Religious freedom remains a dream for Vietnamese Christians, despite recent reports touting the country’s diversity and tolerance.
The communist government only recognizes some Christian groups in the largely Buddhist nation, so many meet in unregistered home churches, risking arrest. Officials monitor religious activities and sometimes harass even officially recognized churches, leaving Catholic and Protestant groups at the mercy of local officials.
This year at least 50 Christians were arrested, many pastors and church leaders remain in prison, and a Hmong church elder died in police custody. For all these reasons, Open Doors International ranked Vietnam No. 21 on a list of the worst countries for religious freedom. In January, Vietnam enacted a new rule that made it harder for unregistered churches to become legal, according to Morning Star News. Critics said it was an attempt to stomp out house churches.
“Nothing like true religious freedom exists in Vietnam and the authoritarian government still regularly cracks down on religious groups,” said Ryan Morgan, International Christian Concern’s regional manager for Southeast Asia. “Christians simply cannot meet without the permission of the government.” Vietnam also requires all religious publishing go through a government agency. Bibles written in the language of the Hmong minority are still illegal and must be smuggled in.
In May, two Catholics were arrested after visiting a shrine, according to Baptist Press. When they were not released in September, a group of Catholics in northern Vietnam protested their detainment. Police and soldiers fired on the crowd, injuring 40 people.
After investigating the death of the church elder in police custody, officials said he died by electrocution, but claimed it was self-inflicted, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The man’s family say he was killed by authorities.
The oppressive regime also seizes property. Morgan said authorities in the province of Binh Phuoc are “insisting on 116 chapels that fall under the legally registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam be torn down.” Asia News reported in September that the government was trying to take more land from the Redemptorists of Thai Ha parish, a Catholic group.
Todd Nettleton, director of Media Development for Voice of the Martyrs, said that “most government leaders certainly consider Christianity a ‘Western’ religion and see it as a threat to communist rule or even a form of espionage from the West designed to undermine their power.” He noted that “ethnic animosity” also comes into play in some arrests.
International Christian Concern obtained a list of more than 60 pastors and church leaders who remain in four prison camps. Nearly all of the prisoners on the list are members of ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, according to the organization.
Some U.S. legislators hope to pressure Vietnam to improve its treatment of Christians. By a 405-to-3 vote, the House of Representatives passed the Vietnam Human Rights Act in August. The bill would prohibit any increase in non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam unless it improves its record on human rights. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the bill’s sponsor, said: “Victims have been jailed and harassed just for practicing their faith and standing up for what they believe in.”