Hanoi (AsiaNews/EDA) – In a long letter to the Communist-controlled National Assembly with respect to new draft of the law on beliefs and religions presented by the government on 17 August, the standing committee of the Vietnamese bishops' conference raises a number of issues.
Under the new law on religions, the Catholic Church will be recognised as a legal entity and will be able to open educational institutions; however, the bill does not mention the possibility of building new churches and it will allow the State to impose very demanding requirements to issue permits for religious activities.
The government asked religious leaders to send in their comments to the draft. The first Catholics to respond were the faithful of the diocese of Bach Ninh, who last week highlighted the shortcomings of the bill.
Since it was first presented in April 2015, the draft proposal has sparked protests from leaders of major religions. The law is in fact full of constraints on the registration of places of worship, staff, activities, programmes, making things almost impossible.
In the new letter, signed by Mgr Nguyen Van Kham, deputy secretary of the Bishops' Conference, the bishops appreciate "the fact that the National Assembly sought the opinion of religious organisations. This is an important point that shows a respectful attitude of legislators towards the organisations and people touched by the law".
Still, the bishops complain that the authorities did not provide enough time (18 to 31 August) to religious organisations to prepare their documented response.
The letter begins with a list of positive changes that distinguish the new draft from previous ones. First, it contains "the recognition of religious organisations and the institutions that depend on them as legal (rather than commercial) entities.”
Secondly, it replaces the word "registration" with "communication" or "proposal" with respect to the activities of religious entity, thus lessening the despotic role of the state.
However, the bishops note that "it is not enough to change a word. One needs to replace a way of seeing and doing things [. . .]. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right and not a favour granted by the State".
The new draft law "underscores the right to complain and make accusations in matters of faith and religion."
The fourth positive aspect, the bishops add, is the recognised right of religious organisations "to set up educational institutions in accordance with the national education system." This "provides the opportunity for religious communities to give their contribution in the field of education and health, in the interest of the whole society".
After listing the positive points, the bishops' letter sets out a number of proposals to amend several articles, in order to ensure greater freedom and rights for religious organisations.
A crucial point is the demand by the state that communities register and communicate their activities well in advance.
"The state has this right,” the bishops explain, “but it must also provide a quick written response, and in case of refusal, the authorities must explain in detail the reasons for refusing. Organisations should also have the right to appeal.”
At the end of the message, the bishops raise an issue not taken into consideration by the new law. "In section 57,” they write, “it refers to the restoration of religious buildings [. . .], but the bill does not say anything about the construction of new religious facilities."
As a way to meet the needs of the population, "we propose that wherever there are 50 to 100 people of the same faith that a new place of worship be allowed to be build."