Vietnam: government proposes further legal restrictions on religion

Hano, Vietnam - The Vietnamese government is proposing to introduce amendments to existing laws which will further restrict freedom of worship and all other church-related activities in the country.

Cardinal Jean Baptise Pham Minh Man, of the Archdiocese of Saigon said in a letter to the Vietnamese prime minister: “Overall, the fifth draft amendments for the Government Decree 22/2005 is a huge retrograde step compared to the original one, the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, and the Constitution."

The letter, published on VietCatholic News on May 20, was issued after the prelate had held a conference with representatives from all dioceses in the Ecclesiastical Province of Saigon on the draft bill.

Cardinal Man said: “Essentially, the proposed amendments of the decree reflect the desire of the government to re-establish the mechanism of Asking and Granting in religious activities. The Asking and Granting process turns the legitimate rights of citizens into privileges in the hands of government officials who would grant or withheld them to people through bureaucratic procedures.”

“The mechanism of Asking and Granting, hence, does not only eliminate the freedom rights of people, but also turns a ‘government of people by people and for people’ in to a ‘Master of the country’ who holds in his hands all the rights, and grants or withholds them to people at his random mood swings,” he warned.

Bishops in Vietnam have repeatedly voiced their concerns that religious freedom in Vietnam is still very far from reality due to a ‘jungle of law’ - full of ambiguities and contradictions - which are there to regulate, circumscribe, and hence control religious communities.

Article 70 of the 1992 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam provides that “the citizen shall enjoy freedom of belief and religion; he can follow any religion or follow none. All religions are equal before the law. The places of worship of all faiths and religions are protected by the law. No one can violate freedom of belief and of religion, nor can anyone misuse beliefs and religions to contravene the law, and State policies.”

The phrase ‘misuse of beliefs and religions’ is indeterminate and susceptible of many interpretations. In fact, ordinary religious functions, such as the Catholic engagement in social justice and advocacy for human rights, have had every chance to be regarded as a ‘misuse of beliefs and religions’ under the Article.

Fr Peter Hansen, lecturer on history of the Church in Asia at the Australian Catholic Theological College in Melbourne, said: “Certainly, the Article provides no criteria as to what is considered a ‘misuse’, nor does it state who is to be the arbiter of whether a particular activity falls within the definition. Arguably, it was the constitutional drafters’ intent that the determinative power rest with the Vietnamese state, with the Church itself having no role to play. This potentially grants to the state the effective capacity to circumscribe what constitutes legitimate religious activity, and axiomatically, to place outside the bounds of legitimacy whatever it finds displeasing."

Moreover, quasi-legislative provisions found in a series of ordinances, and decrees on Beliefs and Religions, typically the Government Decree 22/2005 promulgated on March 1, 2005, Government Decree 26/1999, issued on 19 April 1999 which is based on a directive of the Communist Party (No.37 CT/TW), circulated on 2 July 1998, have further ramifications for the practice of religion and citizens’ religious rights. Many of these provisions have drawn criticism as constituting a de facto impediment to true religious freedom.

Fundamentally, these quasi-legislative provisions state that all religions and religious denominations must seek the recognition of the central government in order to operate legally.

But, “the state only recognises the existence of religions not their legal status and their clergy’s legal rights. Religious clergy, therefore, are neither entitled to citizen’s rights as others nor able to legally represent their religion. Religious organisations are not entitled to a legal status as other social groups according to the Constitution and the law... Instead of being able to enjoy their legitimate rights, they have to beg for permission to held religious ceremonies, to preach their beliefs, to carry out formation and ordination,” lamented the Cardinal.

Indeed, the attached minute of the conference, signed by Fr. Joseph Maria Le Quoc Thanh, the president of the newly born Archdiocesan Justice and Peace Commission, showed the forum participants’ frustration that religious activities including liturgies, prayers services, sermons, catechetical teachings must be licensed annually or given specific permission per event whilst admission into monastic life must conform to the stipulations of the State Religious Affairs Committee. Retreats and ‘similar religious activities’ must be in accordance with government regulations; religious conferences must have state approval. The printing, publication, and the importation of publications, especially ‘religious cultural articles’, are regulated by the state.

Given its particular connection to the Vatican and the universal Catholic Church in general, the provisions regulating foreign religious involvement are of particular importance to the Vietnamese Catholic Church. Vietnam government requires that the bestowal of religious titles (bishop, cardinal, in particular) must have its approval, thus providing a de facto government veto over episcopal appointments. It has on many occasions in the past exercised that veto in rejecting candidates proposed by the Vatican.

The draft bill maintains that religious organisations’ international activities must comply with state policies and precepts, and such organisations must advise the Religious Affairs Committee of any instructions received from ‘foreign religious organisations’, and then comply with any instructions issued by the committee. Invitations to ‘foreign religious organisations and individuals’ must be approved by the Committee for Religious Affairs. Foreigners wishing to undertake religious activities in Vietnam must register with local People’s Committees, and any aid received from foreign religious organisations must be approved by the State Religious Affairs Committee.

The Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions promulgated on June 18, 2004 states that “legitimate properties of all faiths and religions are protected by the law”. However, “in reality, there has been no single legal document stipulating clearly how they are protected and how the ownership rights of religious communities are protected,” the prelate challenged. “That’s why a series of premises and land has been unjustly seized,” he added. Echoing the viewpoints of Vietnamese bishops in their statement on Sep. 25, 2008, the Cardinal stated that the land and property laws are out-dated and inconsistent, they ought to be revised. Vietnamese government needs to take the right to own private property into consideration as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”

In brief, the fifth draft amendments for the Government Decree 22/2005, as criticised by Cardinal Jean Baptise Pham, whilst maintaining all harsh previous restrictions on religious freedom, requires more administrative procedures of ‘request for permission’.

The Cardinal concluded his letter by asserting that the Vietnamese Catholic community "earnestly want to see the construction of a legal system that is progressing for the advancement of the people, by the people in order for the country to develop with stability" He cautiously reminded Vietnam government that "By the same token, for the law to be respected, it requires one's courage to change their mind-set, to respect the objective truth, and change from the fundamentals of the rule of law, rather than just the regulations or the decrees".