Religious Freedom 'Improves' in Vietnam, Declines in China

By Richard Finney
vietnam-hoa-hao-church-1000.jpg A church from the unrecognized Hoa Hao Buddhist sect in Vietnam's An Giang province.
Photo courtesy of Bùi Thuy Ðào Nguyên / Wikipedia

Religious freedom continued to decline in China this year, while Vietnam showed slight signs of improvement despite ongoing abuses, the U.S. State Department said in an annual report to American lawmakers.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, also known as Burma, violations of religious freedoms continued unchanged in spite of progress made in political reforms, the report said.

In China, the State Department’s 2012 Religious Freedom Report said, “the government’s respect for religious freedom declined during the year, particularly in Tibetan areas and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Republic.”

In general, China’s government emphasized state control over religion, the report said, adding that the religious activities of religious adherents were restricted “when these were perceived, even potentially, to threaten state or Chinese Communist Party interests, including the Party’s concept of social stability.”

Protestants and Catholics practicing outside of state-controlled churches came in for particular scrutiny, said the report, as did members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and smaller groups called “evil cults” by China’s government.

“Government repression, including crackdowns at monasteries and nunneries, resulted in the loss of life, arbitrary detentions, and torture,” said the report.

The U.S. Secretary of State has designated China as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) since 1999, with the designation most recently renewed in August 2011.

Countries of Particular Concern

Countries of Particular Concern are countries “that are considered to commit ‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom,’ and whose records call for the U.S. government to take certain actions under the terms of the [International Religious Freedom] Act,” said the report.

Burma, or Myanmar, also designated a CPC since 1999 with that status renewed in 2011, saw “considerable” movement in political reform during 2012, “but the trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year,” the State Department report said.

The report noted especially that local officials in the country’s Rakhine state took part in ethnic violence targeting Rakhine’s Muslim community last year.

Overall, Myanmar authorities “subjected religious activities and organizations to restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly,” the report said, adding that the government  promoted Theravada Buddhism over other religions, “particularly among certain ethnic minority populations.”

In Vietnam, though abuses of religious freedom—involving arrests, detentions, and convictions—were  reported during the year, “the government also showed signs of progress,” said the report.

“It registered new congregations, permitted the expansion of charitable activities, and allowed large-scale worship services with more than 100,000 participants.”

Problems remain

“Other problems remained, [though], especially at the provincial and village levels, including slow or denied approval of registration for some groups. Some Christian groups also reported harassment or administrative obstacles when they tried to hold Christmas services,” the report said.

The State Department included Vietnam on its list of Countries of Particular Concern in 2004 but removed it from the blacklist two years later and has since ignored repeated calls by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) to reinstate the country’s designation.

“The Vietnamese government is still using vague national security laws to suppress independent Buddhists, Protestants, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai activities,” USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett told RFA in April.

“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 renunciations of faith.”

“It’s still a very concerning situation, and one that we believe does merit CPC designation,” Swett said.

Lax enforcement

In Laos, “the trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year,” the State Department’s report said.

“Officials respected the constitutional rights of members of most religious groups to worship, albeit within constraints imposed by the government.”

But local officials were sometimes lax in their enforcement of laws protecting religious freedom, said the report.

“District and local authorities in some of the country’s 17 provinces continued to be suspicious of non-Buddhist religious groups and occasionally displayed intolerance for minority religious groups.”

This was especially true in the case of Protestant congregations, “whether or not officially recognized,” the report said.

Contrasting cases

Meanwhile, in Cambodia, “there were few reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice,” though Buddhism is the country’s state religion, said the report.

“[Cambodia’s] constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom.”

By contrast, the government of North Korea “severely restricted religious activity, except for some officially recognized groups it tightly supervised,” according to the State Department report.

“Reports by refugees, defectors, missionaries, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) indicated that the authorities arrested and subjected to harsh penalties persons engaged in religious proselytizing and those in unauthorized contact with foreigners or missionaries.”

Reports of arrests and punishments  during 2012 were difficult to verify, though, “[D]ue to the country’s inaccessibility and the inability of foreigners to gain timely information,” the report said.


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