WASHINGTON (BP)–A tiny step has been taken on the road to religious freedom in Vietnam. According to the news service Compass Direct, “For the first time since the communist takeover in 1975, authorities in Vietnam have granted legal recognition to a Protestant organization in the south.”
The World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) reports that Le Quang Vinh, head of the Vietnamese government’s Bureau of Religious Affairs, wrote March 23 to the newly elected president of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) in the southern part of the country.
According to the WEF report, “Quang Vinh said that on behalf of the prime minister, he was happy to inform the ECVN that the government authorities had approved the new church constitution, recognized the results of the church elections, and would advise provincial authorities to accommodate the new developments.”
In effect, the WEF stated, “this means that the Vietnamese government has allowed the ECVN to exist without tight government control and that it recognizes the right of the church to elect its own officers and administer its own affairs. This is very good news and indicates a positive change in the government’s attitude toward the Evangelical church in Vietnam, which has had serious legal difficulties in the past.”
A ceremony marking the occasion was held at the Saigon Church in Ho Chi Minh City on April 3. That evening, ECVN leaders also held a special celebration to mark the 90th anniversary of the coming of the Protestant faith to Vietnam.
The director of WEF’s Religious Liberty Commission, Johan Candelin, expressed his gratitude to the Vietnamese government: “We would like to take this opportunity to commend the Vietnamese authorities for extending these new freedoms to the Evangelical Church.”
But how much freedom will they really have? Consider the Catholic Church in Vietnam. According to the International Coalition for Religious Freedom (ICRF), although the Vietnamese government “approves” Catholicism, there has been tension between the government and the Catholic Church hierarchy.
“The government insists that all clergy belong to the Catholic Patriotic Association, which is controlled by the government. It also insists on approving all Vatican appointments, and has forbidden the Catholic Church from engaging in any educational or charitable projects because they refuse to accept government supervision and authority,” the ICRF reported.
The government allows priests and bishops to travel within their diocese but restricts travel outside that area. They limit the church to six major seminaries throughout the country with a total of 700 students. The seminaries may recruit new students every two years, but the government retains the power to approve all students before they may enter.
The ICRF noted, “After attending one of the seminaries, students must again be approved by the government before they can be ordained as priests. The power to approve students for study and ordination lies with the People’s Committee where the student lives. Under such circumstances the Catholic Church has been unable to train enough clergy to minister to their growing number of adherents.”
According to the ICRF, Vietnam has a population of almost 74 million people comprised of Vietnamese (85-90 percent), Chinese (3 percent), Muong, Thai, Meo, Khmer, Man and Cham. The major religions in the country are Buddhist, Taoist, Roman Catholic, indigenous beliefs, Islam and Protestant. Protestants historically have been excluded from joint religious observances, and the government restricts proselytizing.
Article 68 of the 1980 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam states that “citizens enjoy freedom of worship and may practice or not practice a religion,” and also “no religion may be used to violate state laws or policies.”
“Vietnamese Christians are still being persecuted throughout their country even though the Vietnamese constitution guarantees freedom of religion,” said Tom White, Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) director.
According to the U.S. State Department, at least 13 religious detainees are being held in Vietnamese prisons without charge. VOM sources believe hundreds of Christians are currently imprisoned. The State Department admits official numbers may not be accurate because often Vietnamese are held under “administrative detention” without their detention being publicized.
White visited Vietnam in 2000 and met with members of a church in the city of Thu Thiem, not far from Ho Chi Minh City. The small group of Christians erected a tent-like structure on land they had purchased for that purpose. Verbal discussions with local officials led the church members to believe they had permission to build. But police soon destroyed the structure.
Compass Direct reports that most observers see the government approval of ICVN “as a positive development, but they warn it is only one step on the long road to religious freedom in this Southeast Asian nation.”
“Vietnam cannot expect that criticism will cease with this modest concession that covers only a fraction of Vietnam’s evangelical Protestant believers,” a Vietnamese source told Compass. “The ECVN south should move courageously into the new space being offered it, and reach out to the large excluded parts of their faith community.”
Chismar is Religion Today editor on Crosswalk.com (www.crosswalk.com). Used by permission.