In their letter to Vietnam’s National Assembly dated June 1, the Vietnamese bishops sounded the alarm about their country’s Law on Beliefs and Religions. The new legislation was ratified last November and is set to take effect on January 1, 2018. It is the first law on religions since the reunification of North and South Vietnam under communism in 1976, a year after the fall of Saigon.
The new law recognizes the non-commercial legal status of religious organizations, allows prisoners to use scriptures and “show their faith,” and acknowledges the religious needs of foreigners. Nevertheless the bishops believe that it still reflects the government’s distrust of religions and reinforces state control over religions in Vietnam. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said, “The bottom line is the Vietnamese government generally sees religion as something to be manipulated and restricted, not respected – and so they are constantly waging a battle across the country to keep religion under state control.”
In a meeting with high-ranking government officials in Saigon last December, 55 leaders from Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and other religions throughout Vietnam offered practical suggestions on how to advance religious freedom, but their input was not put in the law.
In their statement, the bishops point out several issues remaining in the relationship between the government and religions as follows.
First, the drafts of the law had allowed religious groups to engage in education, vocational training, health care, charity and publishing. However, the final version leaves this clause out and uses vague language on their participation.
Second, religious freedom is still not considered a human right but a privilege, and many religious activities still require permision from authorities. This “xin-cho” (asking-and-granting) mechanism is a way for the government to intervene in religions’ internal affairs and exert its tight control over religious activities.
Third, the language of the new legislation shows that the authorities still view religions as a threat and as antagonistic forces, easily blamed for “division of the nation” and “infringement of national defense.”
Fourth, the bishops take issue with the government calling on religions to “journey with the nation,” implying their submission to the communist rule. Their statement asserts that the nation is different from political regimes that change by time. The bishops emphasize that religions, including the Catholic Church, “always journey with the nation because they promote spiritual values in people, educate followers to respect justice and rights, do charity and respect human dignity.”
The bishops hoped members of the National Assembly would “welcome their input that came from their patriotism and responsibility toward history.” But it’s likely that the National Assembly, a rubber stamp for the government, will ignore their wishes. It already passed the law despite unprecedented objections.