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Around the world, religious freedom is under a sustained attack. In the Asia-Pacific region, there are governments that restrict the freedom to choose and practice a religion, that discriminate in law and policy against certain religious groups, that criminalize and sentence people to prison or even death for “blasphemy” or certain religious practices, and that fail to rein in extremists from conducting deadly attacks or persecuting religious minorities. This is despite the fact that many governments, through their constitutions and as parties to international treaties, have committed to protect religious freedom.

This submission looks at countries in the region where Human Rights Watch currently see the greatest threats to religious freedom, and where Australia’s voice carries weight. In Bangladesh, Burma, China, India, Indonesia, North Korea, Pakistan, Vietnam, we raise key concerns that we hope will influence Australian policy and aid decisions.

Australia’s influence is greatest in the Asia-Pacific region, and principled, consistent advocacy from Australia on this issue is welcomed by civil society and religious groups facing persecution and attack. Other countries outside the region also face serious challenges to religious freedom, but are not included here. Australia’s diverse multicultural background, its robust democratic institutions and formal separation between church and state means Australia is well-placed to speak up on preventing violence and discrimination against religious minorities.

Other governments, such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, have devoted significant resources to addressing religious freedom. In these countries, efforts to advance freedom of religion internationally are primarily focused on advocating on behalf of persecuted religious and belief communities under threat, opposing religious hatred, discrimination and xenophobia, and supporting dialogue among different religious groups where religious issues are principle factors of tension between communities.[1]

The US has established the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), the Office of International Religious Freedom, a US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) headed by the US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, and a Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia. Annually, the State Department designates “countries of particular concern” and determines actions designed to encourage improvements in those countries. Independently, the US Office of International Religious Freedom publishes an annual ‘International Religious Freedom Report,’ which is used in shaping policy and diplomacy as well as helping to determine which countries have particular religious freedoms. The 2015 report recognizes areas of concern in Angola, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burma, Brunei, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Hungary, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Slovak Republic, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Vietnam. The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan US government advisory body that also monitors religious freedom worldwide and publishes a separate annual report which makes recommendations to the US government.

In the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) made freedom of religion or belief a priority in 2013. Although the UK government does not have a religious freedom ambassador, it has a senior FCO staff member dedicated to religious freedom issues. In September 2015, the UK parliament launched a religious freedom toolkit to give parliamentarians effective tools to promote religious freedom.[2]

Canada had an Office of Religious Freedom with an ambassador under the previous Harper administration, but this was replaced with an Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion to focus more broadly on human rights, including religious freedom.

In June 2015, Canada and the US launched the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, bringing together a diverse, cross regional group of over twenty countries to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief around the world.

Australia has co-sponsored important resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Council on protection of religious freedom. Australia has also raised religious freedom issues through the Universal Periodic Review process for relevant countries. Continued pressure through various UN mechanisms is helpful and necessary.

Australia’s efforts at the multilateral level would be more effective if senior Australian officials and politicians spoke out publicly as well as privately about religious freedom in their dealings with other governments. Such public statements have been quite rare. In addition to quiet diplomacy, the government needs a principled, consistent, and more vocal opposition to violations of religious freedom.

Overall, Human Rights Watch urges Australia to do the following:

  • Within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), appoint an ambassador or advisor as a dedicated spokesperson on freedom of religion issues in Australia and globally. Alternatively, task DFAT’s human rights envoy with regular reporting on their efforts to protect and promote human rights, including efforts to protect religious freedom.
  • Ask DFAT to issue a public strategy document on human rights, including their efforts to protect and promote freedom of religion and identifying countries of particular concern. The policy document should set clear and specific goals on how to protect religious freedom for each country, and advise Australian diplomats and embassy staff on making religious freedom issues a priority. DFAT should report publicly on progress annually.
  • Direct ambassadors to find opportunities to advocate regularly and publicly on religious freedom so that Australia’s position is well-known. Encourage embassy staff to monitor trials relating to religious violence and persecution.
  • Work with the UN and like-minded countries to issue statements of concern where individuals are persecuted on religious grounds.
  • Publicly and privately urge an end to religious violence and persecution of religious minorities wherever they occur, and call for those inciting or engaging in religious violence to be prosecuted.
  • Publicly and privately urge the immediate repeal or amendment of domestic laws that violate freedom of religion and belief, expression, association, or peaceful assembly.
  • Publicly and privately urge non-signatory states to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and ensure respect for freedom of religion as a fundamental human right; and that all domestic legislation addressing religious affairs are brought into conformity with international human rights law.
  • Support civil society organizations in various countries that defend the rights of religious minorities and provide support and protection to affected communities.

Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country and the official state religion is Islam, but the constitution guarantees equal protection and equal rights for all other religions.[3] The last few years have seen a rise in deadly attacks against religious minorities, and those espousing atheist positions, or criticizing fundamentalist Islam. Many of these attacks are claimed by extremist Islamist groups with alleged ties to either Al-Qaeda or Daesh.

In early 2013, assailants hacked a blogger to death with a machete. Similar attacks and murders, often carried out in daylight and in public spaces, followed sporadically throughout 2013 and escalated in 2015 and 2016. The government’s initial response to the killings, rather than investigate and prosecute the killers, was to urge bloggers to censor themselves. Several bloggers were even charged with the inchoate crime of “hurting religious sentiment.”[4] In addition to bloggers and writers, members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians and Shia were also attacked and sometimes killed. In spite of a “hit-list” of 84 persons put out by the attackers, the government failed to provide close protection to those on the list. Several persons on the list are among those murdered.

In June 2016, after the high-profile killing of two LGBT activists received international attention and condemnation, the government reacted forcefully.[5] But in a manner typical of an abusive security force not reined in by procedure and evidence, nearly 15,000 persons were arrested nationwide over the course of eight days.[6] By the government’s own admission, only about 150 of those arrested have any link to extremist forces.

The government has continued its crackdown against those it perceives as Islamist militants, particularly after the July 2016 attack on the Holey Café in Dhaka during which gunmen killed 20 people. While the government has the responsibility to identify and prosecute members of militant groups implicated in criminal offenses, they have not done so in a rights-respecting manner.

Bangladesh gives shelter to an estimated 300,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers who have fled religious and other persecution in Burma. In recent months, an additional 65,000 have arrived following violence in Burma’s Rakhine State. The Bangladeshi government should be encouraged to continue supporting those fleeing religious persecution, and not to push them back over the border as the government occasionally threatens to do.

Bangladesh’s personal laws governing marriage, separation, and divorce overtly discriminate against women. Setting out separate rules for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, many of these laws grant men greater powers than women in marriage and accessing divorce. While there is momentum for reform, there is also strong opposition including from religious leaders averse to government involvement in “religious” affairs, or who argue that “religious” teachings offer no scope for reform. But reforms are both necessary and possible to ensure greater rights for women in marriages. There are many examples of countries with Muslim, Hindu, and Christian populations—including countries with Muslim majorities or countries that incorporate Sharia (Islamic law) in their family laws, as Bangladesh does—which have reformed personal laws to recognize greater rights for women.[7] Reforms regarding separation and divorce are especially urgent for the more than 50 percent of girls who marry as children in Bangladesh. The rate of child marriage may worsen if the government pushes ahead with a law—seen as an effort to placate religious conservatives—now pending in parliament that would create a new exception to the minimum age of marriage at 18, permitting girls to marry at any age with judicial authorization.

Australia should publicly and privately call on the Bangladesh government to:
  • Protect all religious minorities, including their rights to free expression and association.
  • Investigate and appropriately prosecute all those responsible for attacks on religious minorities, including atheists.
  • Ensure that all those arrested or investigated in connection with violence against religious minorities receive due process under both national and international law.
  • Drop all prosecutions against those accused of “hurting religious sentiment” as a result of not agreeing with Islamic tenets.
  • Recognize the Rohingya, both long-term refugees as well as new arrivals, as victims of religious persecution and continue to extend protections to them.
  • Reform the country’s personal laws to make them consistent across all religions, to remove all provisions which discriminate on the basis of gender, and to make them compatible with Bangladesh’s obligations under international law.
  • Remove the provision in the pending revision of the Child Marriage Restraint Act which would lower the age at which girls can legally marry.

Despite a newly elected government under the leadership of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma faces rising religious tensions. Burma’s population is almost 90 percent Buddhist, and other religious minorities, especially Muslims, face discrimination and, in some cases, outright violence. The January 29 assassination of prominent Muslim lawyer and senior National League for Democracy legal advisor U Ko Ni could further raise tensions between Muslims and Buddhists.

The Muslim Rohingya population, largely resident in Rakhine State, is effectively denied citizenship. Denial of citizenship for the Rohingya, who are not in the list of 135 ethnic peoples of Burma recognized under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law, has facilitated enduring rights abuses, including restrictions on movement; limitations on access to health care, livelihood, shelter, and education; arbitrary arrests and detention; and forced labor. Travel is severely constrained by authorization requirements, security checkpoints, curfews, and strict control of internally displaced person camp access. Such barriers compound the health crisis caused by poor living conditions, severe overcrowding, and limited health facilities.

The plight of the Rohingya deteriorated sharply after the October 2016 attack by Rohingya militants on three police outposts in Maungdaw township in Rakhine State, leaving nine police officers dead. Immediately after the attacks, government forces declared Maungdaw an “operation zone” and began sweeps of the area to find the attackers and lost weapons. Security forces severely restricted freedom of movement of local populations and imposed extended curfews, which remain in place. Humanitarian aid groups have also been denied access, placing tens of thousands of already vulnerable people at greater risk. Media and local rights groups have reported numerous human rights abuses against Rohingya following the attack. Satellite imagery obtained by Human Rights Watch shows evident fire-related destruction in multiple villages in northern Rakhine State,[8] and Rohingya refugees Human Rights Watch interviewed in Bangladesh reported summary executions, rape and other sexual violence, looting and burning of villages by the military and border police.[9] Government-imposed restrictions on access to the area by journalists and human rights monitors continues to hinder impartial information gathering.

In 2015, the Buddhist-monk-led Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha, successfully urged the government to draft and pass four so-called “race and religion protection laws”: the Population Control Law, the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law, the Religious Conversion Law, and the Monogamy Law.[10] The Religious Conversion Law enables the state to regulate religious profession and conversion, an unjustified state interference in the right to freedom of conscience and religion. The law prohibits converting with the intent to “insult, disrespect, destroy, or abuse a religion” and bars anyone from bullying or enticing another person to convert or deterring them from doing so. The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law creates special rules for Buddhist women who marry non-Buddhist men; introducing vaguely defined acts against Buddhism as grounds for divorce, forfeiture of child custody and matrimonial property; and empowers authorities to limit the number of children that members of designated groups can have. These laws imperil religious freedom of all religious minorities in the country.

Freedom to worship is also affected by discriminatory laws on land ownership that make it exceedingly difficult to get permission to build a church or a mosque or plant a cross. According to a recent report by the USCIRF, the military routinely occupy, desecrate and destroy churches in Kachin and Chin States, both of which have large Christian populations.[11] In non-conflict areas, mobs have repeatedly destroyed mosques with impunity. In June and July 2016, mobs destroyed a mosque in Bago Region and a Muslim prayer hall in Kachin State. The government declined to investigate either incident.

Australia should publicly and privately call on the Burmese government to:
  • Publicly urge an end to the vilification and in some cases incitement to violence against Burma’s Muslim minority population.
  • Immediately repeal all local security measures that restrict freedom of movement and access to education and health care by the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
  • Amend the 1982 Citizenship Law to allow Rohingya full citizenship on a non-discriminatory basis and ensure that children are never made stateless.
  • Urgently allow an independent, international investigation into recent events in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw district. An independent, international investigation needs to examine the deadly attacks on border guard posts on October 9, and allegations that government security forces subsequently committed summary killings, rape and other sexual violence, arson, and other rights abuses against Rohingya villagers in the district.
  • Cease blocking humanitarian aid from international and domestic sources to areas where conflict and displacement are making thousands vulnerable, including Rakhine State.
  • Permit outside observers, including UN agencies, foreign diplomats, human rights organizations, and the media unhindered and unaccompanied access to areas of conflict, including in Rakhine State.
  • Repeal the four so-called “race and religion protection” laws.
  • Amend discriminatory land ownership laws and regulations that make it difficult to get permission to build houses of worship.
  • Ensure the protection of houses of worship in conflict areas.

The Chinese government restricts religious practice to five officially recognized religions and to officially approved premises. The government closely monitors the operation of religious bodies and retains control over religious personnel appointments and publications. The government also classifies religious groups outside its control as “evil cults,” such as Falun gong and the Buddhist sect Huazang Dharma, and members of such groups suffer extralegal punishments and state persecution.

In 2015, in Zhejiang province, the so-called “heartland of Chinese Christianity,” authorities continued their campaign to remove crosses from churches, and in some cases demolished entire churches. In February, authorities detained a human rights lawyer for providing legal advice to Christians affected by the cross removals. A court sentenced a church leader and two pastors to jail for their opposition to the campaign. At least a hundred Christians have reportedly been detained for resisting the demolitions.

Freedom of religion is also under attack by new repressive policies and laws. In April, President Xi Jinping warned against “overseas infiltrations through religious means,” and called on religions to “Sinicize” or “adopt Chinese characteristics.” In August 2016, the National People’s Congress approved an amendment to article 300 of the Criminal Law, which extended the penalty range to life imprisonment for organizing and participating in “cults.” In September 2016, the government released draft revisions to its 2005 Religious Regulations, which require that religion must “protect national security” and demands more control over foreign religious influences. 

Australia should publicly and privately call on the Chinese government to:
  • Recognize religions outside of the five state-approved religions, and allow all religious organizations to freely practice their religion and govern themselves.
  • Remove restrictions on premises for the practice of religion.
  • Cease all measures to remove religious symbols from Christian churches.
  • Release anyone held for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of religion, belief and expression, including human rights lawyers, activists, and religious followers.
  • Ensure all domestic legislation addressing religious affairs is brought into conformity with international human rights law. Amend provisions in domestic law that are repressive against freedom of religion and belief, expression, association, or peaceful assembly.
  • Ratify the ICCPR and ensure respect for freedom of religion as a fundamental human right.

Religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, have come under increasing threat of harassment and violence and have expressed concern that the authorities are not doing enough to protect them. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power over two years ago, several party leaders have made inflammatory remarks against minorities, while militant Hindu groups that claim to support the Modi government have threatened and harassed Muslims and Christians, in some cases physically attacking them.

Hindu vigilante groups have killed six Muslim men in separate incidents across the country in 2015 and 2016 over suspicions that they had killed, stolen, or sold cows for beef. The violence took place amid an aggressive push by several BJP leaders and militant Hindu groups to protect cows, which many Hindus consider sacred, and for a ban on beef consumption.

Militant Hindu groups have also attacked Christian churches in several Indian states in the last two years.

The authorities have not robustly pressed for the prosecution of those responsible for violent attacks on minorities. The impunity enjoyed by assailants is contributing to a sense of government indifference to growing risks facing religious minorities.

Australia should publicly and privately call on the Indian government to:
  • Publicly condemn and fully prosecute attacks on religious minorities.
  • Act to reassure religious minorities that the government will take all necessary steps to protect them.
  • Work with civil society groups to promote tolerance and non-discrimination.

The rights of religious minorities remain under threat from both discriminatory regulations as well as militant Islamists. Discrimination against religious minorities is deeply entrenched in the state bureaucracy,[12] fueled by discriminatory laws and regulations, including a blasphemy law that officially recognizes only six religions, and house of worship decrees that give local majority populations significant leverage over religious minority communities.[13]

State institutions have also directly violated the rights and freedoms of minorities. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society under the Attorney General’s Office, and the Indonesian Ulama Council, have eroded religious freedom by issuing decrees and fatwas against members of religious minorities, and pressing for the prosecution of “blasphemers.”[14] Currently, Jakarta Governor Basuki Purnama is facing blasphemy charges over a remark he made in which he criticized Muslim politicians who used the Quran to discourage voters from voting for non-Muslim politicians. Hundreds of thousands Muslim protesters organized rallies in November and December 2016, demanding police arrest and investigate Purnama.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch published a 107-page report, “In Religion’s Name: Abuses against Religious Minorities in Indonesia,” which documents the Indonesian government’s failure to confront militant groups whose thuggish harassment and assaults on houses of worship and members of religious minorities has become increasingly aggressive. Those targeted include Ahmadiyahs, Christians, and Shia Muslims.

The government response has been weak at best and complicit at worst. Officials and security forces frequently facilitate harassment of religious minorities, in some cases even blaming the victims for the attacks. Authorities have made blatantly discriminatory statements, refused to issue building permits for houses of worship, and pressured minority congregations to relocate.[15]

Indonesian officials and security forces have been complicit in the violent forced eviction of more than 7,000 members of the Gafatar religious community from their homes on Kalimantan island since January 2016.[16] In January 2016, local Indonesian authorities banned the activities of the Ahmadiyah religious community in the town of Subang in West Java province.[17] That same month, local government officials on Bangka Island, located off the east coast of Sumatra, ordered the island’s Ahmadiyah community to convert to Sunni Islam or face forcible expulsion from the area.[18]

Australia should publicly and privately call on the Indonesian government to:
  • Protect religious minorities, and hold to account anyone who attacks or incites others to attack religious minorities.
  • Review existing regulations and decrees on religion to identify provisions at odds with freedom of religion and freedom of conscience as recognized under Indonesia’s Constitution.
  • Repeal the blasphemy law.
  • Sanction local officials who fail to respect court judgments guaranteeing religious freedom, including construction of houses of worship.
North Korea

In Pyongyang, there are four state-approved churches (two Protestant, one Catholic, one Russian Orthodox), but they are all Potemkin Village-style “show churches,” operated for the benefit of foreign visitors. All prayers and religious studies conducted at these churches are supervised by the state, and these churches are often used for state propaganda. In reality, independent religious worship is not allowed, and the North Korean government indoctrinates its people from childhood to worship the Kim family and the rule of the Korean Worker’s Party.

The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea (headed by retired Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby) found that “there is almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as well as the right to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.” The COI also found the North Korean government “considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat” and as a result, “Christians are prohibited from practicing their religion and are persecuted.” Some returnees from China are also detained at kyohwaso, or penal “re-education centers.”

The North Korean government often considers Christians to be foreign spies. Persons caught worshipping, or organizing religious activities, are severely punished. In worst cases, they are sent to political prison camps (kwanliso), where the COI found the government commits severe rights abuses, including extrajudicial killing, forced labor, torture, rape and sexual violence, and other inhumane acts. North Koreans who flee the country and are caught in China and returned to North Korea often face intensive interrogation, including torture, and one of the important facets is to try and discover whether the escapee had contact with Christian groups operating in China.

Practitioners of other religions, such as Buddhism, Shamanism and Cheondoism – a faith that combines elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and Shamanism – also face restrictions and discrimination. The songbun caste system is a socio-political classification that determines the status of every North Korean citizen, largely based on their family’s history of perceived loyalty to the government. From its creation, songbun divided people into three groups – the “core” (and privileged), “wavering,” and “hostile” (the most disadvantaged) classes. Under this system, religious believers are classified in the “hostile” category and so this promotes their persecution.

Australia should call on the North Korean government to:
  • End all forms of harassment, intimidation and persecution of persons for exercising their right to freedom of conscience and religion.
  • Abolish the discriminatory songbun caste system.
  • Immediately cease the operation of political prison camps (kwanliso) and re-education centers (kyohwaso), which often hold political and religious prisoners, release all detainees and dismantle these facilities, provide freed prisoners with appropriate assistance and compensation, and investigate and appropriately prosecute those who were responsible for abuses at those facilities.

Pakistan's "Blasphemy Law," as section 295-C of the penal code is known, makes the death penalty mandatory for blasphemy. Legal discrimination against religious minorities and the failure of Pakistan's federal and provincial governments to address religious persecution by Islamist groups effectively enables atrocities against these groups and others who are vulnerable. The government seldom brings charges against those responsible for such violence and discrimination. Social persecution and legal discrimination against religious minorities has become particularly widespread in Punjab province.

The Pakistani government has failed to amend or repeal the blasphemy law provisions that provide a pretext for impunity and violence against religious minorities. Since 1990, at least 60 people have been murdered after being accused of blasphemy. At present, at least 19 people convicted of blasphemy are on death row; many others are serving life sentences. Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman remains on death row for accusations of blasphemy.

In 2009, authorities charged scores of people under the law, including at least 50 members of the Ahmadiyah community, a heterodox sect that has been declared non-Muslim under Pakistani law. Many of these individuals remain in prison.

The persecution of the Ahmadiyah community is wholly legalized, even encouraged, by the Pakistani government. Pakistan’s penal code explicitly discriminates against religious minorities and targets Ahmadis in particular by prohibiting them from “indirectly or directly posing as a Muslim.” Ahmadis are prohibited from declaring or propagating their faith publicly, building mosques or even referring to them as such, or making the call for Muslim prayer.

Since the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq unleashed a wave of persecution in the 1980s, violence against the Ahmadiyah community has never really ceased. Ahmadis continue to be killed and injured, and have their homes and businesses burned down in anti-Ahmadi attacks. The authorities continue to arrest, jail and charge Ahmadis for blasphemy and other offenses because of their religious beliefs. In several instances, the police have been complicit in harassment and the framing of false charges against Ahmadis, or stood by in the face of anti-Ahmadi violence.

Sectarian violence, particularly attacks against the already beleaguered Shia community, continues unabated.


Australia should publicly and privately call on the Pakistani goverment to:
  • Repeal sections 295, 295-A, 295-B, 295-C, 298-A, 298-B and 298-C of the Penal Code 1860, also known as the blasphemy laws.
  • Ensure the immediate and unconditional release of all persons deprived of liberty solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.
  • Appropriately prosecute those responsible for planning and executing attacks against religious minorities.
  • Take all necessary steps to ensure police, prosecutors, judges and all other officials responsible for the administration of justice in blasphemy cases are effectively protected against threats and intimidation.
  • Take steps to encourage religious tolerance within Pakistani society.
The Vietnamese government restricts religious practice through legislation, onerous registration requirements on “unofficial” religious groups, harassment, and surveillance. Religious groups are required to gain approval from and register with the government, as well as operate under government-controlled management boards. While authorities allow many government-affiliated churches and pagodas to hold worship services, they ban religious activities they arbitrarily deem threatening to the “national interest,” “public order,” or “national great unity.” Authorities frequently interfere with religious activities of unrecognized branches of the Cao Dai church, the Hoa Hao Buddhist church, independent Protestant and Catholic house churches in the central highlands and elsewhere, Khmer Krom Buddhist temples, and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. In November 2016, the National Assembly passed the problematic Law on Religion and Belief despite protests from domestic religious and international rights groups.[19]

Another common form of harassment that authorities continue to use against independent religious groups is forced denunciation of their faith. In April, state media reported that more than 500 followers of the outlawed Dega Protestants “voluntarily renounced” their faith in Chu Puh district, Gia Lai province. These renunciations, which research has shown are routinely coerced, constitute a grave violation of freedom of belief, which is not subject to limitation under international human rights law.

Human Rights Watch had also highlighted the Vietnamese government’s ongoing persecution of Montagnard Christians in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, one aspect of a broader pattern of rights violations against religious minorities in the country.[20] Accused of practicing “evil way” religions, Montagnard practitioners of the De Ga and Ha Mon forms of Christianity are subjected to constant surveillance and other forms of intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and mistreatment in security force custody as a matter of government policy. In detention, the authorities question them about their religious and political activities and possible plans to flee Vietnam. During 2016, courts convicted at least nine ethnic minority Montagnards, for participating in independent religious groups not approved by the government. They were charged for “undermining national unity” under article 87 and sentenced to between 5 and 11 years in prison.


Australia should publicly and privately call on the Vietnamese government to:
  • Allow all 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 with government-sanctioned boards should be allowed to operate independently.
  • End harassment, arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment, and ill-treatment of people because they are followers of disfavored religions, and release anyone currently being held for peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of religion, belief, expression, assembly, and association.
  • Cease all measures to prevent Montagnards and other Vietnamese citizens from leaving the country and do not punish those who return.
  • Ensure all domestic legislation addressing religious affairs is brought into conformity with international human rights law, including the ICCPR. Amend provisions in domestic law that impinge on freedom of religion and belief, expression, association, or peaceful assembly in violation of the ICCPR.
  • Permit outside observers, including UN agencies and mandates, nongovernmental organizations concerned with human rights, journalists and foreign diplomats, unhindered and unaccompanied access to the Central Highlands, including specifically to communes and villages from which Montagnards have departed to seek asylum abroad. Ensure there is no retribution or retaliation whatsoever against anyone who speaks to or otherwise communicates with such outside observers.


[1] See Government of Canada, ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief’, January 17, 2017, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[2] See Christian Solidarity Worldwide, ‘CSW equips MPs to promote religious freedom’, September 10, 2015, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[3] Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, (accessed February 15, 2017), Article 2A.

[4] “Bangladesh: Crackdown on Bloggers, Editors Escalates,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 15, 2013,

[5] Kyle Knight (Human Rights Watch), “Slaughtered in Bangladesh for Promoting Love and Diversity” commentary, The Advocate, May 2, 2016,

[6] “Bangladesh: Halt Mass Arbitrary Arrests,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 17, 2016,

[7] Human Rights Watch, Will I Get My Dues… Before I Die?: Harm to Women from Bangladesh’s Discriminatory Laws on Marriage, Separation, and Divorce, September 2012,

[8] “Burma: Military Burned Villages in Rakhine State,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 13, 2016,

[9] “Burma: Rohingya Recount Killings, Rape, and Arson,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 21, 2016,

[10] “Burma: Discriminatory Laws Could Stoke Communal Tensions,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 13, 2015,

[11] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma,” December 2013, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[12] “Indonesia: Religious Minorities Targets of Rising Violence,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 28, 2013,

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Indonesia: Persecution of Gafatar Religious Group,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 29, 2016,

[17] “Indonesia: Ahmadiyah Community Persecuted,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 11, 2016,

[18] Phelim Kine (Human Rights Watch), “Dispatches: Indonesia’s Island of Intolerance,” January 26, 2016,

[19] Worldwide Movement for Human Rights, “Open Letter to the National Assembly President on the Draft Law on Belief and Religion,” October 6, 2016, (accessed February 15, 2017).

[20] Human Rights Watch, Persecuting “Evil Way” Religion: Abuses against Montagnards in Vietnam, June 2015,

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