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Enforcement of the right to freedom of religion: The interrelation between the church and the State

(LLCT) -  In the preface of the International Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, it is affirmed that all states have a responsibility to protect human rights and are under obligations to fully exercise human rights (including freedom of religion). Therefore, there must be a general concept of freedom of religion to fulfill that commitment and also to prevent abuse of power which may destabilize social life. This article clarifies the obligations and responsibilities of the State and religious organizations in the exercise of religious freedom, and some principles to combat the abuse of religious freedom to deprive other civil rights.

Keywords: freedom of religion.

1. The State-Church relationship in the freedom of religion

The relationship between religion and politics, or more precisely the Church and the State in exercising religious freedom, has a recorded history. At times, that relationship has been closely inseparable, and at other times, it has been completely separated.

In the case of inseparation, the hierarchy of social functions of the State and religion can be interchangeable. At that time, religion is a part of political decisions. In other words, political decisions are based on consultations from canonical disciplines and the leaders of religious organizations. There were once cases where religious leaders opposed the decisions of political leaders so that the State was forced to follow.

In the case of detachment, in order to protect the rights of all members of society, an independent and judicial system will judge political decisions without religious interference. In most countries around the world today, religion is no longer in a position to control State power (except for the Islamic nations of the Middle East and North Africa).

Throughout history, the relationship between the Church and the State in the exercise of religious freedom has occurred under three basic models: (1) Government agencies control religious organizations; (2) Religious leaders decide on civil policies; and (3) coexistence between government and religion.

In all three relationship models, between religion and the State, the struggle for autonomy to exercise religious freedom is inevitable. That rivalry, in the first model, is when the State wants to control all the acts and decisions of religious organizations; the government surely violate its commitment to freedom and autonomy of religion. Achieving a political commitment in which people have freedom to choose religion, freedom to confess and express their faith, and freedom to worship and create religion is a difficult process that the international community must “speak up” against and “intervene” at the earliest to protect that freedom right. Even religious freedom is considered one of the most basic human rights. The International Bill of Rights(1) was created, requiring countries to commit to full and complete religious freedom.

All citizens of the country are free to follow any religion even though their ideas may be inconsistent with the secular order and common moral standards. In this Bill, the international community has shifted its focus from protecting the rights of ethnic minorities(2) to protecting religious freedoms for each individual, but not forgetting to make provisions binding. Individuals and religious organizations, when enjoying their religious freedoms, will also have to abide by the statutory rights restrictions, to ensure the freedoms of others as well as to meet the main requirements on morality, public order and common welfare in a democratic society and which must not be contrary to the goals and principles of the United Nations(3). After the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, religious freedom became a political principle that even the most rigid atheist States could not refute, making a change in the relationship between the weak religious community and the powerful political leadership in the exercise of religious freedom.

In the second model, when the religious leaders decide on civil policies, at that time, the Church go against the requirements and orders of the “supreme” not to identify it with the State (Caesar’s things should be returned to Caesar, God’s things should be returned to God)(4). Moreover, many Church decisions have influenced the State institution too much, sooner or later leading to abuse of power, monopoly, hinderance or deprivation of other civil rights. For a long time, the early Christian Church exercised the right to “rule all that belongs only to God” to judge those who did not share their views (considered to be heretics), including the royal and political kingdoms which could be excommunicated by the Church. In the same way, the legislators of the Church put their faith above all to create laws that challenge other civil rights like the right to death, the right to abortion, the right to gay marriage, the right to divorce, the right to pagan marriage, the right to drink wine, and the right to research and apply stem cells and cloning, among others.

By depriving people of the above civil rights, the Church is caught in the “utopian morality” habit not found in God’s “salvation” plan because God is divine but chooses the mortal body to manifest social aspects, so the path of “salvation” does not compel people to give up on earth. Forcing people to renounce civil rights is the Church’s misuse of power and religious freedom to seriously violate other civil liberties. The power of the Church must be limited within the Church, not extended to civilian affairs. Even religious acts and precepts that violate the common moral provisions of society and violate laws (such as rituals of infant sacrifice(5) and rules on stoning women to death if they commit adultery) will also be intervened and removed.

In the third model, the Church-State relationship in the exercise of religious freedom is reconciled. Religion is thought to play an accompanying role, supporting the State to maintain and govern society. Religious communities are considered to be stable entities that have an effective and reliable network of communication within their faith communities, so governments often use religion as a cooperative partner in implementing government policies such as health care, education, rural development, crime fighting, and employment consultation. Politics sometimes uses religious jargon in political discourse as a subtle way for political decisions to be approved in the “sacred” direction, legalizing its political rule. Any political idea that is too contrary to the ideals of religion can also be discredited in society. Religion can also be present in social institutions as a presence of its freedom of religion; while the orders belong to the law, the decision rights belong to the political leaders. In this model, religion and the State are two areas of existence, each with its own agenda, system, decision and leadership. Political leaders are those who exercise justice according to the Constitution, and the respective governments are civil in nature without an obligation to serve religion. In this third model, understanding religious freedom as infinite is a big mistake; although that freedom is not denied, the State will “deny” it when any individual or organization for religious reasons does not comply with general laws or political decisions and threatens security, social order, freedoms of others, safety of individuals or community. In such cases, the State has the right to punish and deprive violators of religious freedom. However, the State should also set clear criteria when intervening in limiting religious freedom. These limitations of rights are based not only on the provisions of national law but also on the relevant international law. In particular, the State must predict both the adverse effects of applying restriction to this right and absolutely not setting arbitrary rights limits at will.

The third model is considered to be ideal in religious-political interrelation when exercising religious freedom. However, during secularization of the State, when secular power begins to dominate, religion feels that it is losing power, its role is being reduced, and it is depending on State power. The presence of religion in the society is reduced, the State gradually pays less attention to religion, religion is considered to be the privacy of citizens, and the individualization and privatization have no meaning in the public sector.

Although the influence of religion on society has not completely disappeared, religion is a phenomenon in the private sector and among disadvantaged communities, with even certain influences and presence in politics such as the liberation theology movement in Latin America in the mid-twentieth century(6). In some countries, religion can become a political party, with the party’s operating principle based on clear religious principles, which can assist the government in making Statements and macro policies (economic, social, cultural). Religion can support the creation of peace (typically recorded in examples like the Catholic Church that contributed to resolving the civil war between South and North Sudan, which lasted from 1955 to 1972, and successfully reconciling the civil war in Mozambique in 1992). Religion can also participate in the struggle against political policies such as apartheid and apartheid policy among a minority of white people and majority black population; it fights against policies that reduce the rights, associations and movements of the blacks and other ethnic minorities.

However, the decline of power, position, and role for society and the State has caused a change in the relationship between religion and politics, causing religion to fall into a State of “political despair,” indignant and sometimes rebellious when they lose the habit of political domination, leading to acts against the State government in the name of religious freedom, wishing to restore the “prominent” position in political matters, desiring to replace the missing secular values. At this time, in order to protect other civil rights and to ensure human security, political security and above all national security, each government has its own policies and principles to control rights and limit the freedom of religion.

2. Religious freedom in Vietnam

In Vietnam, the communists at no time have advocated anti-religion or attacked it. In the ’30s and ’40s of the twentieth century, Le Hong Phong and Truong Chinh as General Secretary (Communist Party of Indochina) had many articles that demolished the then distorted views and perceptions on religions. In the book Roots of Religion written in 1933, Le Hong Phong (known as Hai An) wrote: “If religion is not abolished among the masses, the revolution could not prevail...” (Note: “the slogan is wrong from its root”)(7). “Religious devotees largely follow imperialism...” (Note: “that is absolutely not true”)(8). In 1946, with the article “Demolish the wrong trend. Do not violate the beliefs of the people” (published in the Su that (the Truth) newspaper on April 6, 1946), Truong Chinh pointed out that Marxists do not promote obsolete customs, but the challenge is to “educate the people on why superstition is wrong and outdated customs are bad. Even so, it is impossible to impulsively ban religions. If customs and religion are divided, causing the people to misunderstand the revolution and resent the new government, it is an unforgivable crime”(9). Ho Chi Minh repeatedly said that the Viet Minh (i.e. the communists) never opposed or protested religion, “the small quarrels among some compatriots, though regrettably due to the religious morality is not yet popularized properly, cannot touch our great unity. The Constitution stipulates on the freedom of beliefs and those who provoke religion are against the Constitution and shall be punished”(10). Communists also do not advocate the abandonment of religion and its worship elements. Communists who revolutionized and fought against the enemies were to bring independence and freedom to the country, and also let culture, politics, economics, beliefs and religions be developed freely(11).

Although the Party and State of Vietnam claim to be materialistic and atheist, there are still good moral and cultural religious values in religious legal documents. It even affirms the long-term existence and similarity of the ideals of religion with socialism. From the past until now, the Party and State of Vietnam have trusted various ministers who are religious devotees. Examples are Nguyen Manh Ha, Ngo Tu Ha and Vu Dinh Tung. The government also invited Catholic dignitaries such as Bishop Le Huu Tu, Bishop Ho Ngoc Can to act as supreme advisors to it (1945), Father Pham Ba Truc to become Standing Deputy Chairman of the National Assembly (1946), and Mr. Cao Trieu Phat (President of the Cao Dai Association for National Salvation of the 12 United Unions) to be an Advisor to the Southern Administrative Resistance Committee. Many religious dignitaries now participate in the National Assembly and People’s Councils at all levels such as Most Venerable Thich Chon Thien, Most Venerable Thich Thach Huoi, Venerable Thich Bao Nghiem, Venerable Thich Thanh Quyet, Father Tran Manh Cuong, Father Le Ngoc Hoan, Nguyen Tan Dat (Deputy Head of the Executive Committee of Hoa Hao Buddhism), Tran Van Huynh (Chief Coordinator, Chief of Cao Dai Bach Y Administration), and so on.

Since 1986, the Communist Party and State of Vietnam have issued many religious documents and resolutions, including Resolution No. 24/NQ-TW (1990) and Decree No. 69/ND-HDBT (1991), Directive No. 37-CT/TW (1998), Decree No. 26/ND-TTg (1999), Resolution No. 25/NQ-TW (2003), Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions No. 21/PL-UBTVQH (2004), Decree No. 22/ND-CP (2005), Directive No. 01/CT-TTg (2005), Decree No. 92/ND-CP (2012) and most recently, the Law on Beliefs and Religions No. 02/QH14 (2016). In the above-mentioned documents and resolutions of the Party and State of Vietnam, the principles of exercising religious freedom, fighting against abuse of rights, and violating other civil liberties are presented, specifically:

Religion is a human need that needs to be fulfilled; it is constitutionalized and protected by a legal system.

The State has the responsibility to enforce and protect religious freedom on the law-governed - secular - neutral principle. That is, the State operates and manages society by law (laws are supreme), formalizes politics, does not establish an official State religion(12), and does not appear to support or impose sanctions on any religion, or communicate negative things on religions. The State does not interfere with the internal affairs of religion, nor does it invest national funds for the development of religion. Religion is a private affair in civil society and among citizens and has no meaning in the public sector. Religion does not participate in public offices. Religion does not build armed forces or oppose political organizations. The principles and cultural and ethical values of religions are acknowledged but not forced to be considered as the mainstream value framework for the whole society.

Freedom of religion is not infinite. The State has the right to intervene, limit, and adjust religious activities and the right to freedom of association or freedom to participate in social activities. At this time, the State plays an intermediary role in preventing religious organizations from abusing their political rights or abusing their religious freedoms to compete for influence and infringe on other people’s civil freedoms (including religious or non-religious people). The State will also deprive religious freedom when any individual or organization for religious reasons does not comply with laws and political decisions or poses threats to security, social order, the freedoms of others, and the safety of individuals or community.

Religious freedom and other civil rights are independent. The State does not deprive religious society of the right to participate in social activities (to the extent permitted by law) such as economic activity, health care, education, charity, and social security, but such activities must comply with the Constitution and (related) laws, and are not intended to compete for socio-political influence.

Freedom of religion and the expression of faith are legitimate aspirations of man. It can be considered as one of every human’s fundamental rights. Such freedoms must be protected by a law-governed regime so that people do not have to “rebel” to ask the State to enforce that inevitable right. However, it is important to define a common notion of religious freedom and its limit so that both the religious organization and the State can fully realize true religious freedom and prevent the abuse of freedom to destabilize society and threaten political security, the safety of social order and the deprivation of other civil rights.



(1) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966; United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination on the basis of Beliefs and Religions, 1981;

(2) Declaration on the rights of ethnic minority groups, ethnic groups, religions and languages, 1992.

(3) Article 29, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

(4) Matthew: The whole Bible of the Old and New Testament, Ho Chi Minh City Publishing House, 1998, pp.1885.

(5) W. Cole Durham and Brett G. Scharffs, Law and Religion, Vietnam National University Press, Hanoi, 2016, p.48.

(6) Liberal theology is the integration of Christian theology and the socio-economic analysis of Marxism - Leninism, emphasizing social concern for the poor and political liberation for the oppressed people. Liberal theology developed in the Latin American Catholic Church in the 1950s and 1960s in association with the names of priests Gustavo Gutiérrez (Peru), Leonardo Boff (Brazil), Jon Sobrino (Spain) and Juan Luis Segundo (Uruguay). Liberal theology has been opposed in the United States and subjected to Vatican’s warnings who accuse them of using “Marxist concepts” when interpreting Isaiah’s books (61: 1), Matthew (10:34), Luke (22: 35-38) in the Bible about the call to fight poverty and its causes in the way of Marxism.

(7), (8), (9) Hoang Minh Do, Do Lan Hien: The Party’s guidelines and State policies on religion - theoretical and practical issues in Vietnam today, Publishing House of Political Ideology, Hanoi, 2015, p.46, 46, 52.

(10), (11) Ho Chi Minh: Complete Works, vol.5, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2011, p.53, 157.

(12) In principle, the secular neutral State has no national religion and no religion established by the State. However, many countries around the world follow this principle, but the government still appears to support a specific religion – Japan supports Shintoism, China supports Confucianism and Taoism, India supports Hinduism, the USA supports Protestantism, Korea supports Protestantism, and Thailand supports Buddhism.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Do Lan Hien

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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