Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – The Vietnamese government plans to introduce new legislation to regulate religions and faiths before the end of 2015 or in early 2016 at the latest. So far, its proposal appears to have not taken into account criticism from religious leaders who view the proposed new law as contrary to the UN Declaration on Human Rights and even a step backward compared to the Vietnamese Constitution of 2013 and the regulations of 2004.
In view of the situation, leading Caodaists and Catholics have openly criticised the draft bill for “locking up” religions, but their views have fallen on deaf years.
Vietnam’s National Assembly is in fact set to vote the new law at its next session. The outcome of the latter seems a forgone conclusion since many lawmakers have praised the bill, saying that it "is based on the Constitution of 2013".
In their debate, the Members of the National Assembly have focused on ways to control religious activities, at home and among Vietnamese expats, and on the need to oppose the use of religion to undermine national unity.
However, this is exactly what religious leaders have criticised the most. In the latter’s view, the draft bill has an adversarial attitude towards religions. It fails to define religion and does not recognise the right to freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and even the Vietnamese constitution.
The law is full of restrictions, from requiring the registration of places of worship and activities to imposing constraints on personnel and programmes (which must be submitted a year in advance for approval). This makes any activity nearly impossible.
For Fr Anton Thanh Le Ngoc, a Redemptorist priest, and representatives of five other religions, the draft is "a step backward compared to the Ordinance on Belief and Religion of 2004.” For them, “The new law imposes cumbersome procedures, stringent mechanisms, and a number of constraints that make religious activity impossible."
On August Tuesday, 37 leading Caodaists* sent an open letter to the Committee for Religious Affairs and the Vietnamese Fatherland Front to demand the cancellation of the new law.
For them, "the new draft bill is contrary to the purpose of democracy and freedom of Vietnamese law.” In fact, “The new law forces believers to register their faith and places of worship as a condition for official approval. This is contrary to progress and the civilisation typical of world society."
What is more, "the new law compels religions to ask permission even for minor changes in personnel and organisation. Thus, the government's action seems contrary to that of a civilised society. "
By contrast, the Standing Committee of the National Assembly praised the fact that, through the new legislation, "the people can exercise their right to religious freedom under the law in line with the International Covenant on Civil and political rights" signed by Vietnam in 1982.
As evidence of the "democratic" character of the new law, the Interior Ministry distributed the draft to religious leaders last April, asking for their opinion, but giving them only 13 days to reply.
The theatrical attempt to “appear democratic” generated strong reactions in the Catholic Church. Mgr Michael Hoan Duc Oanh, bishop of Kontum, wrote a letter to the speaker of the National Assembly, slamming the draft as "a violation of the right of religious freedom, which goes against the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam".
The bill shows that the government plans to "interfere greatly in religious affairs" by implementing policies designed to "encourage corruption and give rise to abuse by local authorities."
"The draft bill goes against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18) and the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, as amended in 2013 ( Article 24),” said the Standing Committee of Catholic Bishops' Conference of Vietnam in a statement released on 5 April 2015,
“We see this draft bill as a step backward compared to the Ordinance on Belief and Religion of 2004. The draft bill would create far too many complicated procedures, strict and binding mechanisms, hampering religious activities."
The bishops ended their statement with a stern warning. "We do not agree with draft bill on faith and religion. Please consider drafting a different bill, one that is in tune with the trend of freedom, democracy and progressive society. A new draft bill should require prior consultations with religious organisations. The legal status of religious organisations must be especially recognised and protected."
However, the government has so far ignored such demands and the National Assembly discussed the old draft on 14 August, and is set to approve.
* Caodaism is a syncretistic religion indigenous to Vietnam with about six million members.