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Letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recommending specific benchmarks that the State Department can articulate in talks with the Government of Vietnam over that country’s designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. Reinforcing the U.S. government’s concern with religious freedom is especially important now.

Dear Secretary Rice:

We are writing to recommend specific benchmarks that the State Department can articulate in talks with the Government of Vietnam over that country’s designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.1 Reinforcing the U.S. government’s concern with religious freedom is especially important now. Despite a few well-timed gestures earlier this month, such as the release of two prominent religious prisoners and a directive to stop forcing Protestants to recant their faith, Vietnam has in all other respects continued its exceptionally repressive policies, imprisoning and persecuting believers of religions who attempt to peacefully and independently practice their faiths.

Since the U.S. granted normal trade relations status to Vietnam in 2001, Vietnam’s track record on respecting religious freedom and other fundamental human rights has continued to deteriorate. The Vietnamese government brands all unauthorized religious activities—particularly those that it fears may attract large followings—as potentially subversive. Targeted in particular are ethnic minority Protestants, Mennonites, and members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV).

Persecution of Minority Christians
Despite the recent high-profile prisoner releases, the Vietnamese government continues to arrest and imprison ethnic minority Protestants in the northwestern provinces and Central Highlands. Human Rights Watch has documented the arbitrary arrest and torture of ethnic minority Protestants, as well as persistent reports of officials forcing minority villagers to abandon their religion and cease all political or religious activities in public self-criticism sessions or by signing written pledges. 2

Ethnic Hmong Christians in the northwest provinces have been beaten, detained, and pressured by local authorities to abandon their religion and cease religious gatherings. At least ten Hmong Christians remain in detention in Lai Chau and Ha Giang provinces. Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of the beating deaths in 2002 and 2003 of two Hmong Christians by authorities who were pressuring them to renounce their faith. The military presence in several villages in Lai Chau has increased recently, causing many Hmong Christians to flee from their homes.

In the Central Highlands, the government has increased its persecution of members of ethnic minorities (collectively known as Montagnards), particularly those thought to be following “Dega Protestantism.” This is a form of evangelical Christianity, banned by the Vietnamese government, which links it to the Montagnard movement for return of ancestral lands, religious freedom, and self-rule. Since 2001, when thousands of Montagnards first joined widespread protests for land rights and religious freedom, the government has launched an official campaign to eradicate “Dega Protestantism.” 3

The government’s crackdown against Dega Protestantism – which it charges is a political movement and not a religion - has impacted all Montagnard Christians, whether they are Dega supporters or not.

Since 2001 more than 180 Montagnard Christians – not only Dega church activists, but pastors, house church leaders, and Bible teachers as well - have been arrested and sentenced to prison terms of up to thirteen years. Many have been imprisoned on charges that they are violent separatists using their religion to “sow divisions among the people” and “undermine state and party unity.” There is no evidence that the Dega church movement has ever advocated violence. By arresting and imprisoning people for their religious beliefs or peaceful expression of their views, Vietnam is in violation of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a party.

Mennonites Jailed
Members of the Mennonite Church have also come under fire in recent years, in part because of the outspoken and at times confrontational style of Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang, the activist leader of the Mennonite Church in Vietnam. He has publicly criticized the arrests of religious and political dissidents, defended land rights cases of farmers from the provinces and used the Internet to call for religious freedom. Quang and three other Mennonites currently remain in prison on charges of resisting police officers after a scuffle broke out in March 2004 with undercover policemen who had been monitoring their Ho Chi Minh City church. Mennonites in other parts of the country have also encountered difficulties. On two separate occasions during 2004, officials in Kontum province bulldozed a Mennonite chapel that doubled as the home and office of Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, superintendent of the Mennonite churches in the Central Highlands. In September and October 2004, police pressured Mennonites in Kontum and Gia Lai provinces to sign forms renouncing their religion.

Abuses against Buddhists
While one UBCV monk, Thich Thien Mien, was included in the recent Tet New Year prisoner amnesty, the government continues to persecute UBCV members and withhold any recognition of this group, once the largest organization of the majority religion in the country. In 2003, four UBCV monks were formally sentenced without trial to two years’ administrative detention. Many other UBCV members remain confined without charges to their pagodas, which are under strict police surveillance. Their phone lines are cut or monitored and movement in and out of the pagodas is restricted. Members of the Hoa Hao sect of Buddhism have also been subject to police surveillance and at least one Hoa Hao member, eighty-seven-year-old Ngo Quang Vinh, remains in prison. The sect was granted official status in May 1999, although government appointees dominate an eleven member Hoa Hao Buddhism Representative Committee established at that time.

Long-term Imprisonment of Catholics
While relations between Vietnam and the Vatican have improved in recent years, the government continues to restrict the number of Catholic parishes, require prospective seminarians to obtain government permission before entering the seminary, and maintain defacto veto power over Roman Catholic ordinations and appointments. Roman Catholic Father Nguyen Van Ly, recipient of the Hellman/Hammett award for persecuted writers, was among those released in this month’s prisoner amnesty. At least three other Catholics – members of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix – continue to serve twenty year prison sentences imposed in 1987 for conducting training courses and distributing religious books without government permission. They were convicted of security offenses, including “conducting propaganda to oppose the socialist regime,” “undermining the policy of unity,” and “disruption of public security.” The group includes sixty-four-year-old Father Pham Minh Tri, who has been imprisoned at Z30A prison in Dong Nai for the last eighteen years, despite suffering dementia for most of the past decade.

Legal and Policy Developments
As the deadline for finalizing the CPC consultations approaches, in recent weeks the Vietnamese government has issued public statements encouraging government and Party officials to “consider and recognize eligible chapters” of Protestant house church groups in ethnic minority areas as long as they meet the legal requirements. In February, the Prime Minister issued Instruction No. 01/2005, “Guiding Protestant Religious Organizations.” It contains some positive elements, such as its prohibition of attempts to force Protestants to deny their religion. However, as with the November 2004 Ordinance on Beliefs and Religion, the Instruction advances Vietnam’s official stance that religious freedom is a privilege to be requested and granted by the government, rather than a fundamental human right.

Instruction No. 01/2005 requires religious organizations to obtain government permission in order to operate, and in an ominous tone, it instructs officials to “fight attempts by hostile forces to abuse Protestantism to incite people to act subversively.”

The 2004 Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions requires that all religious groups be officially approved and subject to government control, and bans any religious activity deemed to threaten national security, public order or national unity. It gives weight to the government’s systematic campaign to ban peaceful independent religious groups who practice their faith outside of state-sanctioned institutions or whose governing boards are not approved and controlled by the government.

In addition, Vietnam’s Penal Code, as amended in 1999, criminalizes religious activities that are deemed to threaten national security, public order, and national unity. Many of these provisions trample fundamental rights and Vietnam’s own treaty commitments, for example, by making peaceful dissent or unsanctioned religious acts a crime. Some are so vaguely worded that they invite abusive application.4 Invoking “national security” or “national unity” allows the state to assert comprehensive control over religious matters and to penalize, arrest, and imprison disfavored religious leaders and followers at will. The Penal Code has no exemption for peaceful dissent or expression that is not an incitement to violent acts, jeopardizing those who merely exercise their legitimate rights to freedom of opinion or expression. 5

Proposed Benchmarks
We propose that the following benchmarks be used in the State Department’s evaluation of Vietnam’s progress in improving its respect for religious freedom. Before lifting Vietnam’s CPC status, the Department of State should establish that the government of Vietnam has taken the following concrete steps:

1. Allow independent religious organizations to freely conduct religious activities and govern themselves. Churches and denominations that do not choose to join one of the officially-authorized religious organizations whose governing boards are under the control of the government should be allowed to independently register with the government.

2. Release or grant amnesty to all people imprisoned or detained because of their non-violent religious beliefs and practices.

3. Investigate and punish those responsible for all instances of violence against religious believers, including by civilians acting in concert with government officials. Such incidents include the violent suppression of the April 2004 protests by Montagnards in the Central Highlands, and reports of torture, beatings, and killings of ethnic minority Protestants, including the beating deaths of Hmong Christians Mua Bua Senh and Vang Seo Giao in 2002 and 2003 in Lai Chau and Ha Giang provinces, respectively.6

4. Investigate reports of suppression of Protestants, including arbitrary detention of Mennonites and evangelical Christians. Those responsible for these violations should be brought to justice.

5. Investigate reports of torture and beatings, including beating deaths, of ethnic minority Christians in both the northwestern provinces and the Central Highlands, and bring those responsible to justice. Cease the repression of ethnic minority Protestants, including bans on religious gatherings and other meetings, pressure to renounce one’s faith, mandatory participation in non-Christian rituals, destruction of churches by local authorities and security officials, and abusive police surveillance of religious leaders.

6. Ensure that all domestic legislation addressing religious affairs is brought in conformity with international law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Amend provisions in domestic law that criminalizes certain religious activities on the basis of imprecisely-defined “national security” crimes.

7. Amend the 2004 Ordinance on Beliefs and Religion to include a provision that prohibits forced renunciation ceremonies by government officials, linked to specific disciplinary measures for offenders.

8. Permit outside experts, including those from the United Nations and independent international human rights organizations, to have access to religious followers in Vietnam, including members of denominations not officially recognized by the government.

9. Invite the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit Vietnam to investigate violations of religious freedom and other rights abuses committed against members of churches that are not officially sanctioned by the government.

We urge you to send a strong message to the Vietnamese government that the U.S. will not tolerate Vietnam’s violations of the right to religious freedom. We hope our concerns will be taken into account as the U.S. conducts its consultations with Vietnam in regard to improving its record on upholding the right to religious freedom.


Brad Adams
Asia Director, Human Rights Watch

[1]The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act defines particularly severe violations of religious freedom as systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.

[2]See Human Rights Watch, Vietnam: Torture, Arrests of Montagnard Christians: A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, January 10, 2005.

[3]For example, see Vietnamese Communist Party, Material to Propagandize and Fight Against the Scheme of the Enemy Forces to Establish an Independent Dega Country and Dega Protestantism, Cu Mgar District, Dak Lak, October 22, 2002. Original document on file at Human Rights Watch.

[4]Penal Code of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, cited in A Selection of Fundamental Laws of Vietnam, the Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 2001.

[5]See the report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which visited Vietnam in 1995. Commission on Human Rights, Question of the Human Rights of All Persons Subjected to Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Visit to Vietnam, E/CN.4/1995/31/Add.4, January 18, 1995.

[6]See Human Rights Watch, “Vietnam: Violence against Montagnards during Easter Week Protests,” April 14, 2004; and “Montagnards Under Lockdown: Independent Investigation of Easter Week Atrocities Needed Now,” May 28, 2004.

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