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Vietnam’s draft law on religion bereft of progress

LONDON (Agencies): What is religious freedom? This is the question posed in a documentary recently posted on Facebook, which includes interviews with members of the public, as well as religious leaders, lawyers and rights advocates.

Remarkably, the video was made in Vietnam, a country that continues to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

A report published by Christian Solidarity in London in December, says that the Association to Protect Freedom of Religion, which produced the documentary, says it aims to help “everyone in Vietnam fulfill their right to freedom of religion… fighting any attempt to restrain or obstruct the exercise of this right.”

It is being hailed as a courageous and timely initiative, as a new draft law on religion and belief is likely to be passed in Vietnam in next year.

This will be the first such law in Vietnam, although there is already an Ordinance on Belief and Religion (2004) and Decree 92 (2013), which provide guidance on its implementation.

Decree 92 has been criticised by religious leaders and rites advocates for its ambiguous terminology and bureaucratic obstacles, as well as for making registration a mandatory requirement for any practice of religion.

Registration extends far beyond the simple recognition of a religious community, as permission is needed for internal decisions, such as the appointment of clergy, the planning of religious festivals, travel inside and outside the country, and setting the curriculum for religious training.

Unfortunately, the new draft law has adopted many of the problems and circular requirements found in Decree 92.

On a positive note, the government did invite religious communities to submit feedback on the fourth draft of the law in April 2015.

As another association documentary shows, most of the comments received have concerned registration.

Many religious groups also observe that the draft law is not in line with international standards on freedom of religion or belief.

A statement by the independent Hoa Hao Buddhists calls the registration system is a way to “screen out many beliefs or religions… and drive many of them into illegality.”

Bishop Pierre Nguyen Van Vien, an auxiliary in Vinh, said, “The term recognised by the government appears many times… as if government approval is a precondition for the government to respect citizens’ freedom of religion. This is inappropriate.”

Many of these concerns have been echoed by international human rights organisations. A joint statement by more than 35 civil society organisations calls on the Vietnamese government to revise the draft law to conform with international human rights law, in consultation with both recognised and independent religion or belief communities in Vietnam, as well as experts, such as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt.

One rights advocate, trying to raise awareness on the issue inside Vietnam, who wishes to remain anonymous, says it is still difficult for citizens to speak up.

Registered religious organisations are in some ways more able to criticise the administrative burden brought about by the law, but are under pressure to make sure their comments do not antagonise the authorities.

Non-registered groups have also spoken out, but their voices have largely gone unheard. In addition, some non-registered organisations feel it is better to focus on reporting cases of religious persecution, ignoring the draft law altogether, rather than putting their energies into a hopeless legal system.

In articles published on the law, state media have not included criticisms from either registered or non-registered groups.

Despite these obstacles, some of the commentaries by religious groups appear to have had some effect.

The Hanoi-based daily, Viet Nam News, reported late last month that the National Assembly deputy, Khuc Thi Duyen, had criticised a regulation in the draft law, which states that religious institutions can only be officially recognised if they have been in operation for at least 10 years.

Khuc told other members of the assembly that the measure could lead to a restriction in the freedom to practice religion.

Several other deputies have also voiced the opinion that the law should “align the domestic legal framework with international conventions that Vietnam has joined.”

But others continue to demand more detailed regulations on banned religious practices and calling for further prohibitions on abusing faith to undermine national unity, the kind of language criticised by religious organisations for being open to abuse.

Father Anthony Le Ngoc Thanh, the director of spiritual formation at the Association to Protect Freedom of Religion, believes there is no need for such a law.

“There should not be a specific legislation governing religion as we already have provisions in the civil, administrative and penal codes to address related matters,” he says.

He adds that if a law must be introduced, it should be for the purposes of guaranteeing citizens the right to freedom of religion and religious associations the right to practice their doctrines without interference, rather than assisting the state in controlling religious life.

He said that it should be remembered first and foremost that religious participation is a right, not a crime.

Bielefeldt has emphasised that the law presents an opportunity to introduce substantive revisions to strengthen freedom of religion or belief. But so far, the publicised drafts appear to inherit and solidify, rather than correct, many of these existing problems.

Nevertheless, it appears that there are those within the National Assembly who see a need to improve the protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam.


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