Vietnam a ‘country of particular concern,’ US religious freedom agency says

U.S.-based rights group blames Vietnamese government for fostering hatred that led to priest’s death.
2022.02.09
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The funeral of Dominican Priest, Father Joseph Tran Ngoc Thanh in Kon Tum, Vietnam, January 31, 2022.
Citizen Journalist

Despite some improvements, Vietnam remains a “country of particular concern” in terms of allowing its citizens to freely practice their religion, the 15th consecutive year the country has been so designated by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The country still maintains legal barriers that prevent the establishment of religious organizations and continues to suppress the followers of religions banned by the government, the report said. 

The commission said a new law adopted in Vietnam in 2018 was a “notable improvement” to a previous ordinance but remains overly restrictive and has been applied unevenly across the country.

Hanoi continued cracking down on unregistered independent religious groups and publicly labeled many as “bizarre or wrong.”

“Authorities continued to actively persecute independent religious minority communities, including Protestant Hmong and Montagnard Christians, Hoa Hao Buddhists, the Unified Buddhists, Cao Dai followers, Catholics and Falun Gong practitioners,” the report said.

“Ethnic minority communities faced especially egregious persecution for the peaceful practice of their faith, including physical assault, banishment, detention, imprisonment and forced renunciation of faith,” it said.

Several representatives of religious groups in Vietnam told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the report was accurate.

“I could not agree more with the report. In brief, our religious activities are not recognized. When the government is happy, they ignore us, but usually we are restricted or suppressed,” said Nguyen Kim Lan, head of the management board of the Cao Dai Community in the southern province of Vinh Long.

“We don’t have legal status and are like legal outcasts,” he said, adding that authorities often use the unrecognized status as an excuse to crack down on the religious community.

But he said that by registering, religious groups surrender their freedom.

“When a religion has not been registered, its leaders and followers still can do what they want to do until they are suppressed by the government,” he said.

“However, if the region is registered, it will be subject to the government’s censorship. If your religion is registered and you carry out activities that the government doesn’t agree on, you will be in trouble.”

Le Quang Hien, a leader in the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, said the government often harasses religious groups.

“They use the Vietnam Fatherland Front to restrict the freedom of independent religious groups, for example … by stopping them from going to specific areas where they planned to hold ceremonies or rituals,” Hien said.

Hien said the Front, a political group aligned with the Communist Party, can do this by either locking down the area or by preventing followers from leaving their homes.

Vietnam has been targeting Protestants in its Central Highlands area, imprisoning many for following an unrecognized religion.

“Over 500 Central Highlanders have been imprisoned since 2000. Most of these are church leaders, their assistants, or followers who were very active in church activities,” H Biap Krong, an expert on the religious freedom situation in the region, told RFA.

She said the government tags Central Highland Protestants with vague charges of undermining national unity and planning to overthrow the government.

Recently, the People’s Public Security Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Ministry of Public Security, published articles targeting the Evangelical Church of Christ in the Central Highlands.

A Dao, the church’s pastor, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2017. A Ga, another pastor from the group, fled to Thailand to seek asylum. 

The Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent governmental agency established in 1998, recommended that the U.S. send representatives to Vietnam to visit Vietnamese in prison for their religious beliefs and areas of the country that are the most restrictive of religious practices.

Priest killed

Freedom of religion advocates said the recent murder of a Vietnamese Dominican priest illustrates the danger posed by Vietnam’s policies.

The Rev. Joseph Tran Ngoc Thanh, 41, was stabbed in the head by a stranger while listening to confessions and celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the diocese of Kon Tum on Jan. 29, 2022, the Vatican’s Agenzia Fides News Agency reported. 

He was hospitalised after the incident but unable to recover and died at 11:30 p.m. the same day.

The incident took place at Dak Mot Church in Plei Kan town, Ngoc Hoi District, 40 km north of Kon Tum City, in central Vietnam.

Local police arrested the attacker and declared he was mentally ill. But a Virginia-based rights group blamed the incident on the Vietnamese government for nurturing hostility against religions.

“Hate speech and defamation against leaders and followers of religions that resist government control have been on the rise over the past two years. This has no doubt contributed to the increased physical violence against them,” Nguyen Dinh Thang, the chief executive of the Boat People SOS (BPSOS) and a member of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable’s Executive Board, said during a roundtable discussion on Feb. 1.

“I call on the U.S. State Department and [Commission on International Religious Freedom] to press for the prosecution of government-backed perpetrators of hate speech under Vietnam’s anti-defamation law,” said Thang. 

According to Thang, a few months before his death, Tran Ngoc Thanh erected a statue of St. Joseph, his patron saint, at his church. The government confiscated the statue and towed it away.

Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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