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The why of Vietnam’s law on religion questioned

HOCHIMIHN (UCAN): The Vietnam National Assembly has ratified a controversial law on religious activities sparking a strong reaction from religious communities.

The Law on Belief and Religion, which was passed by the National Assembly on November 18 is the first ever law on religious activities since the country was reunified in 1975.

The law, which will take effect on January 1 next year, is to regulate legal procedures and conditions regarding people’s beliefs. Faith groups will be required to register with authorities and inform them of their activities. The government retains the right to either approve or refuse.

The law also allows for detainees and prisoners to use scriptures and show their faith, and religious organisations may also engage themselves in education, vocational training, health care, charitable works and publishing.

Banned religious activities include anything that is judged to infringe on national defence, harm social ethics or disrupt unity in the nation.

The Vietnamese government currently recognises 39 religious organisations from 13 religions, with a combined membership of 24 million people.

The reaction from faith figures has been anything but enthusiastic.

A senior religious researcher in Hanoi, who did not want to be named, said the law “focusses on state control over religions rather than meeting the religious needs of people. He added that religions must be fairly treated like other social and political organisations.

The law contains some vague articles which are prompting worries of exploitation. Religious groups are being required to register all activities with the authorities and hold them at what are termed legal venues.

The researcher said that another point of confusion is what is meant by allowing religions to engage in educational activities when education legislation bans religious input.

A priest in Ho Chi Minh City said the law aims to help the government administer religious activities, but religious followers are not any different from other citizens and should have the same rights as guaranteed by the constitution.

“A specific law on religion is not necessary and shows clear discrimination, as if religion is an enemy that needs to be controlled,” he said.

The priest added that the Communist Party wants to control religion, because it is afraid that religious leaders have more prestige and more influence than government officials.

When the National Assembly convened its month-long session to approve the law on October 20, the Interfaith Council of Vietnam issued a statement against it.

“As spiritual leaders struggling for the independence of religions and the people’s human and civil rights, we completely reject the draft law and believe the Communist government is using the National Assembly to approve and impose,” the 27 council members drawn from Christian, Buddhist, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao communities said.

Many representatives on the council have themselves suffered persecution during their struggle for religious freedom. One of its members, Father Nguyen Van Ly, a leading advocate for democracy and freedom of belief, was only released in May after serving eight years in prison.

The council said that religious groups and their followers had no obligation to obey the new law. “Accepting the bill means continuing to support the dictatorial regime,” its statement reads.

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