November 17, 2005
Religious Rights in Vietnam
-- Alison L. Boden
Sightings will be on holiday break the week of November 21, and will resume on Monday, November 28.
I recently returned from a trip to Vietnam with a group of University of Chicago faculty and students to study first-hand the state of human rights there. Concerning religious rights and freedoms, our conversations with representatives from the government's Department of Religion in Hanoi and with several religious communities were illuminating, as was a meeting with researchers at the Vietnamese Institute for Human Rights at the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy. Both the U.S. Department of State and the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch have strongly criticized the Vietnamese government's policies toward -- and participation in -- the internal workings of that country's religious communities. My visit convinced me that their concerns are indeed warranted.
Broadly, these concerns are as follows: that the Vietnamese government (specifically, the Department of Religion) reserves the right to authorize which religious communities may exist in the country; that the government effectively chooses and then trains leaders for each religious community; that the communities that criticize the government, or whose teachings or practices are thought to undermine government control, are censored, restricted, or closed; that ethnic-minority Christians are being forced to recant their faith; and that the evangelical Protestant Montagnards of the Central Highlands border with Cambodia are being denied the freedom to assemble, are subjected to physical abuse, and are fleeing into Cambodia.
Our conversation at the Department of Religion revolved around the Ordinance on Belief and Religion, ratified by the government last year. As its introduction states, "its promulgation aims at protecting the right of all citizens to freedom of belief and religion while improving the effectiveness and efficiency of State governance over religious activities."
Our dialogue on the text revealed significant differences between American and Vietnamese ideas of how governments adequately promote religious freedom. The self-understanding in the United States is that government best protects religious freedom by leaving people alone to practice their faith, intervening only in cases where the law is broken or human well-being is in danger.
The Vietnamese government says the same of itself, but also intervenes in groups' daily affairs to ensure that all religious activity meets its own criteria for "morality" and "order." At the Human Rights Center, one researcher challenged what he views as American negligence in the matter. Referring to group suicides by religious communities, he suggested that the American government fails to ensure religious freedom because it allows citizens to do whatever they want in the name of religious belief and practice. Certainly the American government must recognize its responsibility to enforce certain moral guidelines in religious communities for the safety of the public? Tragedy may strike if it doesn't.
The Department of Religion scheduled formal visits for us to two religious communities, both in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The first was the recently sanctioned Evangelical Church of Vietnam, a denomination that, according to Human Rights Watch, the government is trying to coerce other Protestant groups, especially Mennonites, to affiliate with. The leaders with whom we met were women who lamented the sexism in their church that prevents their ordination (they currently serve only as licensed preachers).
They stated that their biggest challenge is the inability to provide biblical and theological education to create future leaders of the church. Foreigners are forbidden to teach in such academies, while the funds to study abroad are usually beyond the means of Vietnamese citizens. They testified also to government restrictions that, they feel, are significantly slowing their growth, such as a prohibition on missionary activity and roadblocks on acquiring property for church buildings.
When asked about ecumenical cooperation with Catholics, their responses suggested that there is none. When asked about relationships with international Christian organizations such as the World Council of Churches, they drew a complete blank. Nationally and internationally they would seem to be quite isolated.
Meanwhile, our visit to the largest Buddhist pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City was aesthetically wonderful but politically without substance. Our venerable hosts gently declined every invitation to speak about relations with the government.
I was left with the impression that the Vietnamese government strives to neutralize the organizing potential of these religious communities. The potential for mass movements of reformers who are fueled by divine imperatives is not a welcome thought to the government, which is therefore doing its best to ensure that the contents of people's religious faiths and observances are under its control.
Our delegation concluded that the model of religious freedom in the United States — notwithstanding threats of violence or illegal behavior by religious groups—is preferable to one in which the state domesticates faith and practices to support its own political objectives.
Alison Boden is Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, Senior Lecturer in the Divinity School and the College, and co-chair of the board of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago.