Freedom Of Religion Is National Policy, Says Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam - Misunderstandings about Vietnam's religious policies are to blame for the impression that the government doesn't allow its citizens to worship freely, a senior official said Thursday.

Nguyen The Doanh, the deputy chairman of the committee on religious affairs, blamed authorities at the local level for not always understanding the "spirit of the new rules" that govern religion.

It is sometimes difficult to implement national policy, which "guarantees freedom of following or not following religion" said Doanh, because not all areas of the country are as developed as others.

Doanh, who was speaking at the release of the government's "white paper" on religious policy and regulations, was apparently alluding to accusations that evangelical Protestants living in remote areas are sometimes persecuted by the local police.

The "white paper," was proof that Vietnam embraces religion and regards it as an integral part of the nation, he said.

"We consider religious followers as companions, as all other social groups and strata, for building a strong Vietnam," Doanh said. "We shall provide all necessary means (for them) to move along with the entire nation."

This hasn't always been the case.

When the communist government unified the country in 1975, it nationalized church properties and severed ties with the Vatican. Buddhist sects that were seen as a threat to its power were banned and its followers went underground. Critics of the government's religious policies were jailed.

In recent years, however, Hanoi has softened its stance on religious practice. As long as groups register with the government and don't use religion to undermine national unity, officials insist that people are free to worship.

Vietnam, which severed diplomatic ties to the Vatican in 1975, points to its improved relationship with the Catholic Church as evidence of its religious tolerance. Though the government keeps a tight control on church leadership - to the annoyance of the Vatican - Vietnam's estimated six million lay Catholics worship freely.

Last month, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dang met with the Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. The first-ever meeting between the head of communist Vietnam and the leader of the Roman Catholic Church was described as an important step in the process of establishing official ties between Hanoi and the Holy See.

In November, on the eve of President George W Bush's visit to Hanoi, the US State Department dropped Vietnam from its list of countries that persecute religion - the first country ever to be removed.

The decision was criticized, however, by several groups who say that a banned Buddhist sect and evangelical Christians are still under attack by the government.

Evangelical Protestants, many of whom are members of the country's ethnic minority hill tribes, complain they are subject to harassment and even physical abuse by local officials.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a London-based group that has connections with evangelical Protestant churches, has said that local Vietnamese officials discourage new converts and try to persuade people to return to their traditional animist beliefs.

In a recent interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa), Mervyn Thomas, CSW's chief executive, said that the fact that Vietnam "allows local authorities to arbitrarily decide on the legitimacy of individual congregations is shocking and flagrantly inconsistent with international standards on religious freedom."

Vietnam recently passed laws that allow "unofficial churches" - those not regulated by the state - to gain legal status. Some of the Protestant "house churches" have started to register but most have not.

Buddhists, who make up the majority of the country, have also come under fire.

While the government established the Buddhist Church of Vietnam in 1981, the Unified Buddhist Church is not recognized and thus banned.

Several of the group's senior monks, including Thich Quang Do, have been in and out of prison for criticizing the government for its persecution of the sect.

Do essentially remains under house arrest. His supporters complain that the elderly monk is harassed by police and his movements are restricted.