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Vietnam: Sharp Backsliding on Religious Freedom

Harsh Crackdown on Followers of Buddhist Peace Activist Thich Nhat Hanh

(New York) - The violent forced expulsion of more than 300 followers of the world-renowned Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh from Bat Nha monastery in late September highlights the Vietnamese government's suppression of religious freedom, Human Rights Watch said today.

In 2005, the Vietnamese government welcomed Thich Nhat Hanh during his first return to his homeland after 39 years in exile abroad. Government and religious officials subsequently invited him to open a Buddhist meditation center at Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province, which soon began to draw large numbers of followers.

But on September 27, 2009, police officers cordoned off the monastery as more than 100 thugs and undercover police officers armed with sticks and hammers broke down the doors and forcefully evicted 150 monks - all followers of Thich Nhat Hanh - beating some of the monks in the process. Police reportedly arrested two senior monks, Phap Hoi and Phap Sy, whose whereabouts remain unknown. The next day, in response to threats and coercion, more than 200 Buddhist nuns, also adherents of Thich Nhat Hanh, fled the monastery, seeking temporary refuge with the monks at a nearby pagoda.

"Once again Vietnam has clamped down on a peaceful religious group - even one that was initially welcomed by the government," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government views many religious groups, particularly popular ones that it fears it can't control, as a challenge to the Communist Party's authority."

The crackdown is thought to be linked in part to proposals Thich Nhat Hanh made during a private meeting with President Nguyen Minh Triet in 2007 - and later made public - urging the government to ease its restrictions on religion.

All religious groups must be authorized by the government and overseen by government-appointed management committees. For Buddhists - the majority of the population - the management entity is the government-sanctioned Vietnamese Buddhist Church (VBC), sometimes referred to as the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha.

The VBC, which is designated to preside over all Buddhist organizations and "sects" in Vietnam, oversees pagodas and educational institutes. Its approval is required for Buddhist ordinations and ceremonies, donations to pagodas, and temple expansions. It also vets the content of Buddhist publications and religious studies curricula offered at pagoda schools. In 2007, it authorized the establishment of Thich Nhat Hanh's Buddhist training and meditation center at Bat Nha monastery.

Other Buddhist organizations - such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and some Hoa Hao and ethnic Khmer Buddhist congregations - are banned by the government because they choose to operate independently of government-appointed management committees.

The UBCV has faced decades of harassment and repression for seeking independent status and appealing to the government to respect human rights and cease its interference in religious affairs. Its leaders have been threatened, detained, put under pagoda arrest, imprisoned, and placed under strict travel restrictions for many years.

"Sadly, the harassment and expulsion of Buddhists in Lam Dong is not an isolated incident," said Pearson. "Buddhists in Vietnam have long faced harsh treatment and persecution."

Other religious groups, including some Catholics, ethnic minority Christians, Mennonites, and members of the Cao Dai faith, suffer repression and persecution for practicing their faith or conducting peaceful demonstrations calling for religious freedom and the return of church properties confiscated by the government. (For more information, see Background on Religious Freedom, below.)

The Crackdown on Thich Nhat Hanh's Followers

Thich Nhat Hanh - one of the world's most prominent and influential Buddhist monks - first drew international attention in the 1960s as a leader of South Vietnamese Buddhists opposed to the US war in Vietnam, critical of all sides to the conflict. He continued his anti-war activities from exile in France after he left the country in 1965. The government banned him from the country as he increasingly took on human rights issues, including the plight of the thousands of boat people who fled Vietnam after the communist victory in 1975 and the persecution of Buddhist clergy and patriarchs.

In February 2005, Thich Nhat Hanh was warmly welcomed by the Vietnamese government during his widely publicized return from exile. Thousands of Vietnamese attended Buddhist ceremonies, lectures, and monastic retreats led by Thich Nhat Hanh during three visits to Vietnam.

His return took place at a time when the government wanted to present a less-repressive stance toward religion in the hope that the United States would remove Vietnam from its blacklist of countries violating religious freedom, a stepping stone for its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2007.

During Thich Nhat Hanh's second visit to Vietnam in 2007, Thich Duc Nghi, the abbot of Bat Nha monastery and a VBC member, invited him to open a Buddhist center at the monastery. Thich Duc Nghi donated the monastery to Thich Nhat Hanh, whose followers and supporters invested money to rebuild it.

During that trip, Thich Nhat Hanh presented a 10-point proposal for religious reforms in his meeting with Triet. "Please separate religion from politics and politics from religious affairs," Thich Nhat Hanh said. "Please stop all surveillance by the government on religious activities, disband the Government Department for Religious Affairs, but first of all disband the Religious Police. All religious associations should be able to operate freely in accordance to laws and regulations, just like any cultural, commercial, industrial and social associations."

Tensions with the authorities over his calls for religious reforms, as well as the growing popularity of his meditation center, surfaced in 2008. His public support for the Dalai Lama and Tibet, which likely caused China to put pressure on Hanoi, may also have played a role.

In October 2008, the central government's Religious Affairs Committee stated that Thich Nhat Hanh had distorted Vietnam's religious policies and that some of his followers lacked legal rights to live at Bat Nha monastery. The abbot of Bat Nha - reportedly under pressure from his superiors - ordered Thich Nhat Hanh's followers to leave.

In June 2009, water, electricity, and telephone lines were shut off in an effort to force the monks and nuns to leave. Local civilians overran the monastery in June and July, shouting and threatening the monks and nuns, and confiscating food, furniture, and other property. The forced expulsions followed in September.

"The ousting of Thich Nhat Hanh's followers is clearly linked to his call for religious reforms, rather than the alleged failure of his followers to fulfill local residency and registration requirements," said Pearson. "Religious groups should be allowed to conduct religious activities freely, organize and manage themselves, and engage in peaceful expression."

The government accuses Thich Nhat Hanh's followers of conducting "illegal activities" and "abusing the religious regulations of the Communist Party and the government, to sabotage the government and oppose the VBC," according to a confidential memo from the District People's Committee in Lam Dong, dated September 17, 2009, obtained by Human Rights Watch. The directive instructs government officials to pressure Thich Nhat Hanh's followers to relocate to other pagodas under VBC management or return to their home villages.

Buddhists in Vietnam and around the world, as well as foreign embassies in Hanoi, condemned the harassment and eviction of Thich Nhat Hanh's followers. On October 5, 180 Vietnamese academics, poets, teachers, and scientists, including some Vietnamese Communist Party members, sent a petition to the government requesting an investigation into the incident. Even the VBC management board in Lam Dong deplored the crackdown in a confidential report to the VBC executive management council dated October 6, 2009.

Human Rights Watch called on the Vietnamese government to release everyone imprisoned for peaceful religious or political activities, and to end restrictions on religious groups, regardless of whether they affiliate with the officially authorized religious organizations. Human Rights Watch also urged the United States to reinstate Vietnam on its blacklist of countries violating freedom of religion.

"Vietnam's respect for human rights and religious freedom has sharply deteriorated since the US removed it from its blacklist and Vietnam was accepted into the World Trade Organization," said Pearson. "The Vietnamese government should stop treating freedom of religion as a privilege to be granted by the government rather than an inalienable right."

Background on Religious Freedom

Vietnam's 2004 Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions affirms the right to freedom of religion. However, it requires that all religious groups register with the government, and bans any religious activity deemed to cause public disorder, harm national security, or "sow divisions." Adherents of some religious groups that are not officially recognized by the government are persecuted. Security officials disperse their religious gatherings, confiscate religious literature, and summon religious leaders to police stations for interrogation. In some instances, police destroy churches of unauthorized religious groups and detain or imprison their members on charges of violating national security.

Members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), once the largest organization of Buddhists in southern and central Vietnam, have been threatened, detained, put under pagoda arrest, imprisoned, and placed under strict travel restrictions for many years. In July 2009, for example, police surrounded many UBCV pagodas in southern and central Vietnam to prevent monks - including the current Patriarch, Thich Quang Do - from attending a memorial ceremony for the UBCV patriarch, Thich Huyen Quang, who died in 2008.

While Hoa Hao Buddhism and the Cao Dai religion are officially recognized religions, many members strongly resist official pressure to affiliate with the government-appointed committees that oversees their religious affairs. Two Hoa Hao Buddhists immolated themselves in 2005 to protest religious repression and imprisonment of their leaders. In 2005, nine Cao Dai members were sentenced to up to 13 years in prison on national security charges after they tried to deliver a petition calling for religious freedom to delegates attending an international conference in Cambodia.

The government persecutes other unsanctioned religious groups, such as members of Christian churches not registered with the government-authorized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN), including independent Mennonite congregations affiliated with Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, a former prisoner of conscience; and ethnic minority Christians in the northern and central Vietnam.

Christian members of indigenous ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands, commonly referred to as Montagnards, face ongoing persecution and restrictions, particularly in villages where people refuse to join the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, or are suspected of following "Tin Lanh Dega" (Dega Christianity), an unauthorized religion the government considers subversive.

During 2009, at least 40 Montagnard Christians have been arrested in Gia Lai province alone for participating in unregistered "Tin Lanh Dega" house churches. On August 14, for example, police raided a prayer meeting in a home in Chu Se district, badly beating eight Montagnard Christians, including one who had to be hospitalized. In another raid in February, the police arrested 11 Montagnard Christians from several villages, beating and shocking them with electric batons when they refused to sign documents pledging to join the Evangelical Church of Vietnam. During the last year, authorities destroyed at least two churches in Dak Lak province in the Central Highlands.

Hundreds of people are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for their religious or political beliefs, or a combination of the two. They include at least 300 Montagnard Christians; Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest; Nguyen Thi Hong, a Mennonite pastor; members of the Cao Dai faith, and at least five Hoa Hao Buddhists.

In some cases, church leaders who have emerged as civil rights campaigners are charged with national security crimes and sent to prison. This was the case with Father Nguyen Van Ly, who peacefully called for the government to show greater respect and tolerance for human rights, religious freedom and democratic principles. Arrested in 2006, he is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence.

Other prominent religious figures who advocate religious freedom and democratic reforms, such as the UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do and another Catholic priest, Phan Van Loi, have been held under pagoda or house arrest for years.

"In a country such as Vietnam, where the government bans independent human rights organizations, church leaders are often the leading voices advocating for fundamental rights to free speech and religious freedom," said Pearson. "While the Vietnamese government loves to tour visiting dignitaries around crowded churches and model pagodas, it tries to deny the repression of believers that takes place every day."

Conflicts over government confiscation of church properties often go hand-in-hand with increased repression of certain denominations, for example the violent crackdown by police and government-hired thugs in 2008 on peaceful prayer vigils conducted by Catholics calling for the return of church properties in Hanoi. In July 2009, as many as 200,000 Catholics peacefully protested in Quang Binh province after police destroyed a temporary church structure erected near the ruins of the historic Tam Toa Church in Vinh Diocese. Police used tear gas and electric batons to beat parishioners who resisted, arresting 19, of whom seven were charged with disturbing public order.

US Lifting of Restrictions

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other human rights covenants, Vietnam is obligated to respect freedom of expression, religious belief, and worship.

In 2004, the US State Department designated Vietnam a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) because of what it called "particularly severe violations of religious freedom." In 2006, the State Department removed Vietnam from the list, citing the release of religious prisoners and less-restrictive legislation governing religion. Two months later, the US granted Vietnam permanent normal trade status, which led to Vietnam's membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The lifting of Vietnam's CPC status by the US was deemed premature by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and many international human rights and religious freedom groups. After a visit to Vietnam in May 2009, the commission recommended once again that the US reinstate Vietnam on the list, stating that "Vietnam's overall human rights record remains poor, and has deteriorated since Vietnam joined WTO in January 2007."

Annex I and II

Correction October 20,2009

The invitation to Thich Nhat Hanh to open a Buddhist center at Bat Nha monastery occurred in 2005, not 2007. In May and July 2006, respectively, the official Vietnamese Buddhist Church and the central government issued documents authorizing monks, nuns, and other aspirants to practice at Bat Nha monastery according to Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings.

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