Religious communities in Vietnam should be able to operate also outside of the officially established channels for religious practice, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, said Thursday at the end of an official visit to the country.
“Freedom of religion or belief has the status of universal human rights to be respected prior to, and independent of, any particular acts of administrative approval,” Mr. Bielefeldt stressed.
Mr. Bielefeldt acknowledged the increasing efforts of the Vietnamese government to improve freedom of religion or belief through legal instruments. However, he observed that serious violations of freedom of religion or belief are a reality in Vietnam. “Granting autonomy for religious communities to function independently would be a litmus test for the development of freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam. In the current situation, their ability to operate as independent communities is unsafe and restricted,” Heiner Bielefeldt noted.
These violations particularly affect independent groups of Buddhists, including Hoa Hao-Buddhists, and of the Cao Dai religion, some Protestant communities and activists within the Catholic Church. “Official registration status with the Government is no guarantee that freedom of religion or belief is fully respected,” Mr. Bielefeldt said.
He said that he has ‘’heard a number of serious allegations about concrete violations of freedom of religion or belief in Vietnam’’ and referenced reported violations which include heavy-handed police raids; repeated invitations to “work sessions” with the police; close surveillance of religious activities; disruption of religious ceremonies and festivals; house arrests, at times over long periods; imprisonments, also sometimes over long periods; beatings and assaults; dismissals from employment; loss of social benefits; pressure exercised on family members; acts of vandalism; destructions of houses of worship, cemeteries and funeral sheds; confiscations of property; systematic pressure to give up certain religious activities and instead to operate within the official channels provided for religious practice; pressure to denounce one’s religion or belief. Mr. Bielefeldt also met with one prisoner of conscience in the prison in which he is currently detained.
The independent expert from Germany expressed hope that the Vietnamese government would use the upcoming new legislation on religious affairs to bring the existing norms and practices more in line with everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief.
He noted especially that the newly amended Vietnamese Constitution, adopted by the National Assembly in November 2013, covers in its second chapter “human rights and citizen’s fundamental rights and duties.” In this context, the 2013 Constitution also refers to freedom of belief or religion in article 24. Representatives of the Government repeatedly highlighted that rights holders of this provision are all human beings, whereas the respective provision within the 1992 Constitution was confined to citizens of Vietnam. This has been presented as an indicator of a generally more positive attitude towards freedom of religion or belief. Article 24 reads as follows:
- Every one shall enjoy freedom of belief and of religion; he can follow any religion or follow none. All religions are equal before the law.
- The State respects and protects freedom of belief and of religion.
- No one has the right to infringe on the freedom of belief and religion or to take advantage of belief and religion to violate the law.
Mr. Bielefeldt was due to visit Vietnam from July 21 – 31st 2014, but his planned visits to An Giang, Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces were unfortunately interrupted from July 28 to 30th.
“I received credible information that some individuals with whom I wanted to meet had been under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, harassed or prevented from travelling by the police,” he said. “Even those who successfully met with me were not free from a certain degree of police surveillance or questioning.” Mr. Bielefeldt added that his whereabouts were closely monitored by undeclared “security or police agents” and that the privacy and confidentiality of some meetings could have been compromised. ‘’All these incidents are in clear violation of the terms of reference of any country visit,’’ he said.
In Hanoi, Tuyen Quang, Ho Chi Minh City and Vinh Long, Mr. Bielefeldt met with various government officials and local authorities in the country involved in freedom of religion or belief issues. He also held meetings with representatives of recognized and unrecognized religious or belief communities, as well as civil society organizations and the UN.
The Special Rapporteur noted that he noticed positive developments at the central level: “Most representatives of religious communities agreed that, in spite of ongoing serious problems, their space for religious practices has increased in recent years. Religious communities which had been forbidden post-1975 are now allowed to operate.’’ He added that it is hopeful that some representatives of Government agencies expressed their willingness to consider substantive revisions within the process of replacing the current Ordinance on Belief and Religion by passing a law governing these issues and that this opportunity should not be missed, saying that ‘’it might become a turning point for Vietnam’s protection of freedom of religion or belief.’’
The Special Rapporteur will present a report containing his conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015. Mr. Bielefeldt said that he will continue to engage with and work in consultation with the Government and all relevant stakeholders to receive more information and clarification, especially on issues that relate to parts of the country that he was not able to visit.