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Church’s registration in Vietnam eases few fears of persecution

OXFORD, England (BP)–A monitor of religious freedom is urging the United States government to censure Vietnam before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, despite the Southeast Asian nation’s recognition of a Protestant organization in the south, the Newsroom-online.com news service reported in mid-April.

In March, Vietnam gave legal status to the southern Evangelical Church in Vietnam; the first time authorities have recognized a Protestant group in the south since the communist party took control in 1975. On March 29, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that “until religious freedom improves in Vietnam, the U.S. government should initiate or support a resolution to censure” the country at the U.N. meetings, which run through April 27 in Geneva, Switzerland. The USCIRF is an independent advisory panel commissioned by Congress.

“The creation of another government-controlled church body is part of what we are complaining about,” said USCIRF spokesman Lawrence Goodrich. “Registration in both China and Vietnam is a means of control. It’s a means of interfering with the self-government of the religious groups.”

A close observer of Protestants in Vietnam noted, however, that during several months of vying for recognition, beginning in November, ECVN leaders managed to gain more liberties than they expected. “The church was able to wrest control of that process away from the Bureau of Religious Affairs,” said the Vietnam specialist, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. He emphasized that this development affects only a fraction of Protestants in the country and is not by any means “the final answer to religious freedom in Vietnam,” but should be commended nonetheless.

The Bureau of Religious Affairs had limited the ECVN to 25 selected leaders from which to choose its officers, but members of the church assembly pressed for their own list of 144 and, to their surprise, were not shut down by government agents in attendance. Church leaders also rejected an attempt by a pro-government pastor to manipulate the drafting of the church constitution and managed to get their own version approved by the bureau.

“The Protestants demonstrated in this process that the government wasn’t in control,” the Vietnam specialist said. “So we’re in new, hopeful territory here.” The government recognition represents about 200,000 of Vietnam’s more than 1 million Protestants. Most of the country’s Protestants are among tribal minorities in the northwest and central highlands who continue to suffer repression from the government, according to human rights reports. The northern branch of the ECVN, which has only about 15 congregations, has been registered since the 1960s and has little control over its affairs.

In the letter to Powell, USCIRF chairman Elliott Abrams said that despite “the increase in religious practice among the Vietnamese people in the last 10 years, the Vietnamese government suppresses organized religious activities forcefully and monitors and controls religious communities.” In 1975, Protestants numbered only about 150,000. Of the country’s 86 million people, more than half are nominally Buddhist and about 8 million are Catholic. The Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects claim to have nearly 3.5 million adherents.

The southern ECVN has more than 250 congregations that have met openly in pre-communist era buildings and another 1,500 house churches. Until now, however, none of the open congregations have been sanctioned legally. Some are harassed by authorities while others have better relations, the Vietnam specialist said. Protestants in Vietnam trace their origins to 1911 when Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries began to establish what became the main Protestant denomination. When the communists took over the south in 1975 all Protestants were placed under an umbrella that became the ECVN.

The ECVN was informed of its new status on March 23 by the head of Vietnam’s Bureau of Religious Affairs, Le Quang Vinh. The bureau said that government authorities had approved the new church constitution, recognized the results of church elections, and would advise provincial authorities to accommodate the new developments, according to the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) Religious Liberty Commission, an agency of the global network of evangelical Protestant alliances.

“It is a step in the right direction, but now we’ll see how it works out,” the Vietnam specialist said. “Will they let the church train pastors openly? Will they let the church ordain pastors without trying to manipulate? Will they let the church print Christian literature?”

In its 2000 report on Vietnam, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that several leaders of the Hoa Hao community, a Buddhist sect, criticized the government’s 1999 recognition of an official Hoa Hao organization. The leaders of the unrecognized group, including some from the pre-1975 era, “claimed that the official group is subservient to the government and demanded official recognition of their own leadership instead.” The commission report said Vietnam authorities did not acknowledge the claims.

Over the past 25 years, Protestants have resisted efforts by the government to form a “patriotic church” that purports to represent the entire faith community. Along with the Hoa Hao, official bodies have been formed for Catholics, Buddhists and the Cao Dai sect. Abrams wrote in his letter to Powell that Vietnam “prohibits religious activity by those not affiliated with one of the six officially recognized religious organizations. Individuals have been detained, fined, imprisoned, and kept under close surveillance by security forces for engaging in ‘illegal’ religious activities. In addition, the government uses the recognition process to monitor and control officially sanctioned religious groups: restricting the procurement and distribution of religious literature, controlling religious training, and interfering with the selection of religious leaders.”

The USCIRF’s Goodrich said that the commission is looking for “a change in the way the government approaches religion” in Vietnam. “The government prohibits any religious activity by those people who are not in one of these official organizations — that needs to change,” he said. “They’ve got to stop detaining people, fining them, or putting them under surveillance and under house arrest. They’ve got to let the Hoa Hao Buddhists — and anybody else who wants to — deliver humanitarian aid to flood victims, allow the distribution of religious literature, not interfere with selection of religious leaders, not force seminarians to undergo state and party indoctrination as part of their religious training, and not choose who can be a seminarian. Those are the areas where improvement has to be made.”

A March 16 government document from the Bureau of Religious Affairs stated that the ECVN “may operate within the framework of the laws of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Critics point out, however, that many of those laws are vague, are not subject to interpretation by an independent judiciary, and often are applied unevenly. For example, officials in the southern city of Ho Chi Minh — the former Saigon — generally give wider latitude to religious believers than their counterparts in the northwest, Central Highlands and central coast, where believers are subject to “significant harassment,” the USCIRF Vietnam report said. In February, the mainly Christian ethnic minorities in Vietnam’s central highlands engaged in violent protests over complaints of religious repression and loss of land to incoming migrants. As many as 60 Christian leaders have been imprisoned in the past few months, according to reports from human rights groups.

According to a February report by the Compass Direct news service, leaders of Vietnam’s many illegal house church organizations have expressed concern that government normalization of the ECVN could cause them more difficulty. Last year religious liberty advocates acquired government documents that outlined a strategic plan to bring the ECVN under strict control through registration. In one document, party cadres are told that “we must carefully control the thinking and the activities of the religions” and “work hard to control religious leaders, officials, and missionaries.”

Because of international pressure and scrutiny, however, the government has stuck to that script with respect to the Protestants, the Vietnam specialist contends. “In the [ECVN] constitution and in the election the church took control, and the government approved it anyway; so this to me is a good sign,” he said. “The church has a plan to go ahead rather aggressively to test this new space, and we’ll see what happens.”
Used by permission of Newsroom-online.com.

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