An independent U.S. commission has asked President Barack Obama's administration to reinstate Vietnam on a blacklist of religious freedom violators, saying the communist government there severely restricts religious practice and "brutally" represses those who challenge its authority.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressional watchdog, also wants the administration to maintain China, Burma, and North Korea as "countries of particular concern" on religious freedom, a designation that can carry economic sanctions unless governments address the U.S concerns.
Aside from the three East Asian nations, those already in the so called CPC blacklist updated annually by the State Department are Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
The commission said in its annual report Thursday that it is recommending to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Vietnam, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan be included in the CPC list this year.
The Obama administration has yet to make any CPC designations since it took over in 2009.
“The Obama administration continues to rely on the prior administration’s designations but hopefully will make new designations and apply meaningful actions very soon in order to underscore America’s resolve in bolstering the freedom of religion or belief around the world,” said commission chairman Leonard Leo.
The commission also wants the U.S. State Department's religious freedom envoy to take "follow-up actions to protect religious freedom where it is most threatened.”
The department had included Vietnam in the CPC list from 2004 to 2006 but ignored repeated calls by the commission to reinstate the country on the blacklist.
The commission cited "severe violations" in Vietnam last year, including violence against religious communities, particularly in the Catholic village of Con Dau, but also against the Plum Village Buddhist monks.
"We see that there have been new arrests of ethnic minority Protestants and Cao Dai priests in the last year, and that human rights defenders who represent religious groups have been imprisoned," Scott Flipse, the commission's deputy director for policy, said in an interview.
"And we believe that these facts show that Vietnam should be a CPC," he said.
"We think that the CPC designation is a flexible tool that has worked in the past to bring about tangible change without stopping trade or other elements of our bilateral relationship. We think that it can do so again," Flipse explained.
The commission said in its report that "Vietnam continues to control religious communities, severely restrict and penalize independent religious practice, and brutally repress individuals and groups viewed as challenging its authority."
While the Vietnamese government has made some important changes in the past decade in response to international criticism, "individuals continue to be imprisoned or detained for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy," it said.
The report added that Vietnamese officials were not held fully accountable for abuses, independent religious activity remained illegal and that legal protections for government-approved religious organizations were both vague and subject to arbitrary or discriminatory interpretations based on political factors.
New converts to some Protestant and Buddhist communities faced discrimination, intimidation, and heavy pressure to renounce their faith, it added.
'State sponsorship of religious persecution'
In China, the commission cited "state sponsorship of religious persecution" of citizens.
"China ruthlessly suppresses, among others, the Falun Gong, the house church movement, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims," it said.
The Chinese government also detained over 500 "unregistered" Protestants in the past year, and stepped up efforts to destroy churches and close "illegal" meeting points. Dozens of unregistered Catholic clergy remain in detention or home confinement, or have disappeared, the commission said.
"Our report argues that conditions for Uyghur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists are the worst that we’ve seen in the last 10 years. The government has expanded their ability to control and repress Muslim and Tibetan Buddhist worship activities and religious activities," Flipse said.
He accused the Chinese authorities of "trying to break up large house churches which were once tolerated—illegal, but once tolerated."
The Shouwang Protestant Church, he said, faced problems over the Easter weekend with mass detentions.
"We think that could happen again, as [China’s government] pursues a policy of forcing unregistered house church Protestants into the government-controlled Protestant organization and breaking up larger assemblies."
In Burma, there were "severe violations" of religious freedom, including the arrest, mistreatment, and harassment of Buddhist monks, forced relocation of the Rohingya Muslim minority and banning of independent Protestant "house church" activities, the commission said.
Though opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released in November last year after rare elections, "we don’t think that conditions have improved in Burma," Flipse said.
North Korea was branded by the commission as one of the world‘s most repressive regimes with a deplorable human rights and religious freedom record.
It cited "the arrest, torture, and possible execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity; and the mistreatment and imprisonment of asylum-seekers repatriated from China, particularly those suspected of engaging in religious activities or having religious affiliations."
"We also know that there is an uptick in repression that is going on to stop that growth of Protestantism from China," Flipse said.
"It’s difficult to verify these things in such a closed society, but there are reports that we have included in our annual report of at least one woman who was executed for allegedly distributing Bibles," he said.
The commission maintained Laos in a "watchlist" for countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold but require close monitoring.
"The Lao government seems unwilling or unable to curtail the repression that provincial governments and police are using now, which include forced renunciations of faith, harassments, arrests, and fines of ethnic minority Hmong and other ethnic minority Protestants in Laos. This is a serious concern," Flipse said.
"We know that Lao central government authorities have interceded at times with provincial authorities, and we think that’s a positive step," he said.
Reported by Richard Finney and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.