Religion issues dog Vietnam trade vote: US senator

Washington, USA - Concerns about the freedom of religion in Vietnam could delay U.S. Senate action on a landmark bill to establish permanent normal trade relations, a top U.S. senator said on Wednesday.

"I'm running into some members who are raising questions about religious freedom in Vietnam and not wanting to vote on it too soon,"

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, told reporters.

Vietnam, the fastest-growing economy in Southeast Asia, has agreed to cut agricultural and industrial tariffs and to open up more than 100 services sectors including banking, insurance, and telecommunications as part of a deal with the United States to join the World Trade Organization.

As its part of the bargain, the United States must approve permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Vietnam by removing it from a dwindling list of countries still subject to a Cold War provision known as Jackson-Vanik, which ties U.S. trade relations to emigration and other human rights concerns.

It's possible the full Senate could vote on the Vietnam bill before it leaves in early August for a month-long recess, but some senators first want Vietnam to certify what it intends to do to improve religious rights, Grassley said.

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing last week, a State Department official said Vietnam has made "significant and sustained progress" toward improving religious freedom since the United States put it on a watchlist in 2004.

Hanoi has revised its legal framework to guarantee freedom of belief and religion, protect churches from harassment and believers from being forced to renounce their faith, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric John told the panel.

Problems continue, but reports of religious rights "violations have sharply declined in number while evidence of positive developments have multiplied," John said.

Meanwhile, Grassley said he remained concerned the Vietnam bill could become "a magnet for a lot of anti-China, anti-trade amendments," even if religious concerns are resolved.

If senators want to turn the vote on PNTR into a political fight over U.S. trade policy, "that's going to make it more difficult" to get the bill passed, Grassley said.

Even if the Senate does approve PNTR in the next few weeks, the House of Representatives is not expected to vote on the measure until after the August recess.

Vietnam hopes to be a full-fledged member of the WTO by the time it hosts President George W. Bush and other leaders for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in November.