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Vietnam dropped from list of religious freedom violators despite USCIRF’s plea

WASHINGTON (BP)–The State Department has removed Vietnam from its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom in spite of advice to the contrary from a nonpartisan panel.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice redesignated seven of last year’s “countries of particular concern” for the infamous list and named Uzbekistan for the first time as a CPC. The seven returnees as CPCs are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

Vietnam, however, became the first CPC to make enough improvements to be upgraded from a State Department classification reserved for governments practicing or permitting particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

“Though important work remains to be done, Vietnam can no longer be identified as a severe violator of religious freedom” as defined under federal law, said John Hanford, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. “This marks the first time that a country has made sufficient progress as a result of diplomatic engagement to be removed from the CPC list, and we view this as a very important milestone.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a nine-member panel established by a 1998 law to advise the White House and Congress, had urged Rice only a week before the announcement of the latest CPCs to keep the communist country on the list.

Commission Chair Felice Gaer acknowledged to Rice in a Nov. 6 letter the Vietnamese government had made “some positive steps” but told her that sources in Vietnam indicate “restrictions and abuses” cited by the State Department in designating the Southeast Asian country a CPC in 2004 continue.

“Religious leaders remain confined, only a tiny fraction of the churches closed since 2001 have been reopened, forced renunciations of faith continue, as do restrictions on and harassment of all of Vietnam’s diverse religious communities,” Gaer said. “All these abuses occur less frequently than in the past; however, there remain severe concerns in all these areas.”

Gaer also told Rice dropping the CPC designation would “remove an important and positive incentive that has stimulated U.S.-Vietnamese discussions on religious freedom.” Religious liberty has been a “diplomatic priority with productive results” since the State Department designated Vietnam as a CPC, Gaer said.

The USCIRF chair also urged Rice to express U.S. concerns about religious liberty when she attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting Nov. 18-19 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

In defending the State Department’s decision at a Nov. 13 briefing, Hanford said Vietnam had enacted laws against coerced renunciations since 2004 and there are only isolated reports of such acts. Protestants and Roman Catholics have reported improved circumstances in Vietnam, and some groups that previously were outlawed have gained the freedom to practice their beliefs, he said.

“Designation as a CPC is not and must not simply be an exercise in naming and shaming,” Hanford said. “The purpose of designation is to signal to a country that it has severe problems related to religious freedom that need to be addressed. And it’s also a signal that the United States wants to work with that country to help overcome those problems.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a USCIRF commissioner. He joined six other human rights leaders in a Nov. 13 letter asking President Bush to include U.S. human rights leaders in his delegation to Vietnam for the APEC meeting and to continue to press the Vietnamese government to “respect religious freedom.”

A joint statement from the Vietnamese and U.S. governments after a Nov. 17 meeting between Bush and Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet said the American president stressed the need of “full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Triet told Bush of Vietnam’s new laws regarding religious liberty, and the leaders agreed the human rights dialogue should be comprehensive. There was no indication Bush had human rights leaders in his delegation.

Bush advocated religious freedom after his wife Laura and he attended briefly a Nov. 19 worship service at Cua Bac Cathedral in Hanoi.

He described the “freedom to worship as you see fit” as the basic liberty. “My hope is that people all across the world will be able to express [religious freedom],” Bush said. “And it’s our way of expressing our personal faith and, at the same time, urging societies to feel comfortable with and confident in saying to their people, ‘If you feel like praising God, you’re allowed to do so in any way you see fit.’”

Uzbekistan gained inclusion on the CPC list after increasing its restrictions on religious expression, Hanford said. “The already extremely restrictive religion law has been further tightened, congregations have been harassed and deregistered and fines have been dramatically increased,” he said. The Uzbek government has continued to harass Muslims, but it increasingly has targeted Protestant Christians with raids, detentions, heavy fines, imprisonment, deportations and church closings, Hanford said.

In May, USCIRF recommended the addition of Uzbekistan to the CPC list. It also urged redesignation of the eight governments named last year. In addition, the panel called for Pakistan and Turkmenistan to be designated as CPCs, but the State Department declined to do so.

The State Department released its annual report on international religious freedom in mid-September but did not announce its CPCs at that time.

The International Religious Freedom Act — the law that established the system, the ambassador’s post and the commission -– requires a presidential administration to act to bring change in CPCs. Under the IRFA, the State Department has 90 days to designate the policies it will utilize with the CPC designees. The IRFA 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.

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