This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill on Friday, April 24, 2020.
This op-ed was also published in Vietnamese by the Nguoi Viet Daily News on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
By USCIRF Commissioner Anurima Bhargava and Congressman Harley Rouda
In March 2019, Ms. Bui Thi Kim Phuong, a Hoa Hao Buddhist from Vietnam, prepared to board a flight to the United States for a series of meetings on the deteriorating human rights and religious freedom conditions in Vietnam. Ms. Phuong was stopped by Vietnamese security authorities at Tan Son Nhat airport and forced to return home. Her offense: she is married to Nguyen Bac Truyen, a prominent prisoner of conscience and religious freedom advocate.
Nguyen Bac Truyen founded the Vietnamese Political & Religious Prisoners Friendship Association, an organization dedicated to assisting prisoners of conscience and their families. For many years, he served as a lawyer and advocate, primarily for his fellow Hoa Hao Buddhists. But in July 2017, he was kidnapped by Vietnamese authorities. Nine months later, he was tried for “activities attempting to overthrow the State.” The trial took less than a day. Truyen was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
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 Truyen’s release.
Truyen’s sentence marks a troubling time for religious freedom in Vietnam. The number of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam has surged in recent years. Authorities are reportedly retaliating against Hmong and Montagnard Christians who refuse to renounce their religion. Independent Hoa Hao Buddhists, Cao Dai adherents, and Khmer Krom Buddhists have been intimidated, harassed, and physically assaulted for attending religious ceremonies. The 2016 Law on Belief and Religion has imposed significant bureaucratic obstacles to establishing new houses of worship and requires, among other things, all religious groups to register with the government; many refuse to do so out of concern for their independence.
We acknowledge that the Vietnamese government has made some progress over the past year. Registered religious organizations have been allowed to hold large festivals in public. Attacks by government-affiliated groups against Catholic communities seem to have decreased from previous years. The national government has investigated abuses by local officials against religious communities.
Yet, Mr. Truyen’s continued detention – with his health deteriorating and with severe, draconian restrictions on visits and on receiving food and medical supplies – stands counter to the fundamental human right of all persons to worship as they choose. His immediate and unconditional release is necessary to demonstrate the Vietnamese government’s stated commitment to religious freedom.
If the Vietnamese government does not release Mr. Truyen and take action to stop ongoing religious freedom violations, we strongly recommend that the U.S. State Department designate Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. In addition, the State Department and USAID should provide funding for programs in Vietnam that educate local officials about the importance of religious freedom. Finally, we urge all U.S. government officials, including members of Congress, to consistently raise religious freedom concerns during meetings with Vietnamese officials.
The ties between the United States and Vietnam have deepened over the past 25 years since diplomatic ties between our countries have been restored. The ongoing violations of religious freedom and detention of Nguyen Bac Truyen prevent an even closer bond. Mr. Truyen’s release is an important goalpost for a different path forward.