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Is There Really Religious Liberty in Communist Vietnam?
by Mark Tooley
The Communist government of Vietnam continues to restrict religious activity. But a government-organized group of Vietnamese church leaders recently visited the United States to deny this reality, with help from US church groups.
“The government is not interfering into religious affairs,” insisted Le Quang Vinh, chairman of the National Committee for Religious Affairs. His delegation was hosted in New York and Washington, D.C., by Church World Service (the relief arm of the National Council of Churches) and by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.
Specifically, Vinh’s delegation wanted to denounce the Vietnam Human Rights Act passed by the House of Representatives last year by a vote of 410 to 1. The bill would link non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam with improvements in the country’s human rights record. It authorizes assistance to democratic forces in Vietnam, and it provides additional funding of Radio Free Asia to overcome jamming efforts by the Hanoi government.
As Vinh explained in an interview with The People’s Daily Army newspaper, the bill “contains total distortions” and is potentially an “obstacle to the development of relations between the two countries.” The Communist delegation wanted an opportunity to “present the truth to their critics in Washington,” according to Vinh, and “prevent adoption” of the bill by the US Senate.
Rumors of Freedom
Mainline church leaders in the United States were persuaded. “One of the problems is that outsiders continue to stir up problems in Vietnam and continue to create tensions [between] the religious communities and the government,” suggested United Methodist clergyman Lonnie Turnipseed, a former Church World Service executive. “There is clearly freedom of religion in Vietnam.”
John McCullough, a United Methodist clergyman who heads Church World Service, seemed equally supportive of Vinh’s mission. He lauded the Vietnamese government’s “sense of compassion for its people” and its cooperation with the religious community in Vietnam.
In his interview with the Vietnamese army newspaper, which can be found on the Vietnamese Communist Party website, Vinh praised the United Methodist Board of Church and Society for arranging the “agenda” of his delegation’s visit. Vinh incorrectly noted that United Methodism has 25 million members in the United States and 60 million worldwide. (Actually there are 8.3 million in the United States and 11 million worldwide.)
Vinh’s delegation included three Protestant clergy, four Buddhist representatives, and Catholic Bishop Dinh Chau Tran of the Dominican Order. These clergy “rejected categorically the distortions and slanderous information against Vietnam,” Vinh declared. And they “demanded” that their US peers join them in preventing passage of the House resolution.
The Vietnamese government claims that there are 70,000 Protestants and 6 million Catholics in their country. More independent sources, such as the World Evangelical Alliance, claim 1.1 million Protestants and 7 million Catholics, meaning that just under 9 percent of Vietnam’s 80 million people are Christian.
Facts of Repression
There is a consensus among US government agencies and independent human rights groups that Vietnam is lacking in religious freedom.
According to Amnesty International, there is “continuing repression of non-official religious groups in Viet Nam . . . in flagrant contradiction to the Vietnamese government’s assertion of freedom of religion.” Specifically, Amnesty cited the arrest and detention of members of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church for the “peaceful expression of their religious beliefs.”
Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom reports that the Vietnamese government continues its policy of “brutally suppressing Christianity among the country’s tribal populations.” One example it cites is the August 2002 death of the Hmong Christian Mua Bua Senh, who was beaten to death by security police for refusing to deny his faith. Over the last two years Freedom House has released translated Vietnamese government documents detailing “Official Plan 184,” which is a government attempt to eradicate Christianity among tribal minorities. The campaign included a pledge form that Christians were to sign when they renounced Christianity.
According to the US State Department report on religious liberty, the Vietnamese government “restricts significantly those organized activities of religious groups that it declared to be at variance with state laws and policies.” Although religious practice continues to grow, “government restrictions on the clergy of most religious groups remained in place, and religious groups faced difficulties in training and ordaining clergy, publishing religious materials, and conducting educational and humanitarian activities.” Authorities imprisoned persons for practicing religion “illegally,” for which jail terms of up to three years are possible.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Vietnamese government has continued its attempts to suppress the growth of Protestant Evangelical churches that have gained converts among Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. Catholics, too, have not been immune from “state meddling,” with the government continuing to restrict the number of parishes, to screen candidates for the priesthood and for appointment as bishops, and to reject requests for a papal visit.
None of this was openly acknowledged by Vinh’s delegation or by his US church hosts. Vinh, in pointing to religious freedom in Vietnam, claimed that the government’s Religious Publishing House produced 400 book titles in two years. He asked if “any other regime in the world could manage to publish such a number of book titles within two years.”
That non-totalitarian governments allow religious organizations to produce their own publications, rather than having the government do it, was a point that did not occur to Vinh. He also said it was incorrect to say that there were “a lot” of arrests of religious believers. There were “several,” he admitted, but they were involved in “anti-state activities.” Very reassuring.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.