The new Law on Beliefs and Religions will come in effect on 1st January 2018. Its ambiguities and contradictions will fuel the "system of asking and granting". The law interferes with the internal affairs of religious communities and establishes tight controls over their activities. The government's views about religion are inadequate. The authorities call on religions to work for the country's growth. The bishops differentiate the concept of nation from that of regime.
Hanoi (AsiaNews) – "The government’s Law on Beliefs and Religions has some innovative and positive points. However, there are many aspects that worry us and alarm us," say Vietnam’s Catholic bishops in a statement that raises doubts about legislation set to come into effect on 1st January 2018.
Despite biases and distorted views spread by the government about the Church, Catholic leaders have reiterated their commitment to work with the authorities for the good of the country, but demand their independence from the state.
Last June, in a message to the speaker of the National Assembly, Nguyễn Thị Kim Ngân, and the 498 members of the legislative body, the Bishops' Conference expressed its views on the last draft of the bill.
The bishops also sent their official statement to the faithful in the country’s 26 dioceses, urging them to pray for the good of the nation.
On 18 November 2016, the National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam approved the new law to regulate religious practice in the country, thus directly affecting the lives of Catholics.
The bill was first introduced on 22 April 2015, when the Bureau of Religious Affairs sent the fourth draft of the hitherto unknown bill to all religious groups.
In the weeks that followed, Caodaist and Catholic leaders heavily criticised the draft proposal describing it as a form of ‘imprisonment’ for religions, and "a step backward compared to the Ordinance on belief and religion of 2004." However, the National Assembly decided to go ahead anyway.
The members of five Catholic religious institutes also criticised the new law, which "creates muddled procedures, stifling rules, and a series of constraints that make religious activity impossible."
In its letter on 1st June, the Bishops' Conference underlines certain positive aspects of the law, such as the recognition of the right to religion of inmates in prisons and reform schools (Article 6), foreigners (Articles 8 and 47), and foreigners studying at Vietnamese religious institutions (Article 49).
The law also recognises religious organisations approved by the appropriate state agency as non-commercial entities (Article 30).
However, the government's interference with religious organisations active in education and health raises doubts and concerns.
A previous draft law, dated 17 August 2016, established the right of religious groups to set up educational and health facilities, outpatient clinics, welfare bodies and shelters. The final version changes this, generically acknowledging the right of religious organisations to "take part" in educational, social and health activities.
"In what way can we 'take part' in these activities?” wonder the bishops. “To what extent can we 'take part'? Are we still guaranteed the right to establish outreach bodies or foundations? This last version of the law is a step backwards from the previous one," they lament.
According to the prelates, the ambiguities and contradictions in the law fuel the "system of asking and granting" through which the government can "approve or disapprove of religious organisations". This legitimises interference in internal affairs of religious communities and establishes tight controls over their activities.
"The bill shows the inadequacy of the government's views on religion and religious organisations. The authorities look to religions as purely political organisations, sometimes as an opposition force. Pastoral activities in the fields of charity, health and education are not adequately valued and pastoral activities are ostracised."
"In some government schools or training centres, some educators and teachers show strong bias against Catholicism,” this according to some Catholic students who spoke to AsiaNews. “They give a wrong account of the history of Catholicism in Vietnam. At the same time, some teachers or quasi-experts pass on disinformation about Catholicism, distorting the image that the younger generation may have of the Catholic Church."
For the Bishops’ Conference, "such visions and behaviours risk undermining the real identity of religions, dividing them and creating conflicts between believers and non-religious people. Such attitudes are forbidden by this law (Article 5)."
Bishops have responded directly to the government's call to work for the country's growth. "The government has invited religions to accompany the nation. We all agree to this, but we think that the concept of nation must be clearly distinguished from that of regime.”
“The history of the Vietnamese people in particular and the history of the world in general show that political regimes change over time, but the nation lasts forever. Religions inspire noble spiritual values in the human heart. This way, religion helps to promote the cultural traditions of the nation, engaging actively in building a just, democratic and civic society. "
Finally, the bishops turn to the National Assembly. "When there is a proper view of religion, this will be the premise for true respect for the religious freedom of the people. We hope that our honest and direct comments, due to our historical responsibility and our love of homeland, will be heard by the Assembly.”
“With respect to the guidelines to apply the law, we hope that the Government of Vietnam will follow new paths, creating conditions for religions to participate more actively in the building and development of the country. This is for the prosperity, democracy and happiness of Vietnam."