A U.S. bipartisan commission proposed Tuesday that Vietnam be returned to a State Department list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedoms and that Burma, despite ongoing political reforms, be maintained on the blacklist.
Vietnam, under one-party communist rule, “continues to expand control over all religious activities [and] severely restrict independent religious practice,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) said in an annual report.
Though religious activity has grown in Vietnam in recent years, the government continues to “repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority,” it said.
The State Department included Vietnam on its list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2004 but removed it from the blacklist two years later and has since ignored repeated calls by the commission to reinstate the country’s designation.
For the 2013 report, USCIRF recommended that Secretary of State John Kerry maintain eight countries on the CPC list: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
USCIRF also urged that in addition to Vietnam, six other countries receive CPC designation: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Speaking in an interview, USCIRF chair Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett expressed hope that Vietnam would this year be returned to the list.
“We’re hopeful that our report will make the case,” Swett told RFA.
“The Vietnamese government is still using vague national security laws to suppress independent Buddhists, Protestants, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai activities,” Swett said.
“And they are definitely working to stop the growth of ethnic minority Protestantism and Catholicism through discrimination, instances of violence, and repeated episodes of forced denunciations of faith.”
“It’s still a very concerning situation, and one that we believe does merit CPC designation,” Swett said.
Though Burma took important steps during the last year to advance political reforms in the formerly military-ruled country, “these reforms have not yet improved religious freedom conditions,” USCIRF said, adding that Burma should again be named a CPC.
Treatment of the country’s Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority has been especially troubling, Swett said.
The report said that in sectarian violence over the period between June and October 2012, more than 1,000 Rohingyas were killed—a number more than five times higher than the official total death toll of 192 dead.
“Their villages and religious structures were destroyed [and] large numbers of women were raped,” Swett said.
“And so despite multiple political reforms and progress in a positive direction in the overall political situation in Burma, the religious freedom situation remains grave enough to merit CPC status."
Violence between Muslims and Buddhists continued to occur in Burma in 2013 with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch charging last week that Burmese authorities have committed crimes against humanity in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Muslim Rohingyas.
The USCIRF report said that though cases of the forced conversion of ethnic minority Christians to Buddhism were noted in Burma, abuses also targeted clergy of the country’s majority Buddhist faith.
“The government closely monitors monasteries viewed as focal points of anti-government activity and has restricted usual religious practices in these areas,” USCIRF said, adding that monks identified as protest organizers have been charged under “vague national security provisions.”
“Sadly, these abuses appear to be occurring with impunity,” said Swett.
In China, religious freedom conditions “have deteriorated quite significantly—particularly, of course, in Tibet and for Tibetan Buddhists, and for Uyghur Muslims as well,” Swett said, adding that “China again absolutely merits CPC designation.”
“The restriction of religious activity causes deep resentment in Tibetan and Uyghur communities,” USCIRF noted in its report.
The Chinese government has “intensified efforts to discredit religious leaders, issued new measures to increase government oversight of monasteries and mosques, and implemented new ‘education’ programs to ensure the loyalty of Buddhist monks and ‘weaken the religious consciousness’ of Uyghur Muslims.”
“There are hundreds of Tibetans and Uyghurs in prison for their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy,” USCIRF said.
Meanwhile, Protestants who refuse to join state-approved religious organizations face harassment and fines, detentions, and in some instances imprisonment, added Swett.
“Their ‘house church’ activity is considered to be illegal, and our evidence is that 900 Protestants were detained in the past year for simply conducting public worship activities. And we believe that there are seven significant Protestant leaders who were imprisoned for terms longer than a year.”
“The government has issued a directive to eradicate these groups,” Swett said, adding, “A similar situation faces the independent or unregistered Catholic community.”
China’s “most brutal” measures of religious suppression are aimed at eradicating the Falun Gong spiritual movement, though, Swett said.
“Practitioners continue to face arbitrary arrest, forced renunciations of their faith, torture, and psychiatric experiments.”
“And there has been some evidence of organ harvesting, particularly targeting the Falun Gong.”
“That community continues to be on the receiving end of the most harsh and brutal tactics used by the Chinese government when it comes to suppressing religious freedom,” said Swett.
North Korea, meanwhile, “remains one of the world’s most repressive regimes, with a deplorable human rights and religious freedom record,” USCIRF noted in its report.
And because North Korea’s government promotes a cult of personality surrounding the Kim dynasty of North Korean leaders, USCIRF said, “Any activity perceived to challenge [present leader] Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy, including clandestine religious activity, continues to be viewed as a security threat.”
“People caught transporting Bibles or engaged in any sort of missionary activity … face torture and execution and imprisonment,” said Swett.
“The repression of all unapproved religious activities can only be described as incredibly brutal.”
“North Korea clearly is a CPC, and I think there’s wide agreement on that,” Swett said.
Laos remains on USCIRF’s Tier 2 “Watch List” for continuing “serious religious freedom abuses,” USCIRF said in its report.
Countries on the Tier 2 Watch List are “on the threshold of CPC status, meaning that the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are particularly severe,” the commission says.
“The Lao legal code restricts religious practice, and the government is either unable or unwilling to curtail ongoing religious freedom abuses in some provincial areas,” according to the USCIRF report.
Though religious freedom conditions have improved over the last five years for majority Buddhist groups and other religious communities in urban areas, “our concern and our problems lie primarily with provincial officials and the status of communities in the provinces,” said Swett.
“There we see continued violations of religious freedom for ethnic minority Protestants, who face detention, surveillance, harassment, property confiscation, and in some instances forced renunciations of faith.”
This is a situation that has varied by region and by religious group, Swett said.
“[But] the improvements have not been sufficient in our view to warrant moving Laos entirely off of that Tier 2 status.”