in peaceful religious activities such as worship and Bible study.

But despite restrictions, the number of Protestants continued to grow, the report said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to restrict U.S. aid to Vietnam if it fails to improve what lawmakers said was a deplorable human rights record. The bill still requires U.S. Senate approval to become law.

Meanwhile, the country has been under intense pressure from international human rights groups, the European Union and the United States to improve religious freedom.

In addition to being on the U.S. State Department’s List of CPCs, Vietnam was listed as No. 4 on the Open Doors “World Watch List” which ranks the top 50 countries where Christians suffer the most.