Vietnamese government speeds up approval of new religious law

A new bill was drafted in mid-August, but has not yet been released. The authorities want to approve it this year. A Buddhist leader and a Catholic praised the law at a Patriotic Front meeting. However, critics continue to slam the draft for its restrictions on the activities of religious communities.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/EDA) – The Vietnamese government is speeding the approval process of its new law on religions and beliefs, which has been sharply criticised by the country’s religious leaders since April 2015.

Overshadowed by the 12th Communist Party Congress last January and the election of the new National Assembly in May, the draft has taken centre stage again in mid-August with the government pledging to have it adopted this year.

The Patriotic Front, an organisation linked to the Communist Party, met on 17 August to discuss ‘expert opinions on the draft law on beliefs and religions’.

The meeting resulted in a new version of the law, which has not been made public for now. However, the Party has published speeches by some prominent Vietnamese religious leaders with close ties to the authorities.

Official media reported the words of Thich Thien Duc, general secretary of the management committee of the ‘Buddhist church’, an institution founded and sponsored by the state. Overall, he came out in favour of the law with some minor criticism.

The second address cited in the communist press was by a Catholic, Pham Huy Thong, presented as head of the Commission on religious thought, linked to the Centre for the Scientific Study of Ideas, set up by the Party. He is also president of the Catholic Union Committee, a government agency with no real influence on the lives of Catholics in the country.

Pham Huy Thong noted several positive aspects in the new legislation, including the freedom of citizens to practice or not a religion, a right also granted to prisoners, as well as the inclusion of religions in public discussions on education, vocational training, and medical care. Since the new draft has not been made public, it is impossible to verify these claims.

Since it was first presented in April 2015, the draft has sparked protests from leaders of the main religious institutions, including Caodaists and Catholics, and a sharp criticism from the bishop of Kontum, Mgr Michael Hoang Duc Qanh.

The law is in fact full of constraints on the registration of places of worship, staff, activities, staff destinations, programmes (requiring a year prior approval), making any action impossible.

Representatives from five Catholic institutions have called the draft "a step back even compared to the 2004 Regulations on beliefs and religions".

The new law, they say, "creates cumbersome procedures, suffocating mechanisms, a number of constraints that make it impossible to conduct any religious activity".