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Thursday, 30 November 2023 15:23
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Identify and fight against the allegations that distort religious freedom in Vietnam

Dr. PHAM THANH HANG
Institute of Religious and Belief Studies,
Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

(PTOJ) - Currently, hostile forces are putting forth many extremist and biased opinions, which demonstrate a lack of objectivity and even distortion of the situation regarding religion and religious policies in Vietnam. All of this is part of a political scheme aimed at denying the Party and State of Vietnam's religious policy reforms. This article contributes to identifying the distorted discourse on religious freedom in Vietnam and presents arguments to refute those claims.
 

1. Identifying false allegations about religious freedom in Vietnam

With a lack of goodwill, some Western countries accuse Vietnam of suppressing, controlling, and limiting religious freedom through “vague” legal provisions.

In the annual reports of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom and the United States Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report, offering a biased and unobjective point of view, often makes many subjective statements that due to policies of “anti-religious atheism”, the right to freedom of religion is seriously violated. In the latest Annual Report by the International Committee for Religious Freedom, it is claimed that the violation of belief and practice FRB in Vietnam has not improved, that the implementation of the Law on Religion and Belief is contrary to international standards of human rights and a systematic violation of religious freedom(1).

On the basis of the Annual Report by the International Commission for Religious Freedom 2021, the US Department of State in its International Report on Religious Freedom 2021 stated that Vietnamese law provides for substantial government control over religious activities, which includes many “vague” provisions to restrict freedom of religion in the interest of national security and social solidarity(2). Many organizations in the United States constantly criticize Vietnam in the issue of religious legal entities. They argue that the Law on Religion and Belief maintains a registration and recognition process with multiple stages required by religious groups(3), especially with religious groups in remote and isolated areas, areas with ethnic minorities, and new religious groups.

Although the 2021 International Report on Religious Freedom also noted some improvements in religious freedom in Vietnam, in general, it still accuses Vietnam of restricting religious freedom, arguing that the government closed the “grey area” (i.e., unregistered religious groups) and accused Vietnam of criminalizing religious activities.

Thus, in the view of these organizations, the promulgation of the Law on Religion and Belief by the Government of Vietnam is in fact aimed at “regulating” and “punishing” religious activities, making religious activities more difficult. They argue that Vietnam does not really considered religious organization to be a social resource, rather it still considers it to be a political entity, which leads to the continuing obstruction of faith and the practice of religious faith.

The US also regularly coordinates with countries in the European Union (EU) to put pressure on Vietnam in the areas of democracy, human rights, and religion. The most typical example is the Resolution on the Situation of Human Rights and Religious Freedom in Vietnam passed by the European Parliament on November 26, 2009. After the Resolution was issued, the European Commission and Council put pressure on Vietnam on issues related to religion and human rights in the standards for negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA).

Human Rights Watch (HRW) based in New York, USA, in its submissions to the EU regularly expresses its desire that the EU put pressure on Vietnam to stop interfering in religious affairs and take specific measures to prevent “police violence”. Recently, in the World Report 2021, this organization classified Vietnam as part of a group of countries violating human rights and violating religious freedom. This report accuses Vietnam of “harassing and using force to suppress religious groups” operating outside of official state-controlled religious institutions(4).

In addition, countries such as the UK, Australia, and Germany also regularly issue human rights reports related to Vietnam, asking Vietnam to amend the Constitution and provisions of the law which they claim to be incompatible with international law. They loudly call for the release of “prisoners of conscience”, “religious prisoners” who in fact use the name of religion to violate Vietnamese law.

Some extremist individuals and organizations abroad who have belief which are hostile to the regime have distorted the situation, claiming that Vietnam has “two religious’ policies”: a policy of formal protection and an “unprotected policy” through a “request-give mechanism” and the establishment of “state-owned religions”.

Some Vietnamese exiled groups abroad harbor hostile attitudes and oppose the government, directly or indirectly linking with international reactionary organizations to criticize all issues in Vietnam, including religious ones. They use various methods, such as organizing seminars, press conferences, disseminating materials, posting multiple opinions on the internet, etc. to spread distorted information and accusations that the Vietnamese Party and State “control religion”, silencing religious groups in Vietnam or turning them into tools of the State. The purpose of this disinformation is to create division, deepening conflict between religious groups and the government.

The incorrect views of some disgruntled individuals and organizations in the country is that Vietnam implements “dictatorial rule”, and “represses religion”, controlling the development space of religion.

Some organizations and individuals in Vietnam exploit loopholes in the law and shortcomings in religious management to create insecurity and disorder in local areas. They take advantage of disputes and lawsuits related to land and religious sites to politicize issues, incite opposition activities, and create a sense of frustration and suspicion in society.

Some clergy and religious officials with bad intentions and distorted perceptions raised the issue that of freedom of religion and advocate for the establishment of autonomous religious regions to create division and disunity among religions.

A number of religious clergy and religious officials receive support from extremist organizations at home and abroad, deliberately distorting ethnic and religious issues in Vietnam, inciting their followers to demand “religious freedom” and “national autonomy”. In the Northwest and Western Nghe An, they established the Vang Chu religion with the goal of establishing the “autonomous Mongol Kingdom”. In the Central Highlands, they demanded the establishment of an “independent Dega State” with the national religion of Dega Protestantism. In the Southwest region, they demanded the establishment of a “Khmer Crom State” with “the Khmer’s own-style Buddhism”. These are actually schemes to “religiousize ethnic minority areas,” incite ethnic hatred, and give rise to ethnic extremism, posing a threat to national security.

2. Arguments refuting the false allegations about religious freedom in Vietnam

Regarding the legal basis

Respecting the right to freedom of religion and belief (FRB) is a consistent policy, reflected throughout the political platform to the resolutions, documents, and political reports of the Communist Party of Vietnam and very clearly outlined in the Constitution.

Immediately after the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the first Constitution - the 1946 Constitution stipulates that freedom of belief is a constitutional right of the people. Citizens’ right to freedom of religion was further expanded in terms of the Constitutions of 1959 and 1980. In particular, the 1992 Constitution emphasized equality before the law of all religions, and the State has an obligation to protect the worship facilities of religious organizations. Article 24 of 2013 Constitution further affirms: “Everyone has the right to freedom of religion and belief, to follow or not to follow a religion. The religious are equal before the law. The State respects and protects the right to freedom of religion and belief”(5).

Concretizing the Constitution, the right to religious freedom is also guaranteed throughout the basic laws. The Criminal Code, Criminal Procedure Law, Education Law, and Government Organization Law all have provisions on the protection of FRB.

During more than 35 years of national renovation, the Communist Party of Vietnam has always strived to ensure the people’s right to FRB. The Party’s Platform for National Construction in the Transitional Period to Socialism affirms: “Consistently implement the policy on respecting and guaranteeing the right to freedom of religion”(6). In the Political Report at the VII National Congress, our Party affirmed: “Our Party and State respect the people’s right to freedom of belief and non-belief and implement equality and solidarity between religions and between religions”(7). Resolution No. 25-NQ/TW and the Platform for National Construction in the Transitional Period to Socialism (supplemented and developed in 2011) deepened the Party’s principles on FRB.

In particular, the documents from the Party congresses are consistent with the principle of respecting the right to FRB. In particular, the document of the 13th National Party Congress recognized religious organizations as a social resource and advocated: “Promote the cultural values, good ethics and resources of religions for the cause of national development”(8).

In order to concretize the Party’s views and institutionalize the 2013 Constitution, the Law on Religion and Belief was approved by the National Assembly on November 18, 2016, creating an important legal corridor to ensure the legitimate rights and interests of believers, dignitaries, religious organizations, and foreigners lawfully residing in Vietnam.

As it can be seen that the right to FRB in Vietnam has been constitutionally has been enshrined constitutionally and institutionalized through laws, showing consistency in directing the work of religious legislation.

From theory to vivid practice.

The flourishing picture of religious life in Vietnam is the most vivid proof of the right to FRB. With an increasingly open religious policy, up to now, the State has recognized 41 organizations belonging to 16 religions with more than 26 million followers, accounting for about 27% of the country’s population(9). In 1990, the State only recognized 6 religions, meaning that so far, the number of recognized religions has increased 2.5 times and this number will continue to increase.

Along with that, there is a significant increase in the number of believers, dignitaries, positions, worship facilities, religious training institutions, and annual publications(10). This shows the great interest and determination of our Party and State in realizing the policies on FRB in real life.

In fact, from the viewpoint of renovation, religion in Vietnam is seen as “a part of the great national unity bloc”, provided with the conditions to truly become an important social resource, contributing not only in terms of culture and morality but also in economic, political, social security, education, health, and humanitarian aspects.

Vietnam has actively hosted many international and regional religious forums and conferences, signed many international treaties on religion, and carried out diplomatic negotiations with international organizations on the religious situation and religious policies in Vietnam.

In the context of opening up and international integration, Vietnam’s religious policies are increasingly open in the direction of creating favourable conditions for domestic religious organizations to have exchanges and cooperation with international religious organizations(11). Many regional and international religious rituals are facilitated and organized by the State, such as the Vesak Buddha’s Birthday of Buddhism in 2008, 2014, and 2019; Jubilee Celebrations in 2010 and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) in 2012; The celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation in 2017 of Protestantism, etc. This shows the growing space for the development of religions in Vietnam.

The undeniable truth

Along with the process of reforming religious policies, the achievements in regard to respecting and guaranteeing the right to FRB in Vietnam are very clear. No matter how much slander or pressure is imposed, the truth that the international community cannot deny is that - Vietnam is a socialist rule-of-law state on religion with the characteristics of a secular state, built on the two pillars of religious freedom and the separation of religion from politics. Therefore, the allegation that Vietnam oppresses, controls, and limits religious freedom through “vague” legal provisions is groundless and lacks objectivity. The Law on Religion and Belief consists of 9 chapters and 68 articles, which specify specific provisions on the right to FRB. Based on that legal basis, in practice, believers of all religions are guaranteed the right to practice religious activities according to traditional rituals; foreigners legally residing in Vietnam shall have their right to freedom of religion respected and protected; religious organizations recognized by the State shall be treated equally before the law; Religious dignitaries are free to propagate religion and become ordained, titled and appointed in accordance with the law.

Regarding the registration and recognition of religious organizations, this is the model selected and applied by numerous countries around the world, specifically stipulated in the laws of each country, not just Vietnam. For example, the Law on Religious Diversification of Japan, the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations of the Russian Federation, and so on. The fact that Western countries loudly criticize Vietnam for causing difficulties for religious groups with a multi-step process, especially religious groups in remote and isolated areas, ethnic minority areas, are completely biased and lack goodwill.

The process and procedures to be recognized as a religious organization in Vietnam, from the Ordinance on Religion and Belief in 2004 to the Law on Religion and Belief in 2016, has made many significant strides in the direction of reducing administrative procedures and creating more favourable conditions for religious organizations when there is a need for registration.

For religious groups in ethnic minority areas, the State of Vietnam has granted operation registration and recognition to 311 branches, 1,742 Protestant groups in the Central Highlands, 14 branches, and 797 Protestant group sites in the northern mountainous area. According to the 2020 Annual Report of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom, this is recognized as a positive effort by Vietnam(12). Groups of Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, Brahmin, etc., operating in ethnic minority areas are also recognized and allowed to operate freely by the State of Vietnam. Some religious groups develop among ethnic minorities, and some unrecognized new religious groups that some argue are “disrupted by the Vietnamese government” are actually using religion to sabotage the Communist Party and the Vietnamese government. For example, in the Central Highlands, the groups “Ha Mon”, “Vietnamese Evangelical Church of Christ”, “Jesus Krits’ Cross” all want to create a new religion of ethnic minorities under the name “Dega Protestant” or “Dega Catholic”, aiming to develop itself into the national religion of the “Autonomous Dega State” in order to carry out their intention of inciting national secession.

For individuals named in the U.S. International Report on Religious Freedom as “prisoners of conscience,” “prisoners of religion” listed in human rights reports of some Western countries, and in some social media platforms are actually Vietnamese citizens using religion to conduct activities that violate the law, oppose the State, and harm national security.

Pursuing criminal responsibility for those individuals according to the law is entirely normal for the Vietnamese State, as rights always come with responsibilities and obligations. Judicial power does not interfere with the spiritual aspect, but there will be necessary interventions for acts that take advantage of spiritual values to incite the community. Therefore, protecting the right to religious freedom must at the same time impose necessary restrictions on the right to religious freedom if it infringes upon the liberty of others or harms the public welfare. This is fully compatible with the provisions of paragraph 3 of article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “The right to freedom of religion or belief expression may be limited only by law and where such limitation is necessary for the protection of security, public order, public health or morals, or to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”(13).

Regarding the allegation that religions in Vietnam are viewed under the political lens, it is also completely wrong and has no basis in reality. Religions in Vietnam actively participate in social-oriented activities as a social entity and a social resource. Religion participates in economic development through organizing agricultural production, making handicrafts, trading in cultural products and religious utensils; providing spiritual services, guiding believers in economic restructuring, applying scientific and technological achievements to production; spiritual tourism development, and so on. Many religious dignitaries and followers participate in socio-political organizations and elected bodies (National Assembly, People’s Councils at all levels). Religions actively participate in signing action programs to protect the environment, with many pilot models being implemented effectively. In terms of health care, humanitarian charity, and compassion, religious groups have made active contributions with remarkable results being achieved(14).

Accordingly, the arguments claiming that Vietnam implements two policies, that Vietnam practices “authoritarian rule”, “religious repression” or “religious freedom can only be obtained through the establishment of an autonomous religious region” are fabrications and slander that must be resolutely rejected. These are bad schemes that seek to incite extremist thoughts, false and misleading perceptions among people with vague awareness of religious, ethnic beliefs, and lacking firm ideological positions.

Thus, respecting and guaranteeing the right to FRB for all people is a consistent policy that Party and the State of Vietnam always strives to implement in practice, with great will and determination.  Allegations that deliberately distort and falsify the truth about religious freedom in Vietnam are an excuse for extremist forces to interfere in the internal policy of Vietnam and put increased pressure on Vietnam at international forums to “reform” in the direction of Western “freedom and democracy”, thereby transforming Vietnam’s political regime. However, with the achievements gained from theory to practice during the renovation process, the truth about the right to religious freedom in Vietnam is undeniable. We are ready to identify and fight uncompromisingly all attempts to take advantage of religious issues to divide and break the great national unity bloc, with a strong determination to strive to successfully realize the goals and ideals that President Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party of Vietnam have chosen as “national independence and socialism” in Vietnam.

_________________

Received: August 5, 2022; Revised: February 15, 2023; Approved for publication: February 21, 2023.

Endnotes:

(1) United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: 2021 annual report, https://www.uscirf.gov.

(2), (3) United States Department of State: 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom, https://www.state.gov.

(4) Human Rights Watch: World Report 2021, https://www.hrw.org.

(5) Vietnam’s Constitution of 2013, https://thuvienphapluat.vn.

(6) CPV: Complete Party Documents, vol.51, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2007, p.146.

(7) CPV: Documents of the 7th National Party Congress, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 1991, p. 78.

(8) CPV: Documents of the 13th National Party Congress, vol.I, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2021, p. 171.

(9) Ministry of Home Affairs: List of religious organizations granted religious activity registration certificates as of December 2020; Government Committee on Religious Affairs: Summary report on the situation of religious issues in 2019 and directions for performance in 2020 (January 2020).

(10) In 1990, Vietnam had only about 38,000 dignitaries and monks, up to now, this has increased up to 61,200 dignitaries, 147,000 positions, of which the largest increase is the dignitaries of Buddhism and Protestantism. The number of followers has increased all over the country. Religious places of worship were built more and more in number and expanded in scale. The total number of worship establishments in the country is 29,854 establishments. Religious training institutions have tripled in comparison to that in 1990, up to more than 60 institutions with 17 university-level training schools. Every year, hundreds of religious publications are published with millions of copies printed in different languages such as English, French, and ethnic minority languages.

(11) Nguyen Thi Bach Tuyet: International Relations of Religious Organizations in Vietnam, International Conference on Religion and Rule of Law in Southeast Asia, Hanoi, September 2006.

(12) United States Department of State: 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom, https://www.state.gov.

(13) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, https://www.ohchr.org.

(14) Institute of Religion and Belief, Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics: Religious resources: Experiences in the world and in Vietnam, Religious Publishing House, Hanoi, 2020, pp. 370-379.

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