Vietnam defends its record on religious freedom against US criticism

Protestants oppose law that justifies religious discrimination.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/Ucan) - The Vietnam government defended its policy of religious freedom in reaction to the U.S. State Department's recent decision to add Vietnam to its list of countries that it says violate the right to religious freedom. "We strongly protest the decision of the U.S. State Department to list Vietnam as one of the 'countries of particular concern' in its annual report on religious freedom," said Le Dung, Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, in a response televised throughout the country.

In the U.S. State Department's sixth annual International Religious Freedom Report, released Sept. 15, Vietnam is cited in that category for the first time. It is grouped with China, Cuba, Laos, Myanmar and North Korea under the heading "Totalitarian or Authoritarian Actions to Control Religious Belief or Practice." Dung said Vietnam "respects and protects freedom of belief and religion of all citizens," which is stated in the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religion adopted June 18 by the Standing Committee of Vietnam's National Assembly. The ordinance is scheduled to take effect Nov. 15. Dung said the U.S. decision is "based on erroneous information that does not reflect the true religious situation in Vietnam."

However, Reverend Pham Dinh Nhan, head of Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship, asserts the ordinance "will create many problems and disadvantages" for fellowship members, "especially for our worship gatherings." The Evangelical leader said the religion ordinance is "likely to permanently outlaw our house-church organizations, none of which have been recognized since 1975." He added that many articles in the ordinance also provide a legal basis for local authorities to hinder and persecute Churches. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the government closed or used many churches, Bible schools and other religious facilities for non-religious purposes, Reverend Nhan explained. Church members, he said, had to use private homes for worship and "have, for the sake of the Lord Jesus, suffered much persecution and discrimination from different levels of the government."

He urged all members of groups in his fellowship to devote three days of each month from September to November to fast and pray for the government to withdraw the ordinance, give up its "prejudices" toward the Church and "stop all forms of persecution and hindrances of Church activities."

The U.S. State Department charged in the religious freedom report that Vietnam continues to restrict publicly organized activities of religious groups that are not recognized by the government. It said that in the past two years, religious freedom has deteriorated among certain groups of people, including ethnic Montagnard and Hmong Christians, "house church" Protestants and leaders of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam. They face detention and discrimination, and in some areas pressure or violence to force them to renounce their faith, according to the report.

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