Tightened Controls on Religion in Vietnam

The International Buddhist Information Bureau is deeply disturbed by a new government decree that increases state control of religions and further undermines religious freedom in Vietnam. Decree 92 on “Directives and measures for implementing the Ordinance on beliefs and religion”, issued by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on November 8th 2012 will come into force on January 1st 2013. It replaces Decree 22 issued in 2005 which was the first text to give instructions on implementing Vietnam’s key religious legislation, the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religion, adopted in 2004.

Decree 92, which has five chapters and 46 articles, takes up many of the most restrictive provisions of Decree 22, such as Article 2, which strictly prohibits any activities perceived to “abuse the right to freedom of belief or religion to undermine peace, independence and national unity… to disseminate information against the State’s prevailing laws and policies; to sow division among the people, ethnic groups, and religions; to cause public disorder; to do harm to other people’s lives, health, dignity and honour” . But it also adds a number of new obligations and vaguely-worded provisions that give the authorities greater leeway to saction and restrict religious activities.

Article 6 (1a) stipulates that religious organizations applying for full legal recognition must prove they have 20 years of stable operation “and have not violated the provisions of law”. It specifically refers to Article 15 of the “Ordinance on Beliefs and Religion” which states that religious activities shall be stopped if they “infringe upon national security”. This provision is grossly prohibitive, says the organization, since the very act of carrying out religious activities without state recognition is a violation of national security under Vietnam’s broadly-worded Penal Code.

Today, many members of non-recognized religious bodies such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Hoa Hao, Cao Dai and Protestant house churches are in prison or under house arrest simply for practicing their religion outside State-sanctionned groups.

The two most important chapters of Decree 92, chapter III on “Religious Organizations” and Chapter IV on “Religious Activities”,which have 36 articles divided into 14 sections, reveal the intrusive controls of the government and the Communist Party in all aspects of religious life. Every religious activity, from the celebration of prayers and religious festivals, ordination of religious dignitaries, the curriculum of religious schools and training centers must be submitted in advance to the local authorities and obtain approval from the People’s Committees from the village, district and provincial levels, up to central government and the Prime Minister himself. At every level, the authorities are empowered to arbitrarily reject requests for religious activities simply by providing a written statement to justify their decision.

Even foreigners living in Vietnam must submit written applications to organize religious gatherings (Article 40), which was not stipulated in the previous decree.

Decree 92 outlines the predominant role of the Ministry of the Interior in overseeing religious activities (Article 42). In religious training schools, for example, the Ministry of Education and Training was previously in charge of the curriculum, which has obligatory studies in Vietnamese history and law. Under Decree 92, however, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice will work alongside the Ministry of Education and Training to determine the contents of the curriculum and oversee the teaching and inspection of these studies (Article 15).

Vietnamese history and law are now elevated as “major subjects” of religious training, over and above religious studies (Article 14.2). The government’s priority is not to educate religious cadres in the philospohy and concerns of the religious communities, but to produce an army of political agents well-versed in Vietnam’s repressive religious policies and trained to apply religious legislation that is totally inconsistent with international standards and norms,

The only apparently positive element in the Decree is that, after an extremely long and arduous process of application for recognition that stretches out over several years, the final decision made by the Prime Minister is accelerated in comparison with Decree 22 (45 days instead of 90) and 30 days instead of 60 by People’s Committees at the provincial level (Article 8.2). But the extreme scrutiny of the political authorities, from the villages up to central government, and the lack of transparency and strict political controls over the whole process of registration shows clearly that Vietnam is not seeking to promote greater freedom of religion, but to implement the Vietnamese Communist Party’s directives to “increase state management of religious affairs”.

Indeed, Decree 92 simply adds to the framework of legislation used to give a “veneer of legality” to a policy of religious repression, planned at the highest levels of the Communist Party and state, and methodically implemented throughout the country, which aims to crush all independent movements and place religions under strict Communist Party control.

This policy is controlled and implemented by the Government Board of Religious Affairs (GBRA), the Vietnam Fatherland Front, the Communist Party’s Department of Prppaganda and Mobilization and the Ministry of the Interior. The GBRA is headed by Lt.-General Pham Dung, a former high-ranking official in the Ministry of Public Security. The network of religious officials and “religious police” (A41) under his command have absolutely no training or knowledge in religious affairs, yet they have full powers to control religious activities in all aspects of the people’s lives.

The International Buddhist Information Bureau strongly denounces Vietnam’s repressive religious policies which grossly contravene the right to freedom of religion guaranteed in the Vietnamese Constitution and in the United Nation’s International Convention on Civil and Political Rights to which Vietnam is state party. It calls on the international community to press Vietnam to revise the 2004 “Ordinance on Beliefs and Religion” and repeal all religious legislation inconsistent with international standards and norms.

In its 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom, the US International Commission on Religious Freedom listed Vietnam amongst the world’s worst violators of religious freedom, and recommended that it be designated a “Country of Particular Concern”.

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