Vietnam’s Religious Repression

September 4, 2008

Later this month, the U.S. State Department is due to release its annual report on international religious freedom. Recent events in Vietnam suggest the chapter for that country will not, or at least should not, be positive.

For the last two weeks, several hundred Catholics from Hanoi’s Thai Ha parish have been protesting for the return of parish property first seized by the Communists in the 1960s. The parish needs to build a new church to accommodate its swelling membership, Father Vu Khoi Phung told us by telephone. Several parishoners reportedly have been beaten by police while participating in peaceful prayer vigils. This is part of a developing pattern of protests, and then state suppression, by Catholics seeking return of long-ago-expropriated church lands.

Catholics are not the only believers who face problems with the Communist Party state. Last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — an independent commission within the White House — released its latest report on Vietnam. The commission documents a range of abuses, from attacks against the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam to bans on indigenous Vietnamese religions such as Hoa Hao and Cao Dai. In some provinces, local officials bar Protestant children from high schools, citing old communist laws excluding children of religious families from school. Believers of many kinds are still sometimes forced to publicly renounce their faith, even though Hanoi had promised to end this practice.

Given this pattern of behavior, the State Department may want to put Vietnam back on its list of “Countries of Particular Concern” for violations of religious freedom. When the U.S. first put Vietnam on the list in 2004, it had an immediate effect. Hanoi was so embarrassed that it released many religious “prisoners of concern” and said it would allow more sects to register as official organizations. As a reward, Vietnam was removed from the list just before President Bush traveled to Hanoi for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2006. Since then, State has argued that repression in Vietnam is mainly secular and that believers are jailed for political activism rather than for their religious beliefs.

Hanoi has made some progress on religious freedom, especially in reaching a deal with the Vatican under which the Catholic Church secured greater freedom to appoint bishops and priests. But such advances are now stalling. Recent events — both the treatment of religious land protesters and the cases documented by the commission — suggest there’s still good reason to be “particularly concerned” about religious freedom in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Religious Repression –

Say a prayer for Vietnam

WASHINGTON – Days after taking up the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in a long-sought affirmation of its international standing, the government of Vietnam issued dark warnings to Buddhist leaders not to turn the funeral of the 87-year-old patriarch of their banned church into an “anti-government rally”.

Instead of issuing threats to continue its abuse of international norms on religious freedom, the government should end its unjustified restrictions on Vietnam’s largest Buddhist organization, the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). In assuming its prominent position at the UN this month, Vietnam should be protecting, not violating, fundamental freedoms.

The latest government threat to the UBCV follows the death of The Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, the supreme patriarch of the UBCV and a widely respected champion of freedom and human rights. For his peaceful advocacy, he spent half his life in detention or prison, first under the French colonial authorities, then under the South Vietnamese government, and finally under the communist government. He died on July 5 in the monastery where he had been detained since 2003.

The new presumptive leader, Thich Quang Do, and most other senior UBCV leaders, are also under a form of detention. Even their recent efforts to organize provincial-level charitable and youth organizations have met with government harassment, intimidation and detentions. Hanoi views the peaceful monks’ advocacy of freedom and human rights as a threat to government “stability”. Millions of Vietnamese, in contrast, see the UBCV as a much-needed spiritual and humanitarian organization.

The death of Thich Huyen Quang offers the Vietnamese government a rare opportunity to honor a tireless advocate for human rights by allowing the UBCV to exercise freedom of religion according to international norms to freely select its own leadership and carry out its activities without interference. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen.

The US government continues to publicly praise Vietnam for the progress made expanding protections for its diverse religious communities. During a visit to the United States last month by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, US President George W Bush extolled the Vietnamese government’s efforts to advance religious freedom.

Such a statement, however, does not reflect facts on the ground. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal body, travelled to Vietnam late last year and met with senior government and religious leaders, including from the UBCV, as well as with members of Vietnam’s civil society. At least 30 human-rights, democracy, religious freedom and labor advocates have been imprisoned for more than a year following their arrests in 2007, and others are under constant surveillance.

Religious adherents and communities in Vietnam also continue to experience government interference, intimidation, and heavy intrusive surveillance, particularly those who peacefully advocate for greater religious freedom or seek to organize independently of government oversight. Dozens of individuals are in prison or detention for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy, despite the US State Department’s insistence that there are no longer any so-called “prisoners of concern” in Vietnam.

The harassment and detention of UBCV monks and the abuses still experienced by Vietnam’s diverse religious communities directly contradict the claim that religious freedom conditions in Vietnam have improved so substantially as to warrant removing the country from the list of religious freedom violators. Buddhism is the primary religion among Vietnam’s 86 million people and the continued suppression of the UBCV remains an obvious blight on the country’s human-rights record that must not be ignored.

Between 2004 and 2006, the United States designated Vietnam as a country of particular concern (CPC) under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. This designation requires the US to take enhanced diplomatic action and includes sanctions and incentives for countries to engage the US on ways to protect this fundamental freedom.

Vietnam took several positive steps to expand religious freedom until 2006, when the CPC designation was lifted. Thereafter, religious freedom progress stalled: prisoners remained in jail, new arrests were made, and many of Vietnam’s diverse religious communities once again faced restrictions. The Commission on International Religious Freedom found that the Bush administration acted too soon and recommended that it re-designate Vietnam as a CPC.

As the US-Vietnamese relationship grows, the US should think more clearly about how to shape its policies to press the Vietnamese government to cease its severe violations of religious freedom, including the arbitrary detention of dissidents, and to expand legal protections consistent with internationally recognized human rights.

The courageous UBCV leaders and monks and their followers deserve the right to practice their religion freely, without fear of official harassment and arrest, as international statutes provide. American policies and programs should show – in word and deed – that the US stands firmly on the side of liberty, freedom, and human rights in Vietnam.

Preeta D Bansal, a partner at the international law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, and Dr Richard D Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, are members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

(Copyright: US Commission on International Religious Freedom.)
By Preeta D Bansal and Richard D Land

Thousands mourn Vietnam’s top dissident Buddhist monk

HANOI (AFP) — Thousands of followers on Friday mourned the death of Vietnam’s top dissident Buddhist monk Thich Huyen Quang at a funeral at his pagoda in central Vietnam, supporters, a witness and an official said.

Quang, who died last Saturday aged 87 after decades of internal exile, led the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which has refused to come under state control and was effectively outlawed in the early 1980s.

“Thousands of people and followers were at the funeral, many of them Buddhist monks wearing their robes,” said the Vietnamese eye-witness, who asked not to be identified. “The funeral was organised by his followers.”

A provincial official, speaking to AFP on condition he not be named, said: “No representative from the Vietnamese government attended the funeral.”

A Paris-based UBCV spokesman said that 6,000 monks, nuns and lay followers of the banned church defied police warnings and controls to attend the funeral at the Nguyen Thieu monastery in Binh Dinh province.

Around 200 wreaths and plaques honouring Quang under his title of UBCV Supreme Patriarch were placed around the coffin, he said.

“The fact that Vietnam did not interfere in the funeral is a victory for the international human rights community, and the result of concerted pressure from diplomats, legislators and civil society movements worldwide,” said UBCV spokesman Vo Van Ai.

“UBCV followers were able to pay their last respects to Thich Huyen Quang in dignity and calm, and he was laid to rest by those who loved and supported him throughout his peaceful combat for religious freedom and human rights.”

State-controlled media had earlier in the week announced the ceremony would be conducted by the state-sponsored Buddhist church and labelled UBCV followers “extremist elements disguised as Buddhist monks.”

The media attacks, and reports that large numbers of plain-clothes police were at the pagoda, sparked protests this week from international human rights groups and raised fears of disturbances at the funeral.

Amnesty International — which first named Quang a prisoner of conscience in the 1990s — urged Vietnam to allow his funeral to take place “without hindrance and harassment of UBCV members by agents of the state.”

The UBCV’s deputy Thich Quang Do — who had been attacked in the state press for his “evil plot” to hijack the funeral — led the ceremony.

Do, who has also spent decades under “pagoda arrest,” is expected to become the new supreme patriarch of the UBCV after an interval of several weeks, in line with Buddhist beliefs.

According to the Paris UBCV office, he said, standing before the coffin:

“Over the past 30 years, from 1975 until today, whereas religious and political repression raged in Vietnam, you were like a great tree that brought us shade and shelter.

“You were the helmsman whose firm hand safely guided the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam through persecution and oppression.”

On Thursday Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung said that “there is no organisation called UBCV.”

But Do, according to his supporters, said to his late friend Quang: “You have left us for ever, but the struggle for UBCV legality goes on. We pledge to continue your peaceful combat, to follow the path you traced.

“We know that countless obstacles lie ahead, and we are ready to confront them. We will not cease until we have fulfilled your dream to see the UBCV regain its legal status and win back the freedom of religious activities stolen from us by the communist regime in 1975.”

Vietnam denies existence of outlawed Buddhist group

The communist government in Vietnam has denied the existence of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

The statement came as crowds gathered outside a monastery for the funeral of the country’s leading dissident Buddhist, Thich Huyen Quang.

He was the patriarch of the group which has refused to come under state control and was outlawed in the early 1980s.

He died last Saturday, aged 87.

Foreign ministry spokesman, Le Dung, in reply to a question at a regular media briefing, said there is no organisation called UBCV.

He says the founders of the Nguyen Thieu monastery, his followers and his family are organised the funeral.

Dissident Vietnamese monk dies in Vietnam

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Thich Huyen Quang, the patriarch of an outlawed Buddhist church in Vietnam who spent more than two decades in and out of house arrest, died Saturday after months of ailing health. He was 87.

The leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam died of multiple organ failure a day after being transferred from a hospital to his monastery at his request, said Penelope Faulkner of the International Buddhist Information Bureau in Paris, which speaks for the outlawed church.

An outspoken proponent of religious freedom and human rights, Quang had long been confined to the Nguyen Thieu Monastery in the southern province of Binh Dinh.

“He was a real pioneer, and that’s why Vietnam kept him isolated and they wanted to keep him out of the way,” she said. “He kept determined to the very end.”

The church’s deputy leader, Thich Quang Do, 80, broke out of house arrest at his monastery in Ho Chi Minh City to be at Quang’s side when the patriarch was hospitalized, Faulkner said. Do held a prayer service after Quang’s death and plans to oversee a funeral scheduled for next week, she said.

Buddhist monk Thich Minh Tuan said Quang’s followers are preparing a “simple but solemn funeral” and he will be buried at the pagoda.

“He passed away very peacefully with many of his followers at his bedside,” Tuan said.

State-controlled media over the past few days have accused Do, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and other senior members of the banned church of attempting to use Quang’s death for “personal political gains.”

The Buddhist sect was effectively banned in 1981 when it refused to merge with the state-sponsored Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Communist government allows only a handful of officially approved religious groups to worship, outlawing all other sects.

Despite the longtime standoff with the government, there were signs of a thaw in relations in 2003 when Quang had an unprecedented meeting with then-Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in Hanoi.

But six months later, the government launched a new crackdown after the Unified Buddhists held a meeting to elect a new church leadership. Quang and Do were accused of possessing official papers with national secrets.

Since then, both monks were mostly confined to their respective monasteries, their followers say. The government denied they have been under house arrest.

Buddhism is the primary religion among Vietnam’s 86 million people. The government has also clashed with other religions in recent years, mostly for political activities. It has sentenced Roman Catholics, Protestants and followers of other religions to lengthy jail sentences.

Speaking Up for Vietnam

A Buddhist monk missing since authorities evicted him from his pagoda. A Montagnard Christian beaten to death in police custody. A lawyer involuntarily committed to a mental hospital after she championed the rights of farmers kicked off their land. Journalists jailed for exposing corruption. A young man sentenced to prison after chatting online about democracy and human rights. More than 400 people wasting away in harsh prison conditions for their political views or religious beliefs.

This week, the prime minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung, brings Vietnam’s road show to Wall Street and meets President Bush and leaders likely including the U.S. presidential contenders, John McCain and Barack Obama.

When America’s political and financial leaders sit down with Prime Minister Dung, they should not forget these courageous individuals and should address directly the systemic pattern of rights violations in Vietnam that they represent: the Vietnamese government’s lack of tolerance for dissent and denial of fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religious belief.

In Vietnam today, the government still controls all media, as evidenced by the arrest in March 2008 of two investigative reporters who exposed a major corruption scandal in 2005. The reporters, Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper and Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper face charges of “abusing their positions and powers while performing official duties.”

Police harass and arrest bloggers and cyber-dissidents for Internet postings critical of the government. In January 2008, a court sentenced cyber-dissident Truong Quoc Huy to six years of imprisonment for distributing leaflets criticizing the Communist Party and participating in pro-democracy forums on the Internet. He was charged with “abusing democratic freedoms of association, expression, assembly to infringe on the interests of the state.”

National security laws are used to imprison members of opposition political parties, independent trade unions, and unsanctioned press outlets or religious organizations. Laws such as Ordinance 44 authorize the detention without trial of dissidents at “social protection centers” and psychiatric facilities if they are deemed to have violated national security laws.

In March 2008, police arrested Bui Kim Thanh, an activist who defended victims of land confiscation and involuntarily committed her to a mental hospital.

Mr. Bush should know that Vietnam’s leaders harass and arrest church leaders campaigning for rights or choosing not to affiliate with state-controlled religious oversight committees. For the last 30 years the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam’s Supreme Patriarch, Thich Huyen Quang, has either been in prison or under house arrest for publicly protesting government policies.

Authorities have beaten and arrested members of ethnic minorities in remote areas such as Montagnard for refusing to join state-sanctioned church organizations, protesting land confiscation, making contact with relatives or Montagnard groups abroad, or trying to seek political asylum in Cambodia.

In April of this year, police arrested Y Ben Hdok in Dak Lak after other Montagnards in his district tried to flee to Cambodia. Police refused to allow his family or a lawyer to visit him during three days in detention. On May 1, police told Mr. Y Ben’s wife to pick up his battered body. His rib and limbs were broken and his teeth had been knocked out. Police labeled the death a suicide.

During Prime Minister Dung’s visit to America, he should hear that the American people and government care about how Vietnam treats its people. This is an all too rare chance to back Vietnam’s courageous activists, writers, and human rights defenders, who have risked their liberty to make their country more open, tolerant, and free.

Human rights in Vietnam on agenda

President Bush will meet with Vietnam’s prime minister this week in Washington, and it is being reported that the White House is committed to bringing up the subjects of human rights and religious persecution.

Vietnam has a history of persecuting Christians involved in the underground movement. Todd Nettleton, spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs, says although the situation has improved over a five- to ten-year period, Vietnam still has a long way to go.

“… [T]hey are still not at the level of saying to their people [they] can worship God how [they] want to … without the interference of Communist officials …,” he notes. “They have worked very diligently to try to present the world a picture of more openness and more freedom of religion — but the reality is that thousands of Christians in Vietnam don’t have the freedom to assemble together ….”

Judith Ingram of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also agrees that Vietnam has improved. “But we think really it’s too soon to determine whether the Vietnamese government is truly committed to respecting religious freedom instead of maintaining control of its religious communities,” she contends.

However, human rights groups and some members of Congress suggest Vietnam has increased repression of political activists and religious leaders. And the Commission on International Religious Freedom is hopeful Vietnam will be under the watchful eye of the State Department.

“We believe strongly,” notes Ingram, “that Vietnam should continue to be on the list of ‘countries of particular concern’ because of persistent and severe religious freedom restrictions targeting some ethnic minorities, Protestants, Buddhists, Vietnamese Mennonites … and monks and nuns associated with the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.”

She points out that one of the purposes of establishing positive trade ties with Vietnam was to help develop a dialogue on issues such as religious persecution.