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Vietnam: Action Needed Now to End Religious Persecution

Vietnam Blacklisted as One of the Worst Violators of Religious Rights

(New York) - The U.S. needs to spell out specific actions that Vietnam should take to improve its dismal religious rights record, Human Rights Watch said today in an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The U.S. is currently engaged in talks with Vietnam over its designation as one of the worst violators of religious rights in the world.

Last September the U.S. State Department designated Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) for its systematic and egregious abuse of religious freedom under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. Consultations on religious freedom between the U.S. and Vietnam are slated to end on March 15, 2005. Religious repression in Vietnam was highlighted in the State Department’s own annual human right report, which is being released today.

“Despite a few well-timed goodwill gestures, such as the recent release of several religious prisoners, Vietnam has in all other respects continued its exceptionally repressive policies,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam is notorious for persecuting and imprisoning believers of religions who attempt to peacefully and independently practice their faith.”

The Vietnamese government imposes strict controls over religious organizations and treats leaders of unauthorized religious groups with intense suspicion, branding many of them as subversives. Targeted in particular are ethnic minority Christians, Mennonites, and members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV).

Ethnic Hmong Christians in the northwest provinces have been beaten, detained, and pressured by local authorities to renounce their religion and cease religious gatherings. At least ten Hmong Christians remain in detention in Lai Chau and Ha Giang provinces. Recently 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 repression of Montagnard Christians, 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 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, many 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.

While one UBCV monk was included in a 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. Many UBCV members remain confined without charges to their pagodas, which are under strict police surveillance.

Mennonites in Vietnam have also encountered difficulties. Four 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. On two separate occasions during 2004, officials in Kontum province bulldozed a Mennonite chapel. In September and October 2004, police pressured Mennonites in Kontum and Gia Lai provinces to sign forms renouncing their religion.

While relations between the Vatican and Vietnam have warmed in recent years, at least three Roman Catholics remain in prison, where they are serving long prison sentences for conducting training courses and distributing religious books without government permission. They include 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.

As the deadline for finalizing the CPC consultations approaches, earlier this month the Prime Minister issued Instruction No. 01/2005, “Guiding Protestant Religious Organizations.” It outlaws attempts by officials to force Protestant to abandon their religion, a practice Human Rights Watch has documented among ethnic minority Christians for years.

However, as with the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religion passed last year, this latest directive continues to require religious organizations to obtain government permission in order to operate, advancing Vietnam’s official stance that religious freedom is a privilege to be requested and granted by the government, rather than a fundamental human right.

“Hanoi needs to commit itself to deep-seated reform and meaningful action, rather than token gestures,” said Adams. “There are hundreds of religious prisoners waiting for release, and thousands more people waiting for the right to express their beliefs and practice their faith.”

The International Religious Freedom Act offers the President a menu of options to address abuses in countries designated as CPC, ranging from public condemnation, limiting certain kinds of assistance, to full sanctions. In addition to Vietnam, countries designated as CPC this year include China, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Eritrea.

“The Bush Administration needs to send a strong message to the Vietnamese government that the U.S. will not tolerate this kind of persecution,” said Adams. “The U.S. should make sure that any pledges made during these consultations are backed up by prompt action on the part of the Vietnamese authorities.”

Proposed Benchmarks
The current talks between the U.S. and Vietnam aim to outline specific steps for Vietnam to take to improve its record on religious freedom, thereby avoiding stronger penalties by the U.S., including economic sanctions.

Human Rights Watch proposes that the State Department should make sure that the government of Vietnam has taken the following concrete steps as it evaluates Vietnam’s progress in improving its respect for religious freedom:

  • 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.
  • Release or grant amnesty to all people imprisoned or detained because of their non-violent religious beliefs and practices.
  • 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 in both the central and northern highlands.
  • Investigate reports of suppression of Protestants, including arbitrary detention of Mennonites and evangelical Christians. Those responsible for these violations should be brought to justice.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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