Religious groups vulnerable amid growing repression

Newly baptised Catholics, part of a community that has now reached more than six million. Photo courtesy Reuters

The Vietnamese government’s sustained crackdown on dissent is triggering fears amongst religious communities about their own vulnerability to persecution.

Some believe that a controversial new religious law passed late last year could leave them exposed to renewed harassment and intimidation by police and other government agencies.

The communist government’s attitude towards religion remains one of suspicion, if no longer overt hostility, and critics warn that provisions in the new law could be exploited to tighten controls.

Catholic parish priests from dioceses along the north-central coast have played a key role in organising protests by fishermen following last year’s toxic spill that devastated the local economy. A number of secular bloggers, journalists and activists have already been arrested, or subjected to harassment by the government, for their involvement in the campaign.

The new religious law, with its stress on national security provisions, could be used to target priests who get involved in such social activism.

Mainstream religions, such as the Catholic Church, which now claims more than six million followers in Vietnam, are more independent of government control than they were in the 1970s and 80s in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam’s reunification under communist control.

However, human rights groups say that smaller churches and other religions groups are still subject to sometimes violent attacks by officials, particularly in rural areas and in disputes over land and property.

Increase in violations

The new law on belief and religion, passed by the National Assembly last November, is seen as ambiguous and even contradictory in its stated intention to increase protection for religion.

“This law has both positive and negative aspects,” said the bishop of the Mekong Delta diocese of My Tho, Pierre Nguyen Van Kham, in an interview with the international Catholic daily, La Croix.

He said that religious organisations would be given full legal status and could find it easier to build new churches and temples, particularly in the cities, where they are needed for religious communities migrating from rural areas.

However, no-one knows how the new laws will be implemented when they come into effect next year.

Religious and human rights groups say a requirement that all religions must be licensed by the government, and must give notification to officials of all their social activities, could easily be used to deny legitimacy to targeted groups.

“After Donald Trump’s election, it’s looking like the United States is turning away from its trade deals with Asia-Pacific countries and the requirements that go with them to do with human rights,” Father Jean Mais, a French Catholic priest with long experience in Vietnam, told La Croix.

A religious rights watchdog said that violations of religious freedom had already increased last year to 59 recorded cases, up from 50 the previous year.

Small Christian communities in remote rural areas and unrecognised groups such as Cao Dai and Hoa Hao Buddhism had been singled out for harassment and violence, according to the report by the Association to Protect Freedom of Religion, as reported by UCA news.

National security

The new law was unusually controversial, sparking opposition even within the ranks of the Communist party. It was long delayed by a number of proposed amendments, and in the end only passed with 85% approval in the National Assembly, a large degree of opposition in what has always been seen as a rubber stamp parliament.

Of particular concern is the new law’s emphasis on national security: restricting freedom of religion in cases that threaten “the national great unity, harm state defence, national security, public order and social morale”.

Critics point out that a government that imprisons independent bloggers for “abusing democratic freedoms” is quite capable of targeting religious groups it doesn’t like with similar national security charges.

Most religious groups see little prospect for an improvement in their conditions given the new law, the current climate of intolerance, and the ascendency of conservatives in the communist leadership who have always seen religion as a force to be controlled and manipulated.