Religion in Vietnam today looks markedly different than it did 40 years ago. This is the message we repeatedly heard during a recent trip to Vietnam. Vietnamese faithful conveyed, on the one hand, how religious freedom has expanded in the last four decades. On the other, they believe many government officials still misunderstand religion and the positive role it can play in society, instead subscribing to outdated fears and prejudices about the right to freely practice one’s faith.
After the war ended in 1975, Vietnam’s Communist leaders severely constrained religious freedom in a number of ways, including outright bans on religious organizations and their activities. Most religious leaders had opposed the Communist revolution, fearing what would happen if atheistic Marxists took over. After the war, the predicted bloodbath did not occur, but the new government confiscated religious property, imprisoned many religious leaders and persecuted many of their followers. Christians in particular were seen as tools of foreign oppression, while members of some of the local religions, like the Cao Dai, were targeted for having fielded troops to fight the Communists.
While markedly better today, Vietnam still has a long way to go before it meets the international standards to which it has officially agreed, like Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In time, the regime moved from full-bore state persecution to state control, creating a government-sponsored Buddhist organization and a government-sponsored Cao Dai. Those who continued to practice with unsanctioned religious organizations were frozen out and sometimes even “excommunicated” by the established religious authorities. This made them “dissidents” to both their faith and the state. Catholics avoided being co-opted under a government-sponsored entity like the Patriotic Association in China, but the government kept the clergy on a short leash and continues to play a direct role in approving candidates for bishops selected by the Vatican.
A Complex Situation
In order to better understand the current situation, we visited Vietnam at the end of August as part of a delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief abroad, and to give independent policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state and Congress. What the delegation learned will become part of the commission’s official findings—for example, in its annual report on religious freedom.
The situation on religion in Vietnam is complex and at times confusing. On the one hand, Catholic churches are packed and vocations plentiful; the government recently granted Catholics permission to found a university-level institute of theology in the South. Catholics can even hold government jobs, and it is not uncommon for party members to send their children to Catholic preschool programs or to Catholic universities in the United States.
On the other hand, we heard credible reports corroborating the commission’s past findings that police often harass and assault religious followers from independent, unregistered religious organizations, including many Protestant churches.
In general, the Catholic Church has fewer problems with the government than Protestant churches; state-sponsored religious groups do better than independent groups, and registered bodies do better than those that are not.
To achieve legal status, religious organizations must register with the government, without which they are considered illegal and cannot rent or own property. Registration requires religious organizations to report their membership, leadership, beliefs and activities. Even for registered organizations, many activities require the permission of the local, provincial and/or national government. If a group wants to open a new church, for example, or to move a minister from one church to another, it needs government approval.
But even government approval does not solve all problems. For example, one group received permission to open another house church but had difficulty getting a rental because landlords did not want the extra police scrutiny that would come with the presence of a church on their property.
The Vietnamese government is currently drafting a new law to govern religion. Before visiting Vietnam, we studied the fourth draft, which largely put into law what in the past had been done by ordinance and decree. The draft stipulated a number of religious activities in addition to registration that required government approval, including several clauses governing the approvals required when groups select or move religious personnel. This example became more poignant after learning from one group during our visit that half the candidates they proposed to become pastors had been rejected by the government.
While in Vietnam, we learned the government is currently working on a fifth draft that appears, in some instances, to have downgraded “approvals” to “notifications.” Although requiring groups to notify the government of their activities is still problematic, each language modification from “approve” to “notify” is a significant step forward for Vietnam.
Some religious groups reject registration on principle, choosing instead to maintain their independence from state control. These groups routinely suffer harassment from the police, as do those which publicly complain about the ill-treatment they experience and those alleged to have contacts with foreign and/or human rights organizations.
Factors Affecting the Faithful
After listening to numerous religious leaders, we concluded that the scope and degree of government intervention, including sometimes violent intervention, often depended on a number of conditions over which religious organizations have little control.
First, religious organizations and individuals are at greater risk if authorities believe they are a threat to the government or the Communist Party. Óscar Romero, the murdered Roman Catholic archbishop known for preaching on social justice and human rights, would not be tolerated in Vietnam any more than he was in El Salvador. Religious organizations, therefore, are forced to suppress their prophetic role if they want to survive in Vietnam. This means abandoning support for anything that may be perceived as contrary to party policy, like democracy and human rights. Activists openly supporting these basic freedoms, including Catholics and Protestants, have been imprisoned.
In 1980, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam issued a pastoral letter saying that good Catholics must be good citizens, which pleased government officials and opened the way for fewer restrictions. Likewise, Muslim leaders stress that their religion requires their followers to observe their country’s laws as long as this does not violate their belief in one God or interfere with their duty to pray.
On the other hand, government officials become nervous when a local pastor has more credibility and authority in his village than the local party and government officials. For example, when the local officials tell demonstrating villagers to go home, they ignore him, but if the pastors say, “Go home,” they obey.
Likewise, the Redemptorists, a Catholic religious order, suffered harassment because it allowed dissidents to meet on its property. The Redemptorists are also in a dispute over land being confiscated for development by the government, which is not inclined to be nice to “troublemakers.” Last year, the order received a new provincial superior who is taking a less assertive stance, which may cause the government to ease up on them.
Second, the state’s single-minded commitment to maintaining public order takes primacy over religious freedom and indeed many other freedoms. This puts severe restraints on evangelization. Knocking on doors or handing out pamphlets on the streets or in a public park can prompt police intervention. Independent Buddhists and Cao Dai believers who refuse to join the state-sponsored organization are also at great risk.
Those who actively evangelize among ethnic minorities in the highlands have especially run into trouble, although they say that conflicts with the government often calm down after evangelizing in a village has successfully converted most villagers. But such transitions can take decades. Others, like the Mormons and Muslims, navigate restrictions by limiting their converts to those who approach them for instruction at their places of worship rather than risk problems with the government by actively proselytizing.
Third, the wide latitude given local officials to interpret and enforce religious policy according to their own caprices contributes to an inconsistent, unpredictable environment. Some religious organizations have the good fortune to operate in provinces where officials bear no particular antagonism toward religion or ethnic minorities. Almost every group we met said they experienced more problems in some provinces than others. Many pointed to the Central Highlands as a problem area, where any activity among the ethnic minorities makes government officials nervous, often resulting in harsh repression. These ethnic groups prize their independence, and some were allies with Americans against the Communists.
In these provinces, it is difficult to get government approval for new houses of worship or religious activities. Some local officials fear religious leaders who have more authority among the populace than they do. Some are simply old guard who still believe that a heavy hand is needed to control things. This mentality at times leads to acts of police brutality, which instead of solving conflicts makes matters worse. One national official frankly complained of the incompetence of some of these local officials. Whatever the case, the central government rarely steps in to protect religious groups from provincial abuse. Local officials are rarely held to account for their actions.
Fourth, since trust can be a critical factor in reducing problems with local officials, some religious leaders take pains to establish personal relationships with government officials. One church leader told us how he got a policeman friend to introduce him to the police official in charge of religion in his area. He then invited the official to his church services. His goal was to establish trust through transparency and dialogue. Hierarchical organizations like the Catholic Church are better equipped for this because there is a church official who can speak with authority for his flock. Trust and understanding, once established on both sides, can help alleviate suspicions and ultimately result in local officials backing off; unfortunately, this process often takes a long time.
When trust is lacking and suspicions high, the government maintains an intimidating presence in religious affairs. In fact, a number of the people we met told us that they had been visited by government officials prior to our visit. It was clear that the government wanted them “on message” and was suspicious about what they might say to a U.S. government delegation. One group stayed away from their homes the night before meeting us so that the police could not keep them from leaving their houses.
Vietnamese religious leaders attempt to navigate these four conditions in order to survive, with varying degrees of success, but the situation obviously is far from the ideal of religious freedom as articulated in international law.
Vietnam has made some progress in religious freedom since the dark days following the Communist takeover in 1975, and this offers hope that genuine and enduring improvements that meet international standards are possible. It is also clear that Vietnamese officials want to have good relations with the United States, and they know that religious freedom is an issue close to our hearts. Many officials realize that beating up believers is not worth while if it sours their country’s relationship with the United States, but too many officials still believe heavy-handed tactics are the way to go.
How Vietnam respects and protects religious freedom also has implications beyond its own borders. Violations of religious freedom are all too common throughout Southeast Asia. Vietnam’s neighbors—particularly Laos, which similarly has a Communist government and intently mimics Vietnam with respect to rights and freedoms—pay close attention to Vietnam’s actions and their impact on relations with the international community, including the United States. Clearly, Vietnam has a lot at stake.
Will religious freedom in Vietnam ever meet international standards, or have improvements plateaued? A law on religion that simply endorses the status quo will be bad news. However, if it reduces requirements for government approval and reporting, this will be a sign that things are heading in the right direction. But unless the government pulls back from its intrusive and thuggish treatment of independent, registered and unregistered religious organizations, no one can say that Vietnam has reached the level of religious freedom required of a state under international law.
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., and Mary Ann Glendon are members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Father Reese was editor of America (1998-2005) and is now senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter. Professor Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.