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Hopes and fears for religious freedom in Vietnam

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill, on August 20, 2020.

By USCIRF Commissioner James W. Carr and Congressman Glenn Grothman

Around the world, nations want to emulate the West in general, and the United States in particular, with regard to material achievements. We in the United States enjoy housing, clothes, electronics, and diet of an affluent nation. However, we have not done a good enough job of explaining to nations around the world that the major attribute that makes life worth living in the West is the freedom to express ideas in general, and religious ideas in particular.

Religious leaders provide spiritual nourishment and guidance to believers. They are also often called to speak out on issues that impact their community. One such leader is A Dao, a member of the Montagnard ethnic group and pastor of the Evangelical Church of Christ (ECC) in Gia Xieng village, Kontum Province of Vietnam.

In 2016, A Dao attended a conference in East Timor about religious freedom. Unfortunately, in Vietnam, too much public advocacy around religious freedom can incur the wrath of state authorities. Shortly after his return, on August 18, 2016, Pastor A Dao was arrested and, on April 28, 2017, sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for allegedly “helping individuals to escape abroad illegally.”

Through the Defending Freedoms Project of the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and the Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), we are advocating for A Dao’s release.

Pastor A Dao’s arrest and imprisonment is just one example of the challenges that ethnic minorities in Vietnam face when attempting to exercise their freedom of belief.

As USCIRF noted in its 2020 Annual Report, Hmong and Montagnard Christians in Vietnam’s mountainous Northern and Central Highlands are regularly harassed, detained, or even banished because of their religious affiliation. According to human rights advocates, thousands of Hmong and Montagnard Christians remain effectively stateless because local authorities have refused to issue identity cards and household registration, in many instances in retaliation against Christians who refuse to renounce their faith. Without this documentation, these individuals cannot access public services, such as state schools or hospitals.

In addition, Vietnam’s Law on Belief and Religion requires all houses of worship to register with the government. Yet, the law does not account for the reality of religious practice in the area. When some Hmong and Montagnard pastors tried to register their house churches, Vietnamese bureaucrats rejected their applications, citing excuses such as occupancy limitations. This has dire implications because security personnel regularly raid or close down unregistered house churches in the Central Highlands. The law effectively places pastors in a catch-22.

Fortunately, even amidst all of these problems, we see signs of progress.

Local authorities in Subdivision 179 in Dam Rong District, Lam Dong Province, recently announced $3.3 million in funding to help 79 displaced Hmong Christian households to permanently resettle. These individuals currently lack household registration and identity cards. The regional government’s plans include roads, a medical clinic, a community center, and other facilities. The national government has supported these efforts.

We urge the State Department to work with the Vietnamese government to expand this policy to all similarly situated Hmong and Montagnard communities across the country. With Vietnamese leadership and U.S. encouragement, Subdivision 179 could potentially serve as a model for ameliorating the plight of Christian minorities in the Central Highlands. The U.S. government could help by setting up a system for sharing information about affected communities and best practices for local government officials.

We also request the U.S. Agency for International Development to support the ongoing efforts in Subdivision 179. Such a gesture would help demonstrate that the U.S. government recognizes the leadership of Dam Rong District officials on this issue and incentivize other local governments to take similar steps.

Finally, we urge senior U.S. officials to raise the cases of Pastor A Dao and other prisoners of conscience with their Vietnamese counterparts. These individuals should never have been imprisoned and we must not cease our advocacy until they are free.

During the 25 years since our two governments normalized diplomatic relations, the United States and Vietnam have developed close defense and economic ties. However, ongoing religious freedom and human rights violations prevent an even closer relationship. We look forward to the day when everyone in Vietnam can practice their faith without fear of harassment or retaliation.