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State Dept. urged to penalize Vietnam

WASHINGTON (BP)–A bipartisan commission has urged the U.S. State Department to return Vietnam to its list of the world’s worst violators of religious liberty.

The recommendation came in a report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on the Southeast Asian country, which is under the rule of a communist regime. Based on its fact-finding trip to Vietnam last fall, the commission reported most of the country’s religious groups continue to suffer repression from different levels of government.

The State Department removed Vietnam from its “countries of particular concern” (CPC) in November 2006. CPC designation is reserved for governments that are particularly severe violators of religious freedom. USCIRF objected to the decision and has urged since then for Vietnam to be restored to the CPC list, a request that has not been granted.

In the new report, USCIRF said Vietnam made some helpful changes after it was given CPC status in 2004 but said it is incorrect to contend the government “is fully committed to respecting religious freedom instead of maintaining control of its diverse religious communities.”

Vietnam should be re-designated as a country of particular concern because, among other reasons, it continues to imprison many people based on their religious faith, to exercise control over most religious groups and to prohibit independent religious expression, according to the USCIRF report.

Particular targets for government repression or imprisonment, according to USCIRF, include Montagnard and Hmong Protestants; Catholics; the United Buddhist Church; and Khmer, Hoa Hao and Cao Dai Buddhists.

Felice Gaer, USCIRF’s chair, called on the U.S. government to pressure Vietnam to lift restrictions on religious groups and to release prisoners of conscience.

“Improved conditions for some only emphasize the inexcusability of ongoing abuses endured by others,” Gaer said in a written statement upon the report’s Aug. 25 release. “The State Department should not diminish its categorization of Vietnam as a severe violator until the Vietnamese government demonstrates a countrywide, non-discriminatory commitment to religious freedom and human rights for all.”

The State Department never released a CPC list in 2007 and has yet to issue one this year.

USCIRF is a nine-member panel that advises the executive and legislative branches of the federal government on religious freedom conditions overseas. The president selects three members of the commission, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a USCIRF commissioner.

The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, requires the president to act to bring change in countries designated as CPCs. Under the act, the State Department has 90 days after designation to decide the policies it will utilize with the CPC designees. The act requires the president to take specific actions against governments designated as CPCs. He is provided a range of options, from diplomacy to economic sanctions. The president also has the authority to waive any action.

USCIRF’s report on Vietnam may be accessed online at www.uscirf.gov.

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