Although religious freedom is guaranteed in Vietnam's Constitution, unregistered religious communities are often stigmatized as endangering "the social order," UN special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt tells DW.
After having a tight control of religious practices for decades, Vietnam's regime gradually eased restrictions following the 'doi moi' economic reforms which opened up the country in the 1990s. However, all religious activity in the mainly Buddhist Southeast Asian nation - with a population of about 90 million - remains under state control and the government officially recognizes only about a dozen religions. Moreover, religious communities have to undergo a cumbersome registration process to be allowed to operate.
UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, was recently on a 10-day visit to the country which he says was interrupted by surveillance as well as harassment and intimidation of interlocutors. In a DW interview, the independent expert says that while the Vietnamese government has cautiously expanded the space for freedom of religion or belief, those communities that fail to comply with regulations face enormous difficulties when trying to at least establish some minimal forms of community life.
DW: How would you describe the current situation in Vietnam in terms of freedom of religion or belief?
Heiner Bielefeldt: Religious practice is possible in Vietnam, but only within the confines of a rather restrictive legal framework. On the one hand, a broad variety of religious communities exist. Religious life is visible in urban and rural areas, and this includes pagodas, temples and other architectural symbols. On the other hand, religious communities have to undergo cumbersome registrations processes in order to be able to operate, and they are required to submit annual plans of their activities to the local authorities.
Bielefeldt: "The negative, perhaps even hostile attitude, makes the conditions of independent communities very complicated and risky"
Obligations to inform the authorities and to receive approvals for activities are manifold, detailed and heavy. Those who do not comply with these regulations face enormous difficulties when trying to at least establish some minimal forms of community life.
They risk facing 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; imprisonments, 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.
Even for those who have obtained formal recognition by the authorities, they may still operate under legal insecurity due to the lack of adequate legal recourse. Many also face land issues; it is difficult for them to acquire the required land or property to function in full capacity.
What are the main obstacles being faced by religious communities in the country?
I think it is a combination of different aspects. As already mentioned, the legal framework is very restrictive. What makes it worse is that the Penal Code threatens to sanction undefined "abuses" of democratic freedoms, including "abuses" of religious freedom. On top of this, I have come across very dismissive attitudes towards religious practice outside of the officially designed channels.
People who wish to organize their religious life – including community –independent from the officially recognized framework , are typically stigmatized as endangering "the social order" and "the legitimate interests of the majority" or being driven by morally disrespectable "selfish" motives. This negative, perhaps even hostile attitude, seen in conjunction with restrictive laws, makes the conditions of independent communities very complicated and risky.
What do you make of Vietnamese officials' views on unregistered faiths and beliefs?
Many officials tend to insist that religious communities should register to receive the benefits of recognition i.e. to operate, organize and practice their religions or beliefs within the regulations.
Some indicated that for those unregistered ones, they can practice in private for as long as such practices do not lead to "social disorder" or any sort of propaganda against the country. Such understanding of freedom of religion or belief runs counter to the spirit and the letter of its status as a universal human right.
What obstacles did you face during your ten-day visit to the country?
I appreciate that the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam invited me to conduct a country visit and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had showed a good spirit of cooperation in the preparation of the visit. Nonetheless, the terms of reference for country visit of UN Special Rapporteurs were violated during the visit.
A number of individuals were prevented from traveling to meet with me while some had been warned, intimidated or harassed. Moreover, my delegation was followed by undeclared "police or security agents" and the confidentiality of some of our private meetings was violated.
The government stressed that it was only a misunderstanding and that it was the responsibility of the host country to ensure the safety of the delegation. However, I do not view these interruptions as mere misunderstanding; until today, I have continuously received reports of police harassing the individuals with whom I met during the visit.
Who interrupted your visit to the country?
I do not know who interrupted the visit and the purpose of such interruption. The government must investigate such incidents and hold accountable whoever is behind this. The fact that the basic principles of confidentiality and protection of interlocutors were seriously violated is simply unacceptable.
Did you witness any positive developments in terms of freedom of belief during your trip?
Religious life is possible in Vietnam - although within narrowly circumscribed confines. Most representatives of religious communities said that their situation has improved in general if measured against the situation post-1975. Registered religious communities also run training institutions for clergy, which is one of the positive infrastructural developments. The government has cautiously expanded the space for freedom of religion or belief and it is undertaking a series of law-reforming programs that will hopefully lead to further improvement of the protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief.
Religious life is possible in Vietnam - although within narrowly circumscribed confines, says Bielefeldt
Government representatives also expressed some willingness to consider some revisions in relation to Ordinance 2004 and Decree 92, in order to pass a better law that protects freedom of religion or belief. In any case, there is still a lot to do; good policies will need good implementation as well. One of my observations was that the gap between the policies at central level and the implementation at local level is considerably big.
As emphasized in many discussions with the government and further underlined in my press statement, the situation of independent religious communities will serve as a litmus test as to whether the legal, political and social environment in Vietnam respects everyone's freedom of religion or belief.
Heiner Bielefeldt is the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.