Catholics in Vietnam fear new laws on religion

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Newly baptised Catholics hold candles during the baptism ceremony at Hoa Binh church in Hoa Binh city, west of Hanoi January 21, 2015. Vatican's Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples Cardinal Fernando Filoni on Wednesday conducted the baptism for 172 people from four ethnic groups Kinh, Muong, Thai and Hmong as part of his visit to Vietnam from January 19 to 25. | REUTERS/Kham

HANOI, Vietnam (Christian Examiner) – Communist officials in Vietnam are for the first time seeking the input of the country's Catholic leaders on proposed legislation addressing faith and religion, but many bishops there believe the effort at transparency is only an attempt to "appear democratic," AsiaNews reported May 4.

Several of the nation's Catholic bishops have taken the highly unusual – and risky – step of criticizing the proposed laws publicly, saying any new laws on religion would expand the government's already-tight control over churches.

While a draft of the laws has not been made public, Bishop Hoang Duc Oanh, who leads one of the oldest Catholic missions in Kontum, claimed in a letter to government officials that "developed countries do not need any agency in charge of religion."

The letter, written after a review of the proposed legislation and also signed by Bishop Emeritus Tran Thanh Chung and others, said it was "absurd that 'non-believers' want to set the rules for people of faith."

Vietnam's constitution guarantees – on paper at least – freedom of religion, but that freedom only extends so far as it does not contravene the interests of the majority, or in this case, the will of the Communist Party. Catholics are generally allowed to practice their faith openly, but other groups such as Protestants face tight controls and, on many occasions, severe persecution.

Vietnam remains listed as a "country of particular concern" by the U.S. State Department for its abuse of religious freedom and the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. Vietnam has in the past called U.S. criticism of its approach to religious expression "biased."

A January 2015 report on religious practice in Vietnam by Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, concurs with the assessment of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"Whereas religious life and religious diversity are a reality in Viet Nam today, autonomy and activities of independent religious or belief communities, that is, unrecognized communities, remain restricted and unsafe, with the rights to freedom of religion or belief of such communities grossly violated in the face of constant surveillance, intimidation, harassment and persecution," Bielfeldt wrote.