A U.S. bipartisan commission called on Thursday for Vietnam to be returned to a State Department blacklist of the world’s worst abusers of religious freedoms, urging at the same time that the places of China, Myanmar, and North Korea on the list be maintained.
Vietnam, under one-party communist rule, continues to “severely restrict independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in an annual report.
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 amid improving diplomatic relations, and has since ignored repeated calls by the commission to reinstate the country’s designation.
Despite “some improvements” in religious freedoms noted during the last year in Vietnam, the country’s government “requires religious organizations and congregations to register with a state-sanctioned entity in order to be considered legal,” USCIRF said in its report.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday to announce the report’s release, USCIRF chair Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett noted that Vietnam employs “a variety of mechanisms” to control religious practice in the country.
“This is something that we remain very, very concerned about,” Swett said.
“We do continue to recommend that Vietnam be designated as a CPC. We think it’s warranted, we think that facts back that up. And I would point out that despite progress in some other areas, we do feel that Vietnam’s human rights record remains very poor—specifically, its religious freedoms record.”
For its report last year, USCIRF recommended that the U.S. Secretary of State maintain the status of eight countries already present on the CPC list including China, Myanmar, and North Korea.
“Not one of them has significantly improved its record,” Swett said, while in China, “We have seen signs of further deterioration.”
USCIRF noted that China under its new president Xi Jinping had worked during the last year to further tighten controls over “all aspects of its citizens’ lives.”
“For religious freedom, this has meant unprecedented violations against Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, and Falun Gong practitioners,” with religious believers facing fines, lengthy prison sentences, and the destruction of places of worship.
At least 400 churches were torn down or had crosses removed from public view, with most demolitions taking place in China’s coastal Zhejiang province, USCIRF said.
Leaders of both registered and unregistered, or "house," churches had also faced harassment and arbitrary arrest, USCIRF said, with some house church pastors classified by authorities as leaders of "cults."
In Myanmar, designated a CPC since 1999, religious and ethnic minorities “continued to experience intolerance, discrimination, and violence,” USCIRF said in its report.
Abuses by nationalist Buddhists against the Rohingya Muslim minority group were especially severe, the rights group said.
Myanmar’s government has shown itself unwilling to intervene or to investigate and prosecute abusers, though, and “the introduction of four discriminatory race and religion bills in 2014 could well further entrench such prejudices,” USCIRF said.
Christian areas of Myanmar also experienced discriminatory practices at the hands of Buddhist state officials, according to the report.
In North Korea, also listed as a CPC, “genuine freedom of religion or belief is non-existent,” USCIRF said.
“Individuals secretly engaging in religious activities are subject to arrest, torture, imprisonment, and sometimes execution,” the rights group said, with North Koreans suspected of contacts with foreign missionaries singled out for especially harsh treatment.
All religious practice outside of state control is restricted in North Korea, but Christians experience the most severe persecution, according to the USCIRF report, which noted that Christianity is associated with “the United States and Western ideology” and is therefore considered especially threatening to the regime.
“It is estimated that tens of thousands of Christians in North Korea are currently in prison camps facing hard labor or execution,” the report said.
The Southeast Asian nation of Laos meanwhile remains on USCIRF’s Tier 2 “Watch List” for continuing “serious religious freedom abuses,” the rights group said in its report.
Countries on the Tier 2 Watch List have engaged in violations which, while not rising to CPC status, are considered significant and serious.
Laos—like Vietnam, China, and North Korea a one-party communist state—allowed ongoing abuses during 2014 against religious minority groups, “abuses that are most prominent in remote, rural areas,” USCIRF said.
“Moreover, the government’s suspicion of Protestant Christianity as a ‘Western’ or ‘American’ construct continued to result in discrimination, harassment, and arrests of Christians throughout the country.”
Abuses were especially noted in Laos’s Savannakhet Province, where Christians were reported to have been ordered by local officials to renounce their faith, USCIRF said.
“Based on these concerns, in 2015 USCIRF again places Laos on Tier 2, where it has been since 2009.”