Vietnam is one of seven countries which the administration, once again, has determined do not meet the threshold of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for religious freedom violations, despite the recommendations of an independent statutory watchdog, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
The others are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Releasing the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom together with Secretary of State John Kerry, ambassador-at-large Suzan Johnson Cook mentioned just two countries as examples of cases where improvements have occurred – Turkey and Vietnam.
“Violations of religious freedom easily capture the world’s attention, so I therefore want to highlight some positive developments that tend to fly under the media radar,” Cook said.
“Although governments’ restrictions on religious freedom remain in Vietnam, the government took a step forward by allowing large-scale worship services with more than 100,000 participants.”
During questions time minutes later Cook mentioned Vietnam a second time: “There are certain countries that we’re looking at, as I cited in the end of my remarks, like Vietnam, who have made progress in terms of having – allowing large places of worship.”
In fact that “step forward” is not a new one: The department’s two most recent previous reports, released in September 2011 and November 2010 respectively, both referred to authorities allowing gatherings of 100,000-plus adherents, including a Catholic event in late 2009, and mass meetings of Cao Dai (a homegrown religion mixing elements of Christianity and Buddhism) in both 2009 and 2010.
Meanwhile, that same government recently instituted a set of daunting regulations known as “Decree 92,” requiring all religious groups to re-apply for official registration, and to secure permission from various levels of government (village leaders, village people’s committees, precinct committees etc.) before meeting. Advocacy groups expect evangelical Christian groups to be among those hardest hit by the requirements.
Two other incidents in recent months raised fresh concerns about the state of religious freedom in Vietnam:
--An evangelical church leader named Hoang Van Ngai died in police custody in the Central Highlands region on March 17. Relatives contested police claims that he killed himself by sticking his hand into an electrical socket, pointing to apparent evidence of severe assaults on his body.
--On April 13, when U.S. deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor Dan Baer visited Vietnam for bilateral human rights dialogue, authorities allowed him to meet with some activists but prevented him from holding a planned private meeting with a religious freedom advocate, Nguyen Van Dai.
Under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) the administration is empowered to designate severe religious freedom violators as CPCs, and then has a toolbox of options, including sanctions, designed to encourage offending governments to improve.
Currently designated CPCs are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
The USCIRF, which was established under IRFA to advise the executive and legislative branches, wants another seven added to that list, and in its own yearly report three weeks ago again urged the administration to name Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as violators.
The report released Monday ignored all seven recommendations.
During her press appearance Cook pointed out that the USCIRF is an independent body.
“Their references and suggestions are certainly taken into account when we do our reports, but in terms of what they designate, I refer you to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.”
Designation effective in the past
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who last week introduced legislation calling on the administration to relist Vietnam as a CPC, expressed disappointment in the decision.
“Religious freedom remains under attack in Vietnam,” he said. “Decade after decade, the communist government in Vietnam has denied its people the most basic freedoms. The Obama administration’s failure yet again to list Vietnam as a ‘country of particular concern’ is disappointing, and the Vietnamese people deserve better.”
The USCIRF first recommended CPC status for Vietnam in 2001, and has done so every year since then.
The Bush administration followed the advice in 2004 and 2005, but then delisted Hanoi in 2006, citing “significant improvement towards advancing religious freedom,” as a result of U.S. diplomacy.
The USCIRF says Vietnamese officials did respond to U.S. religious freedom concerns in past year, releasing prisoners and expanding some legal protections for nationally-recognized religious groups.
“Most religious leaders in Vietnam attributed these positive changes to the CPC designation [in 2004-5] and the priority placed on religious freedom concerns in U.S.-Vietnamese bilateral relations,” the commission said in its recent report.
But delisting in 2006 brought backsliding.
“The government of Vietnam continues to expand control over all religious activities, severely restrict independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority,” the USCIRF report stated.
“[A]uthorities continue to imprison or detain individuals for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy; independent religious activity remains repressed; the government maintains a specialized police for dealing with religious groups; legal protections for government-approved religious organizations are subject to arbitrary or discriminatory interpretations based on political factors; and converts to ethnic-minority Protestantism and Catholicism face discrimination, intimidation, and pressure to renounce their faith.”