Campaigning for Religious Freedom in Vietnam
Religious Crackdowns in Vietnam
At the Rayburn Office Building in Washington, Rep. Ed Royce told 40 Vietnamese delegates from California, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia, “The one-party Communist government continues to crack down hard on those that oppose its rule, who are calling for democracy and political pluralism. Bloggers who speak out are silenced, beaten, or thrown in jail. Peaceful dissidents suffer a similar fate.”
The participants, lobbying in mid-October on the Hill, agreed with the Congressman. The “People’s Movement for Religious Freedom in Vietnam”(Movement) wrote in their dossier that “In addition to harassment and crackdowns from the Vietnamese government, religious groups also face other obstacles that severely affect religious growth and training, like limitations on teaching materials, expanding training facilities, and the number of clergy. Believers are questioned, tormented, and imprisoned, their homes searched and their possessions confiscated, their emails, online forums and blog websites closely monitored.”
With the Ordinance on Religion and Belief issued in 2004 by the Vietnamese government, Vietnam adopted a comprehensive policy of oppressing all religions. Now, it systematically implants its operatives in the governing bodies of religious organizations around the country to control them.
The U.S. State Department placed Vietnam on the “Country of Particular Concerns” (CPC) list in 2004 due to its violations of religious freedom, based on the International Freedom of Religion Act. But in 2006, the Department removed Vietnam from the CPC list, explaining that “Vietnam has made significant improvement towards advancing religious freedom and no longer fits the criteria of severe violator as defined in the International Religious Freedom Act.”
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as many NGOs and Vietnamese associations, decried that reversal. They agreed that the Vietnamese government had facilitated construction of new churches and permitted expansion of religious organizations’ activities, but pointed out that local authorities continued to threaten, harass, and persecute religious leaders and followers. They said that government restrictions on, and violence against, religious activities escalated remarkably after Vietnam was removed from the CPC list in 2006.
They provided ample examples of religious persecution. In 2007, Rev. Father Tadeo Nguyen Van Ly, a founder of the Bloc 8406 democracy group, was sentenced to eight years in prison and five years of house arrest. He suffered a stroke and a brain tumor while in jail that left him partially paralyzed. After a year-long medical parole, he was sent back, a few months ago, to prison to finish his sentence. Police also arrested and tortured hundreds of Catholics who mounted peaceful protests demanding freedom to exercise their religion.
In fact, the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Bureau reported that in 2010 “major religious groups, along with activists, organizations, and political parties, have faced significant harassment and suppression.” Journalists Without Borders and the international media reported that religious groups operating outside of the Vietnamese Communist government are strictly banned, and the Christian ethnic minority in the northern highlands are monitored and controlled by local authorities, who burn their churches and detain their leaders.
Still, at its latest opportunity to review Vietnam’s status last month, the U.S. State Department once again failed to include Vietnam on the CPC list, despite escalating violations. Therefore, the Movement’s delegates descended on the Hill to request members of Congress to co-sponsor, support and vote in favor of all pending bills related to religious freedom and human rights.
They also saw Ambassador Sue Johnson Cook of the International Religious Freedom bureau at the State Department, and expressed their views to her and her staff directly.
Campaigning on the Hill and at The State Department
Four religious leaders from the Movement gave their views. Venerable Thich Tam Tho of Pennsylvania, representing the Unified Buddhist Church in Vietnam (UBCV), said, “The UBCV has been banned and increasingly put under surveillance. Many monks, including top leaders such as Patriarchs Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, a Nobel Peace prize nominee, have been imprisoned, put under pagoda arrest and placed under strict travel restrictions. As recently as May and August, 2011, the police prohibited the UBCV in Danang from holding Vesak Day and Vu Lan, their two most important celebrations.”
Father Joseph Dinh Xuan Long of North Carolina, declared, “Catholic leaders became victims of the government’s suppression. Parishioners were brutally beaten, arrested, tortured, murdered for peaceful prayer vigils, for the release of priests and return of church property. Churches were torn down and destroyed and parish lands were confiscated and converted into public parks or offices. Among those are Thai Hoa in 2008, Tam Toa in 2009, Dong Chiem and Con Dau in 2010.” Fr Long asked that legislators and State Department officials request the immidiate release of Fr. Tadeo Ly, because of his severe medical condition.
Mr. Vo Thai Hien of Georgia, a Cao Dai Buddhist, stated that Communist hostility towards Cao Dai followers dates as far back as September 1945, when nearly 3,000 Cao Dai were massacred in Quang Ngai province. An estimated 10,000 more were eliminated in the eastern region. After South Vietnam fell in 1975, the Communists immediately confiscated Cao Dai properties, including the Holy See in Tay Ninh, which represented three million faithful. They arrested prominent Cao Dai leaders and replaced them with more obedient collaborators. Most recently, on July 19, the Holy Cathedral in Phan Rang province was razed to the ground, presumably to run a road through the area.
The last religious leader to testify was Sydney TranSi, from Maryland, also a Hoa Hao Buddhist. He said that government-appointed committees had taken over Hoa Hao religious affairs. Registrations to celebrate religious ceremonies had been denied. In 2007, many followers were arrested and tortured by government authorities for participating in a hunger strike protesting the imprisonment of other Hoa Hao members. Police regularly discouraged worshippers from visiting temples.
Delegates declared that a longstanding pattern of religious persecution and discrimination against religious communities still existed. Thousands of followers were arbitrarily detained without trial by government authorities, and countless numbers were pressured to renounce their own religion and join government-run churches. They insisted that Vietnam today was an “open” society only in name. Below the openness is a scheme by authorities to curtail any disagreeing voices. Basic religious and human rights are not respected. Vietnam abuses religions in order to maintain a tight grip on the people, a sign of dictatorship.
The Movement’s organization, headquartered in California, has collected over 10,000 petitions asking Secretary of State Clinton to put Vietnam back on the CPC list. Congressman Jim Moran, D-VA, met with the delegates. “I know that you will see a day when the people of Vietnam can live in freedom and people of all faiths will be able to celebrate freely. In everything we do and every bill we pass, we should be guided by those universal principles of human dignity, individual freedom and the right to pursue our own religious beliefs without interference from any government.”
Congressman Chris Smith, a staunch human rights defender, reintroduced the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2011, which would prevent any increase in non-humanitarian assistance to the government of Vietnam unless it respects freedom of religion and free expression and the rights of ethnic minorities, and releases political and religious prisoners. “Although similar versions of this bill have passed the House in previous Congresses, we need to continually work for its passage this year in both the House and the Senate,” concluded the Congressman.