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Tuesday, 06 December 2016 15:26
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Religious policies in the socialist law-ruled State of Vietnam

(LLCT) - Do religions have a place in the law-ruled state? In Vietnam, for religions and the socialist law-ruled State get on with each other and conform to the United Nations’ declarations on human and civil rights, how should the State implement its religious policies? The following article answers these questions.

1. Religions can go abreast of the law-ruled state

The history of the world and especially Europe shows that religions play an enormous role in the human civilization and progress. Religions have made a great contribution to humanity’s cultural values in tangible and intangible terms. In term of politics, religions are one force or power. Religious organizations and dignitaries used to hold part of state power or dominate it. Interdependency and struggle between states and religions lasted for centuries. Although religions at times fostered spiritual progress, brought about civilization and created tangible and intangible cultural values, it is undeniable that they, because of the nature of their thinking and of their interests (including political ambitions), in many places and in certain periods of time, hindered social progress and went against humanitarian values of humanity.

After the bourgeoisie took control of societies and followed the principle of the law-ruled state, states had and only had to obey the principles of laws on life and were not bound by religious laws. Religions were removed from state activities. The law-ruled state considered religious organizations to be ones of the civil society and religious dignitaries and followers to be ordinary citizens who had the same rights and duties as other citizens. Citizens had the freedom of beliefs and religion and religions as long as they do not affect the freedom of people who are not religious followers or who follow different religions from theirs. Because of the principle of the law-ruled state, religions had to accept to withdraw from states.

However, it would be wrong to think that religions have withdrawn from politics. They have, for subjective and objective reasons, only restricted themselves from participating in politics.

Subjectively, in many places, especially those where religions used to be political forces, religious dignitaries find it hard to forget “the golden age” and are prepared to come back as political forces if they have the chance to do so. In any place where the state fails to manage and develop society, other forces including political ones are ready and willing to replace it. In that case, the state must blame itself first because of its inability to prevent religions from intervening in politics.

Objectively, religious organizations, dignitaries and followers have often been drawn to the cycle of politics or used as political forces or religions have had to defend their interests and protect their followers. Even secular, peace-loving, state-abiding religions may still have to rise up against the state when it has inappropriate attitude towards religions and religious followers. The state’s mistakes in treating religious organizationsand religious citizensmay have a heavy political cost. Take the uprising by Buddhist followers in the South against the Ngo Dinh Diem administration in the early 1960s as an example. They resisted this regime because it was dictatorial and anti-Communist and because it treated religions unequally and discriminated against Buddhism and in favor of Christianity.

Nowadays, in many developed countries, subjective and objective reasons for the participation of religions in politics have been minimized. There has been mutual understanding and respect between the law-ruled state and religions. States understand their boundaries, and religious organizations, dignitaries and followers know theirs, too. States do not create opportunities for religions to develop politically. In their policies, states respect moral and cultural values of religions but are not based on moral values, beliefs or forces of any religion. States allow humanitarian, charity, cultural, educational activities by religions as civil society organizations. Violations, if any, by religious organizations, dignitaries and followers will be punished according to the law (criminal, civil, administrative.)      

This is good experience Vietnam can learn while establishing and developing the socialist law-ruled State.

2. The Vietnamese State’s progressive religious policies

When it was first born, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam announced and implemented religious policies which were popular, progressive and up to date. Unfortunately, due to tunnel vision of a good number of government officials and party members, these policies at times caused unwanted disunity in some places. Scores of communists took the incompatibility between scientific and nonscientific worldviews and between materialism and idealism and applied it to politics, thus creating political prejudices and discriminations against religions. Many people equated anti-Communist and anti-government attitudes among some individual religious dignitaries with those of religious communities and organizations as a whole.

Since the renovation, the State’s religious policies have seen considerable progress. They have found expression in the Party’s political documents and the State’s legal documents and have had an enormous impact on religious activity in the country. They are suitable for realities and able to live up to the expectations of different walks of life and have helped to consolidate national solidarity during national construction.

The Party and State of Vietnam are aware that building the law-ruled State is, first of all, about building a complete legal system and ensuring people’s freedoms including the right to follow or to not follow beliefs or religions. The law-ruled State requires every individual, citizen and organization to abide by the Constitution and law and respect the freedoms of other individuals, citizens and organizations. The State respects and ensures citizens’ freedom of belief and religion and religious organizations’ interests. The State does not treat different religions and their followers unequally. Religious organizations and citizens, in turn, have to respect and protect social order and state institutions. Nobody is allowed to take advantage of religions and beliefs to go against the Constitution, law and good customs of the nation, their community and their locality. Religions and religious followers should not demand privileges or priorities; instead, they must join in the establishment and construction of national solidarity for the common goals of “a wealthy population and a strong, democratic, equitable, civilized country” and the “good life, beautiful religion” and “living evangelically inside the nation” mottos.

These ideas were written down in the 25th Resolution of the 7th Plenum of the 9th Party Central Committee (2003) on religious work. The resolution consists of very important affirmations as follows.

1) Beliefs and religions are spiritual demands of part of the population and have been and will be coexisting with the nation during the building of socialism. Religious communities form part of national solidarity.

Consistently implement the policy of respecting and ensuring the freedom of religion and non-religion and the right to conduct lawful religious activities. Religions operate according to the law and are equal before the law.

2) The Party and State consistently carry out the policy on national solidarity; unite people following different religions together; unite religious and non-religious people together; preserve and promote the positive values of the traditions of worshipping ancestors and honoring people with distinguished service to the homeland and population; strictly prohibit discrimination because of reasons related to beliefs or religions; and strictly forbid the use of beliefs or religions to conduct superstitious activities and those which go against the State’s laws and policies, divide the population and disrupt or infringe national security.

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5) Religious practice and missionary work

All religious followers have right to practice their religions at home and legal places of worship.

State-recognized religious organizations are allowed to operate according to the law and are protected by the law. They are allowed to carry out religious activities; open schools training religious dignitaries and monks; publish religious books; and conserve, repair and build their places of worship in accordance with the law.

The practice and spread of religions and other religious activities have to abide by the Constitution and law. Nobody is allowed to take advantage of religions to spread false religions, carry out superstitious activities or force other people to follow religions. Missionary work, missionaries and missionary methods which are unlawful and violate the regulations of the constitution and law are strictly prohibited(1).

After this Resolution, the National Assembly Standing Committee in 2004 promulgated the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, which further explains the Party’s points of view and lines in this connection. A good number of related laws such as the Law on Construction, Law on Education, Law on Land and Law on the Election of the National Assembly and People’s Councils have closely followed the above-mentioned points of view of the Party and State.

As far as policy implementation is concerned, since the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, Party committees and authorities from central to local levels have generally adopted cautious attitudes and actions and have obeyed the Party’s points of view and the stipulations of the law. The Government, within its purview, issued Decree 22/2005 on measures for implementing the ordinance. This decree was later replaced by Decree 92/2012.

Decree 92/2012 has a few new points compared to Decree 22/2005. It further explains measures aimed at implementing points of view mentioned in the Party’s documents and the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions of 2004 and provide detailed descriptions of measures related to the management of religious activities, religious dignitaries, places of worship and beliefs.

The Prime Minister also issued Directive 1940/2008 on houses and land related to religions. On 10 October 2013, the Ministry of Internal Affairs promulgated administrative procedures and forms related to beliefs and religions. These documents publicized a good number of procedures which often caused frustration and argument including those for registering and recognizing religions, managing religious activities including missionary work and religious preaching and administrating land belonging to religious establishments.

Prior to 2000, the State recognized and licensed three religious organizations. To date, the figure has risen to 40 organizations belonging to 14 religions(2). The number of religious followers has also increased. According to the national census of 2009, there were 15,651,467 religious followers, of whom 6.8 million were Buddhists, 5.7 million Catholics and 734,168 Protestants(3).

According to statistics of the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs, in 2011, there were 25.4 million religious followers nationwide, of whom 10 million were Buddhists, 6.1 million Catholics and 1.5 million Protestants(4). After 10 years, the number of religious followers increased by 10 million and the number of Protestants doubled.

Tens of thousands of places of worship (churches, pagodas, temples, etc.) have been built or repaired or renovated. Schools training religious dignitaries have been opened in many places and provide different levels of training. The number of people attending these schools keeps increasing. The number of religious dignitaries has been on the rise. Catholicism has 7 seminaries, 26 archbishops, and 5,000 bishops. Three Catholics are members of the 13th National Assembly, 38 Catholics participate in provincial level people’s committees, and more than 300 Catholics take part in district level people’s committees(5).

Books, newspapers and publications on religions have been printed in large quantities. Festive days of religious have been held solemnly. A good number of religious events of national and international importance such as the Buddhist Vesak have been organized. The relationship between the Vietnamese State and congregations at home and abroad have become increasingly friendly and have reached a higher degree of mutual understanding. Relations between domestic and overseas religious organizations have strengthened.

Besides the good results of religious policies by the Party and State of Vietnam, over the last years, there have been clashes between local authorities and religious organizations in some places, for which sometimes local authorities and other times, some individuals of religious organizations, are to blame.

As far as local authorities are concerned, quite a few government officials and party members have yet to have a correct understanding or are prejudiced against religious organizations and dignitaries, so they lack a sense of friendliness, equality or objectivity when communicating or working with them.

The incidents which happened at Thai Ha and Nha Chung churches in Hanoi were land disputes related to the old establishments of religious organizations. The disputes originated from the shortcomings of local authorities who failed to strictly obey a directive by the Prime Minister, to be more specific, Clause “a” of Article 3 of Directive 1940/2008 on land states “in case religious establishments have legitimate demands for houses and land for religious purposes, the people’s committees of centrally governed provinces and cities, on a case-by-case basis, shall consider the allocation of houses and land on suitable areas or facilitate religious establishments building new structures according to the law.”

On the contrary, there have been cases where individuals have taken advantage of beliefs and religions to seek personal interests, commit frauds or carry out superstitious activities, leading to loss of the prestige of religions and causing dilemmas for local authorities. 

There are still people who wish the state to give them “priorities” and “incentives” or who take advantage of the friendliness of local authorities to spread religions, causing misperceptions among the society that the State does not treat religions equally or that it discriminates against one religion and in favor of another. There are other people who take advantage of the media and their external relations to inflate a small mistake by local authorities into an oppressive action against religious followers, thus causing unnecessary strain between local authorities and the religions in question.

All the above incidents, no matter which side causes them, are against the spirit of freedom of belief and religion and the principle of the law-ruled State.

3. There must be more detailed regulations to implement correct religious policies by the Party and State.

The 2013 Constitution  affirms the point of view of the Party and State of Vietnam on the respect for, and protection of, citizens’ freedom of beliefs and religions.

Given the actual religious life, relevant bodies have proposed amendments to some articles of the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions of 2004. This is a necessary thing to do to further improve religious policies by the Party and State.

However, in reality, clashes or disagreements often occur between religious organizations, dignitaries and followers and local authorities. Therefore, what is most important now is policy delivery, which is the responsibility of the Government, ministries and local authorities at all levels. Policy delivery consists of the issuance of bylaws (such as decrees by the Government, directives and decisions by the Prime Minister, circulars by ministries and other legal documents by local authorities) and actual acts by civil servants and administrative bodies, organizations and individual citizens related to beliefs and religions.

Legal documents issued by the Government, Prime Minister and Ministry of Internal Affairs over the last few years to carry out religious policies have created a legal framework and necessary instructions for Party committees and local authorities at all levels so they know how to deal with religious organizations, dignitaries and followers in their localities.

For further improvement of the legal framework for the delivery of religious policies, the following suggestions have been made.

To avoid situations where people who are not religious followers do incorrect things, it is necessary to require religious organizations to be responsible for managing their followers by registering them with local religious organizations.

Decree 92/2012 mentions pre-registration of religious activities to be held in the following year with the authorities. To make this regulation more accessible and feasible, it is only necessary that representatives of religious establishments give (or ask relevant authorities for permission) certain days’ notice before they carry out a religious activity.

In the law-ruled state, disputes or violations in religious domains (whether they are related to houses, historic sites, land or unlawful spread of religions), depending on their nature, shall be resolved according to the Criminal Law, Civil Law or Administrative Law. Therefore, it is necessary to review these laws to ensure sufficient legal bases for solving violations of laws on beliefs and religions.

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(1) The Resolution No. 25 of the 7th Plenum of the 9th Party Central Committee in  2003, the electronic newspaper of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

(2), (4) Chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front Nguyen Thien Nhan received Cardinal and Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference Reinhard Marx, the online newspaper of the Government, 11 January 2016.

(3) Statistics of the National Census of 2009, General Statistics Office of Vietnam.

(5) Dr. Pham Huy Thong: “The religious situation and requirements for religious work”, website of the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Vu Hoang Cong

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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