Cautious Optimism on Religious Freedom in Vietnam

By Nigel Cory

Vietnamese at a Christmas service hosted by the Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese on December 20, 2014. Source: Bernard Oh's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Vietnam’s government has often been criticized for its poor record on religious freedom, but recent events give rise to cautious optimism that small improvements are being made. Roman Catholic Pope Francis’ appointment of Vietnamese archbishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon as a new cardinal in January was a boon to the Catholic community in Vietnam and an encouragement for the government to make further improvements. The appointment marks another step in the gradual rapprochement between Vietnam and the Vatican, as Vietnam hopes to reestablish diplomatic relations with the Holy See in the near future. Much like the United States, the Vatican sees Vietnam as a place that offers opportunities for constructive engagement.

While the atheist Communist Party of Vietnam and the Catholic church make for an odd couple, Catholicism has a long history and steadily growing following in Vietnam which today numbers about six million. The Vatican and Vietnam restarted talks in 2007 after severing diplomatic ties at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Official delegations from both sides have made reciprocal visits in recent years, culminating in meetings between the pope and party chief Nguyen Phu Trong in January 2013 and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in October 2014.

Although Vietnam’s constitution grants its citizens freedom of belief and religion, the day-to-day reality for religious groups and followers is sometimes different. Religious groups have been under fairly constant pressure from the government, which views them as a threat to its authority and social cohesion. The government’s paranoia is likely based on the fact that the Catholic church is probably the only group besides the government that is capable of coordinating mass demonstrations in an organized fashion, as shown by a gathering of hundreds of thousands of Catholics in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi in 2009.

Yet the space for religious freedom seems to be growing, at least in some places and particularly in urban areas. More religious groups have had their registration applications approved. For instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was approved in 2014. The U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report said that 115 new Catholic and Protestant church congregations were formally restarted in 2013, up from 20 in 2012 and 5 in 2011. Large-scale religious ceremonies have also been allowed more frequently. Tens of thousands of Catholics were able to celebrate Assumption Day (the day on which Catholics believe the Virgin Mary was taken to heaven) in 2012.

At the same time, religious groups whose registration applications are simply not answered or denied remain at the mercy of local authorities, who sometimes disregard national laws and resort to violence and intimidation tactics. Similar to other human right issues in Vietnam, security and police officials have tended to use vaguely defined national security laws when dealing with religious groups. In particular, practitioners who mix faith with politics or social action often fall foul of conservative local party leaders. This mistreatment of religious believers has prompted the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to call for Vietnam to be redesignated a “country of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom (which it was in 2004 and 2005).

Vietnam understands that it needs to show concrete improvements on human rights, including freedom of religion, in order to be seen as a credible partner for the international community and the United States. Despite recent progress on religious freedom, the international Catholic church should continue to sustain a long-term agenda to engage Vietnamese authorities and support the active Catholic community in the country. Consistent with this approach would be the United States’ aims for a legislative and institutional reform that would put Vietnam more in line with international norms. For Hanoi, greater respect of religious freedom is an important step toward implementing the joint vision of the United States and Vietnam to cooperate in building a strong, just, and prosperous Vietnam.

Mr. Nigel Cory is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. He previously served as an Australian diplomat in Malaysia and the Philippines.

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