Religious freedom abuses at risk of increasing in Vietnam

Christians make up about 8 per cent of Vietnam's population.Reuters

Religious freedom in Vietnam could be at risk of greater restrictions as the draft Law on Belief and Religion is finalised this month.

It is the fifth draft version of the legislation, and its finalisation follows concern expressed by religious leaders that the Vietnamese population will be subject to increasing restrictions, according to Global Risk Insights.

In May, following the publication of the fourth draft of the law, the Interfaith Council of Vietnam wrote a letter insisting that the legislation should not be written "by an atheist government and...officials without religious experience".

The Council said the wording of the law was too ambiguous, leaving room for it to be erroneously applied by local authorities. "This will cause prevention of religious practice and help the official to commit bribery," it said.

The Council also demanded fewer application requirements for religious groups, which it said are used "for the purpose of controlling, restraining and cornering religions". The letter was signed by a number of faith leaders, including four Catholic priests and eight Protestant pastors.

Vietnam's constitution guarantees freedom of religion in principle, but, like China, the Communist government tightly controls independent religious practice. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), it represses "individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority", including independent Buddhists, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Christians.

A number of advocates for religious freedom remain imprisoned in the country and authorities have "moved decisively" in recent years to restrict freedom of expression and religion even further, the USCIRF says. Religious groups have to formally register with the government, but are routinely denied. The Hmong Protestants have experienced particular persecution in the last few years, and Vietnam has been named a 'country of particular concern' every year by the USCIRF since 2001.

Last week, Vietnam condemned the US State Department's latest annual International Religious Freedom Report. Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh told reporters that the 2014 report "continued to make unobjective assessments and cited erroneous information on Vietnam".

According to the report, Vietnamese authorities last year "continued to limit the activities of unregistered religious groups, particularly those the government believed to be engaged in political activity".

It called for continued improvements in religious freedom, particularly an end to the harassment of unregistered faith groups.

Of the 93.4 million Vietnamese population more than half identifies with Buddhism. Roman Catholics make up 7 per cent, Cao Dai between 2.5 and 4 per cent; Hoa Hao, 1.5 to 3 percent; and Protestants, 1 to 2 percent.