CESNUR - center for studies on new religions
Department Seal 2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000


Both the Constitution and government decrees provide for freedom of worship; however, the Government continued to restrict significantly those organized activities of religious groups that it declared to be at variance with state laws and policies. The Government generally allowed persons to practice individual worship in the religion of their choice, and participation in religious activities throughout the country continued to grow significantly. However, government restrictions on the hierarchies and clergy of most religious groups remained in place, and religious groups faced difficulties in training and ordaining clergy, publishing religious materials, and conducting educational and humanitarian activities. The Government requires religious groups to register and uses this process to control and monitor church organizations. The Government recognizes six official religious bodies: One each for Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Muslim believers.

On balance, conditions for religious freedom remained fundamentally the same during the period covered by this report compared with the period from mid-1998 to mid-1999. However, there were improvements in some areas such as the release of more than 1 dozen ethnic Hmong Protestants and 3 Catholic priests and growth in worship activities. In addition, in some parts of the country, there was continued gradual expansion of the parameters for individual believers of officially recognized churches, particularly some Buddhists and Catholics, to practice their faiths publicly without major interference from government officials. However, most of the serious restrictions imposed on religious freedom between mid-1998 and mid-1999 continued.

The Government used the lack of official recognition of several groups as a pretext to harass some believers, in particular certain groups of Buddhists, as well as Protestants, and Hoa Hao, who lack legal sanction. Police routinely questioned persons who held dissident religious views and arbitrarily detained persons based on their religious beliefs and practices. Many Protestant Christians who worshipped in house churches in ethnic minority areas were subjected to arbitrary detention by local officials who broke up unsanctioned religious meetings there. Authorities imprisoned persons for practicing religion illegally by using provisions of the Penal Code that allow for jail terms of up to 3 years for "abusing freedom of speech, press, or religion." There were at least 15 reported Hoa Hao and Protestant religious detainees held without charge. In addition the Supreme Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Thich Huyen Quang, continued to be held in Quang Ngai in conditions resembling administrative detention. An unconfirmed report stated that one Hmong Christian, Lu Seo Dieu, died in prison in 1999 in Lao Cai province from mistreatment and lack of medical care in detention. There are reportedly 13 religious prisoners. In general there are amicable relations among the various religious communities, and there were some modest attempts at ecumenical cooperation and dialog in Ho Chi Minh City.

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City maintained an active and regular dialog with senior- and working-level government officials to advocate for greater religious freedom. The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers raised with cabinet ministers, Communist Party officials, and provincial officials, concerns of the U.S. government and citizens of other countries about the detention and arrest of religious figures and other restrictions on religious freedom. The Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Robert Seiple, visited the country in July 1999 for discussions with government officials and leaders of several religious bodies. In several cases, intervention by the U.S. Government resulted in improvements such as the release of some prisoners.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

Both the Constitution and government decrees provide for freedom of worship; however, the Government continued to restrict significantly those organized activities of religious groups that it declared to be at variance with state laws and policies. The Government generally allowed persons to practice individual worship in the religion of their choice, and participation in religious activities throughout the country continued to grow significantly. However, the Government uses regulations to control religious hierarchies and organized religious activities closely, in part because the Communist Party fears that organized religion may weaken its authority and influence by serving as a political, social, and spiritual alternative to the authority of the central Government.

The Government requires religious groups to register and uses this process to control and monitor church organizations. Under the law, only those activities and organizations expressly sanctioned by the Government are deemed to be legal. The granting or withholding of the official recognition of religious bodies is one of the means by which the Government actively intervenes to restrict religious activities by some believers. In order for a group to obtain official recognition, it must obtain government approval of its leadership and the overall scope of its activities.

Officially recognized religious organizations are able to operate openly in most parts of the country, and followers of these religious bodies are able to worship without government harassment, except in some isolated provinces. Officially recognized organizations must consult with the Government about their religious and administrative operations, although not about their religious tenets of faith. In general religious organizations are confined to dealing specifically with spiritual and with organizational matters. There has been a trend in the past 5 years to accord much greater latitude to followers of recognized religious organizations, and the majority of followers of the country's Buddhist and Catholic traditions have benefited from this development. The Government holds conferences to discuss and publicize its religion decrees.

Religious organizations must obtain government permission to hold training seminars, conventions, and celebrations outside the regular religious calendar; to build or remodel places of worship; to engage in charitable activities or operate religious schools; and to train, ordain, promote, or transfer clergy. Many of these restrictive powers lie principally with provincial or city people's committees, and local treatment of religious persons varied widely. Because of the lack of meaningful due process in the legal system, the actions of religious believers are subject to the discretion of local officials in their respective jurisdictions.

National laws that prescribe freedom of belief are enforced unevenly. In some areas, such as parts of Ho Chi Minh City, local officials allow relatively wide latitude to believers; in others, such as isolated provinces of the northwest, central highlands, and central coast, religious believers are subject to significant harassment because of the lack of effective legal enforcement. Some provincial leaders, such as those in certain northwestern provinces, have claimed that there are no religious believers in their provinces since the religious believers there are not recognized officially.

In general religious groups faced difficulty in obtaining teaching materials, expanding training facilities, publishing religious materials, and expanding the number of clergy in religious training in response to increased demand from congregations.

In particular local officials harass a significant minority of religious believers because they operate without legal sanction. Since 1981 leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) have requested repeatedly that their church be granted official recognition, but their requests continue to be rejected in large part because of the strong criticism of the Communist Party by UBCV leaders and their call for democracy and improved conditions of human rights in Vietnam. UBCV leaders continue to be harassed, and their rights severely restricted by the Government. In early 2000, leaders of several churches belonging to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECV) (the Protestant Tin Lanh churches) in the southern region engaged in quiet discussions with the Government on official recognition of their congregations. These discussions, although stalled at mid-year, were expected to lead eventually to official recognition of the roughly 300 ECV churches throughout the country. In early 2000, several leaders of the Hoa Hao community, including several pre-1975 leaders, openly criticized the Government's 1999 recognition of an official Hoa Hao organization; they claimed that the official group is subservient to the Government and demanded official recognition of their own leadership instead. The Government neither acknowledged the claims of these Hoa Hao believers nor permitted their independent activities.

In practice there are no effective remedies under the law for violations of persons' rights to religious freedom due to the capricious actions of officials. On occasion central authorities have intervened to curb the worst excesses of local harassment. For example, after a district official in Binh Phuoc province ordered the destruction of three Protestant churches in his province, authorities from Hanoi intervened to prevent further destruction, then forced the district leader to retire. However, the court system is subservient to the Communist Party and its political decisions, and in no known case have the courts acted to interpret laws so as to protect a person's right to religious freedom.

Religious Demography

The Government officially recognizes Buddhist (approximately 50 percent), Roman Catholic (8 percent), Protestant (0.9 percent), Cao Dai (1 percent), Hoa Hao (2 percent), and Muslim (0.1 percent) religious organizations. However, some Buddhist, Protestant, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao believers do not recognize or participate in the government-approved associations. Some organize their own associations, and thus their organizations are considered illegal by the authorities. Among the country's religious communities, Buddhism is the dominant religious belief. Many Buddhists practice an amalgam of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucian traditions that sometimes is called Vietnam's "triple religion." Some estimates suggest that more than half the population of approximately 80 million persons are at least nominally Buddhist, visit pagodas on festival days, and have a world view that is shaped in part by Buddhism, although in reality these beliefs rely on a very expansive definition of the faith. One prominent Buddhist official has estimated that 30 percent of Buddhists are devout and practice their faith regularly. The Government's Office of Religious Affairs uses a much lower estimate of 7 million practicing Buddhists. Mahayana Buddhists, most of whom are part of the ethnic Kinh majority, are found throughout the country, especially in the populous areas of the northern and southern delta regions. There are proportionately fewer Buddhists in certain highlands and central lowlands areas, although migration of Kinh to highland areas is changing the distribution somewhat.

A Khmer minority in the south practices Theravada Buddhism. Numbering from perhaps 700,000 to 1 million persons, they live almost exclusively in the Mekong delta.

There are an estimated 6 million Roman Catholics in the country (about 8 percent of the population). The largest concentrations are in southern provinces around Ho Chi Minh City, with other large groups in the northern and central coastal lowlands. In recent years, the Government has eased its efforts to control the Roman Catholic hierarchy by relaxing the requirements that all clergy belong to the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association. Few clergy actually belong to this association, which is a loose affiliation of clergy that holds conferences and participates in events with the Communist Party and the Vietnam Fatherland Front.

Authorities allowed the Vatican's ordination of a new archbishop in Ho Chi Minh City in 1998 as well as the ordination of five bishops in other dioceses in 1998 and 1999. A high-level Vatican envoy made his annual visit to the country in May 2000, during which the filling of other vacant bishoprics was discussed. In June 2000, a bishop was named for Da Nang province, and in August 2000, a bishop was named for Vinh Long province. In 1998 a number of bishops traveled to Rome, Italy, for a synod of Asian bishops. Up to 200,000 Catholics gathered in August 1999 at an annual Marian celebration in La Vang in the central part of the country and celebrated their faith freely there.

There are approximately 700,000 Protestants in the country (less than 1 percent of the population), with more than half of these persons belonging to a large number of unregistered evangelical "house churches" that operate in members' homes or in rural villages, many of them in ethnic minority areas. Perhaps 150,000 of the followers of house churches are Pentecostals, who celebrate "gifts of the spirit" through charismatic and ecstatic rites of worship.

Reports from believers indicated that Protestant church attendance grew substantially during the period covered by this report, especially among the house churches, despite continued government restrictions on proselytizing activities.

Based on believers' estimates, two-thirds of Protestants are members of ethnic minorities, including ethnic Hmong (some 120,000 followers) in the northwest provinces and some 200,000 members of ethnic minority groups of the central highlands (Ede, Jarai, Bahnar, and Koho, among others). The house churches in ethnic minority areas have been growing rapidly in recent years, sparked in part by radio broadcasts in ethnic minority languages from the Philippines.

The Office of Religious Affairs estimates that there are 1.1 million Cao Dai followers (just over 1 percent of the population). Some nongovernmental organization (NGO) sources estimate that there may be from 2 to 3 million followers. Cao Dai groups are most active in Tay Ninh province, where the Cao Dai Holy See is located, and in Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong delta, and Hanoi. There are separate groups within the Cao Dai religion, which is syncretistic, combining elements of many faiths. Its basic belief system is influenced strongly by Mahayana Buddhism, although it recognizes a diverse array of persons who have conveyed divine revelation, including Siddhartha, Jesus, Lao-Tse, Confucius, and Moses.

Hoa Hao, considered by some of its followers to be a "reform" branch of Buddhism, was founded in the southern part of the country in 1939. Hoa Hao is a largely privatistic faith that does not have a priesthood and rejects many of the ceremonial aspects of mainstream Buddhism. Hoa Hao followers are concentrated in the Mekong delta, particularly in provinces such as An Giang, where the Hoa Hao were dominant as a political and religious force before 1975. According to the Office of Religious Affairs, there are 1.3 million Hoa Hao followers; church-affiliated expatriate groups suggest that there may be 2 million to 3 million. A government-organized group of 160 Hoa Hao held a congress in May 1999 in An Giang. The congress established an 11-member committee to oversee the administrative affairs of the religion. Establishment of the committee constituted official governmental recognition of the religion for the first time in 25 years, although a number of the pre-1975 leaders of the Hoa Hao oppose the official group as subservient to the Government and not faithful to Hoa Hao traditions.

Mosques serving the country's small Muslim population, estimated at 50,000 persons, operate in western An Giang province, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and other provinces in the southern part of the country. The Muslim community is composed of ethnic Cham in the southern coastal provinces and western Mekong delta. The Muslim community also includes some ethnic Vietnamese, and migrants originally from Malaysia, Indonesia, and India. Most practice Sunni Islam.

The Muslim Association of Vietnam was banned in 1975 but authorized again in 1992. It is the only official Muslim organization. Association leaders say that they are able to practice their faith, including daily prayer, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Government no longer restricts Muslims from making the Hajj. Roughly 1 dozen Muslims journey to Mecca for the Hajj each year.

There are a variety of smaller religious communities. An estimated 8,000 Hindus are concentrated in the south, including some ethnic Chams on the south central coast who practice Hinduism.

There are estimated to be between from several hundred to 2,000 Baha'i believers, largely concentrated in the south; prior to 1975, there were an estimated 130,000 believers, according to church officials.

There are several hundred members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) who are spread throughout the country but live primarily in the Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi areas.

The prominent position of Buddhism does not affect adversely religious freedom for others, including those who wish not to practice a religion. The secular Government does not favor a particular religion. The Constitution expressly protects the right of "nonbelief" as well as "belief." Of the country's approximately 80 million citizens, 14 million or more reportedly do not practice any organized religion. Some sources strictly define those considered to be practicing Buddhists, excluding those whose activities are limited to visiting pagodas on ceremonial holidays. Using this definition, the number of nonreligious persons would be much higher, perhaps as high as 50 million persons.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government continued to maintain broad legal and policy restrictions on religious freedom, although in many areas, Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants reported an increase in religious activity and observance. However, worshipers in several Buddhist, Catholic, and Cao Dai centers of worship reported that they believed that undercover government observers attended worship services to monitor the activities of the congregation and the clergy.

Operational and organizational restrictions on the hierarchies and clergy of most religious groups remained in place. Religious groups faced difficulty in obtaining teaching materials, expanding training facilities, publishing religious materials, and expanding the number of clergy in religious training in response to increased demand from congregations. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, faces many restrictions on the training and ordination of priests, nuns, and bishops, and this restriction limits pastoral ministry. Likewise, the Government restricted the number of clergy that the Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, and Cao Dai Churches may train. Restrictions remained on the numbers of Buddhist monks and Catholic seminarians. Protestants were not allowed to operate a seminary or to ordain new clergy.

The Government requires all Buddhist monks to work under an officially approved umbrella organization, the Central Buddhist Church of Vietnam. The Government opposed efforts by the non-government-sanctioned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) to operate independently, and tension between the Government and the UBCV continued. Several prominent UBCV monks, including Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, continued to face government restrictions on their civil liberties during the period covered by this report.

In April 2000, a local people's committee in Hanoi reportedly pressured the chief abbot of the historic One-Pillar Pagoda to step down in favor of an abbot with close ties to the Communist Party but no links to the pagoda. The chief abbot, whose pagoda is affiliated with the official Buddhist organization, resisted the effort and protested that this violated the state-sponsored church's statutes.

The Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECV), which comprises the network of Tin Lanh (Good News) churches and originally was founded by the Christian and Missionary Alliance early in the 20th century, generally operated with greater freedom than did the house churches. The roughly 300 Tin Lanh churches in the country are concentrated in the major cities, including Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, Hanoi, and in lowland areas. Some 15 ECV churches in the northern provinces are the only officially recognized Protestant churches. Leaders of several ECV churches in the south discussed with the Government official recognition of their congregations, and, although stalled at mid-year, this process is expected to lead to eventual official recognition of the ECV churches throughout the country.

One of the pastors of the main ECV church in Hanoi continued to be pressured by local authorities to step down from the church; government authorities proposed that he be replaced by a church official from Haiphong who was supported by local authorities. The pastor received a letter from local police stating that he had violated the law because of his past support of unsanctioned religious activities. However, the pastor and the congregation continued to resist this effort to force him to step down, as they have for the past year.

The Government restricts Protestant congregations from cooperating on joint religious observances or other activities, although in some localities there was greater freedom to do so. There is some ecumenical networking among Protestants, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Government banned and actively discouraged participation in "illegal" religious groups, including the UBCV, Protestant house churches, and the unapproved Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups. Religious and organizational activities by UBCV monks are illegal, and all UBCV activities outside private temple worship are proscribed. Protestant groups in central and southern provinces and some groups of Hoa Hao believers not affiliated with the group that held the May 2000 congress petitioned the Government for official recognition. They were unsuccessful as of mid-2000. Most evangelical house churches do not attempt to register because they believe that their applications would be denied, and they want to avoid government control.

Provincial officials in Ha Giang and Lai Chau provinces in the north pressured Hmong Christians to recant their faith. Local officials in these areas circulated official provincial documents urging persons to give up illegal "foreign" religion and to practice traditional animist beliefs and ancestor worship. Regional and police newspapers printed articles documenting how persons were deceived into following the house church "cults." There is evidence that some individuals engaged in deceptive practices under the guise of religious activities.

The local Catholic Church hierarchy remained frustrated by the Government's restrictions but has learned to accommodate itself to them for many years. A number of clergy reported a modest easing of government control over church activities in certain dioceses. In some areas, the Government relaxed its outright prohibition on the Catholic Church. The Church is able to participate in religious education and charitable activities.

The degree of government control of church activities varied greatly among localities. In some areas, especially in the south, Catholic churches operated kindergartens and engaged in a variety of humanitarian projects. Buddhist groups engage in humanitarian acts in many parts of the country.

Roman Catholic seminaries throughout the country have approximately 500 students enrolled. The Government limits the church to operating six major seminaries and to recruitment of new seminarians only every 2 years. All students must be approved by the Government both upon entering the seminary and prior to their ordination as priests. The Church believes that the number of students being ordained is insufficient to support the growing Catholic population.

A government-controlled management committee has full powers to control the affairs of the Cao Dai faith, thereby managing the church's operations, its hierarchy, and its clergy. Independent church officials oppose the edicts of this committee as unfaithful to Cao Dai principles and traditions. Despite the Government's statement in 1997 that it had recognized the Cao Dai Church legally and encouraged Cao Dai believers to expand their groups and practice their faith, many senior clerical positions remain vacant.

The national authorities continue to restrict the distribution of the sacred scriptures of the Hoa Hao.

In April 1999, the Government issued a decree on religion that prescribes the rights and responsibilities of religious believers. The religion decree states that persons formerly detained or imprisoned must obtain special permission from the authorities before they may resume religious activities. The decree also states that no religious organization can reclaim lands or properties taken over by the State following the end of the 1954 war against French rule and the 1975 Communist victory in the south. Despite this blanket prohibition, the Government has returned some church properties confiscated since 1975. The Catholic Church in Ho Chi Minh City has received back two properties from the People's Committee of the city. On one of the properties, in Cholon, the Church is constructing an HIV/AIDS hospice to be operated by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. The other property is now a church-operated orphanage. One of the vice-chairmen of the official Buddhist Sangha said that about 30 percent of Buddhist properties confiscated in Ho Chi Minh City have been returned since 1975, and from 5 to 10 percent of all Buddhist properties confiscated in the south were returned. By contrast UBCV leaders stated that their properties were not returned. Information concerning prominent Protestant properties, such as the former seminary in Nha Trang, is not available. Most Cao Dai and Hoa Hao properties have not been returned, according to church leaders.

The Government does not permit religious instruction in public schools. The Government restricts persons who belong to dissident and unofficial religious groups from speaking publicly about their beliefs. It officially requires all religious publishing to be done by government-approved publishing houses. Many Buddhist sacred scriptures, Bibles, and other religious texts and publications are printed by these organizations and allowed to be distributed.

The Government allows, and in some cases encourages, links with coreligionists in other countries when the religious groups are approved by the Government. The Government actively discourages contacts between the illegal UBCV and its foreign Buddhist supporters, and between illegal Protestant organizations such as the house churches and their foreign supporters. Contacts between Vatican authorities and the domestic Catholic Church are permitted, and the Government maintains a regular, active dialog with the Vatican on a range of issues including organizational activities, the prospect of establishing diplomatic relations, and a possible papal visit. The Government allows religious travel for some, but not all, religious persons; Muslims are able to undertake the Hajj, and many Buddhist and Catholic officials also have been able to travel abroad. Persons who hold dissident religious opinions generally are not approved for foreign travel.

The Government does not designate persons' religions on passports, although citizens' "family books," which are household identification books, list religious and ethnic affiliation.

The Government prohibits proselytizing by foreign missionary groups, although some missionaries visited the country despite this prohibition. The Government deported some foreign persons for unauthorized proselytizing, sometimes defining proselytizing very broadly. A U.S. pastor who worked as a missionary prior to 1975 was questioned by police and pressured to pay a fine, which he refused to do, after a meeting that he held with Protestant Vietnamese pastors was raided by police in November 1999. His passport and Bible were confiscated temporarily; they were returned shortly before his departure several days later.

Proselytizing by citizens is restricted to regularly scheduled religious services in recognized places of worship. Immigrants and noncitizens must comply with the law when practicing their religions. Catholic and Protestant foreigners exercise leadership in worship services that are reserved for foreigners.

The Office of Religious Affairs hosts periodic meetings to address religious matters according to government-approved agendas that bring together leaders of diverse religious traditions.

Adherence to a religious faith generally does not disadvantage persons in civil, economic, and secular life, although it likely would prevent advancement to the highest government and military ranks. Avowed religious practice is a bar to membership in the Communist Party, although anecdotal reports indicate that a handful of the 2 million Communist Party members are religious believers.

Governmental Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government restricts and monitors all forms of public assembly, including assembly for religious activities. On some occasions, large religious gatherings have been allowed, such as the 1998 and 1999 celebrations at La Vang. Since July 1999, the Hoa Hao also have been allowed to hold two large public gatherings in An Giang province on Hoa Hao festival days. However, dissident Hoa Hao have been prevented by forcible means from organizing their own independent commemorations.

The growth of Protestant house churches in ethnic minority areas has led to tensions with local officials in some provinces. There have been crackdowns on leaders of these churches, particularly among the Hmong in the northwest. The secretive nature of the house churches, particularly among ethnic minorities, has contributed to greater repression against these groups. Provincial officials in certain northwest provinces do not allow churches or pagodas to operate and have arrested and imprisoned believers for practicing their faith nonviolently in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.

The authorities in the northwest provinces severely restrict the religious freedom of evangelical Protestants, including ethnic Hmong and ethnic Tai. Credible reports from multiple sources stated that at the beginning of 1999 there were more than 25 Hmong Protestants imprisoned primarily in Lai Chau province for "teaching religion illegally" or "abusing the rights of a citizen to cause social unrest." Following protests by church leaders and international attention to the detentions, officials and Protestant church leaders stated that most of the detainees had been released by the end of 1999. Among those in Lai Chau who were confirmed as released--several of them before their sentences were up--were: Ly A Giang, Giang A Ly, Vang Gia Chua, Giang A To, and Giang A Cat. In addition Hmong leader Vu Gian Thao was released in the April 2000 amnesty, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) reported that Wang Gia Chua, Sung Seo Chinh, and Sinh Phay Pao also had been released. The sentence of Hmong leader Sung Phai Dia reportedly was to end in March 2000, but there is no confirmation that he was released from prison.

Among those Hmong Protestant leaders still believed to be imprisoned are four Hmong Protestant leaders--Sinh Phay Pao, Va Sinh Giay, Vang Sua Giang, and Phang A Dong--who had been arrested in Ha Giang province late in 1999. Phang A Dong was charged with illegally traveling to China without a visa or passport.

The Government's repression of the Hmong is complicated by several factors that include religious practices. Some Hmong citizens fought against the Government in the past, and they live in sensitive regions that border China and Laos; these factors together lead the Government to question their civic loyalty. Among the Hmong, there are two distinct religious groups. One group's members follow a traditional form of Christianity, and another group's beliefs are characterized by an element that is cultic in nature. The latter group's eschatological worldview includes a predicted cataclysmic event in 2000. However, the Government does not differentiate between the two groups; their beliefs exacerbate the authorities' anxiety about the Hmong.

In December 1999, Nguyen Thi Thuy, a Protestant house church leader in Phu Tho province, was sentenced to 1 year in prison for "interfering with an officer doing his duty." Thuy was arrested during a police raid on her home, where she was leading a Bible study group. In March 2000, in what is believed to be the first case of its kind, a defense lawyer appealed Thuy's conviction by arguing that her arrest in her home while practicing her faith violated her constitutional right to religious freedom. However, a judge dismissed her appeal, and her 1-year sentence was upheld. She is scheduled to be released in October 2000. An ethnic Hre church leader, Dinh Troi, was detained in Quang Ngai province in 1999, and it is believed that he was still in detention as of mid-2000. Two of his church colleagues, Dinh Bim and Dinh Hay, were released in July and September 1999, respectively.

In July 1999, district authorities in Binh Phuoc province demolished three Protestant churches. Their congregations, composed of ethnic Mnong and Stieng Christians, protested to the central government authorities and the international community. Church officials reported that the central authorities intervened to prevent the further razing of churches. In December 1999, the district official responsible was removed from office. Binh Phuoc province Christians reported that they were able to celebrate Christmas openly and peacefully.

There were reported instances, particularly in isolated provinces in the northwest and central highlands, in which Protestant house church followers were punished or fined by local officials for participation in peaceful religious activities such as worship and Bible study. Unconfirmed reports from the central highlands suggested that some local officials extorted cattle and money from Protestants in those areas. It is unclear whether their religious affiliation or other factors led to this extortion.

In recent years, the conditions faced by Baha'is have improved in some localities where Baha'is have been able to practice their faith quietly with local permission. However, a Baha'i community in Danang was unable to obtain approval of its recent application for registration of official religious activities.

In mid-1999, the Government sharply criticized adherents of the Taiwan-based group Thanh Hai Vo Thuong Su in official media. In July 1999, a local police paper publication criticized the group, stating that more than 100 followers joined the group in Long An province. Government media portray the group's leader, an ethnic Taiwanese woman named Thanh Hai, who founded the group in 1989, as a charlatan.

Credible reports from multiple sources stated that Hmong Protestant Christians in several northwestern villages were forced by local officials to recant their faith and to perform traditional Hmong religious rites such as drinking blood from sacrificed chickens mixed with rice wine. Similarly, a group of Catholics in Son La province also reported that they were forced by local officials to recant their faith publicly in December 1999.

Hmong Protestant Church leaders told a North American church official that one Hmong Christian, Lu Seo Dieu, died in prison in 1999 in Lao Cai province from mistreatment and lack of medical care. This report could not be confirmed.

Police authorities routinely question persons who hold dissident religious or political views. In May 1999, two pastors of the unsanctioned Assemblies of God, pastors Tran Dinh "Paul" Ai and Lo Van Hen, were detained and questioned by police after a Bible study session that they were conducting in Hanoi was raided by local police. Ai was questioned daily for more than 2 weeks regarding his religious activities, and Lo Van Hen, a member of the Black Tai ethnic minority, was returned to Dien Bien Phu for further questioning by police. Both were released before the end of May 1999 and allowed to return home. In December 1999, Ai was issued a passport and allowed to travel to the United States with his family on a religious worker visa. Similarly, on two occasions, UBCV leader Thich Khong Tanh was called in for questioning by police for what appeared to be purely religious activities.

Credible reports suggest that police arbitrarily detained persons based on their religious beliefs and practice. On several occasions, small groups of Protestant Christians belonging to house churches were subjected to arbitrary detention after local officials broke up unsanctioned religious meetings. In September 1999, in Quang Nam province, 17 Protestant Christians were handcuffed together and forced to go to a government office for several hours of questioning about their religious activities. One man who reportedly was beaten by police required medical treatment. In October 1999, police raided a church meeting in a hotel in Ha Long Bay town and detained 30 Protestants. Most were released after questioning, although three were held for several days.

A 1997 directive on administrative detention gives national and local security officials broad powers to detain and monitor citizens and control where they live and work for up to 2 years if they are believed to be threatening "national security." In their implementation of administrative detention, authorities held some persons under conditions resembling house arrest. The authorities use administrative detention as a means of controlling persons whom they believe hold dissident opinions.

The Government continued to isolate certain political and religious dissidents by restricting their movements and by pressuring the supporters and family members of others. For the past 6 years, Thich Huyen Quang, the Supreme Patriarch of the UBCV, lived at a pagoda in Quang Ngai province under conditions resembling administrative detention. From 1981 until 1994, he was held at another pagoda in that province. In March 1999, he was visited by senior UBCV leader Thich Quang Do for the first time in 18 years, but after 3 days of meetings both were held for questioning by police, and Thich Quang Do was escorted by police to his pagoda in Ho Chi Minh city. Thich Huyen Quang confirmed that he must request permission before leaving the pagoda and is not allowed to lead prayers or participate in worship activities as a monk. He is able to receive visits from sympathetic monks, sometimes several per week; UBCV monk Thich Khong Thanh visited in November. After meeting with him, visitors are questioned by police. Thich Huyen Quang has called for the Government to recognize and sanction the operations of the UBCV. In December 1999, he told a Western visitor that he was receiving adequate medical care. Later that month, because of heavy flooding in the province, police temporarily evacuated him from the pagoda, then returned him there 2 days later, after the waters had receded. Government officials reportedly have proposed to move Thich Huyen Quang to Hanoi, where medical care for his chronic conditions would be better, but he has refused.

In September 1999, Thich Duang Do complained that fellow UBCV monk Thich Khong Tanh, who is head of the church's social affairs board, was summoned by police for questioning in Ho Chi Minh City. In April 2000, Thich Khong Tanh similarly complained that he was detained for questioning by police after visiting fellow monks in central Vietnam. Thich Quang Do continued to experience close surveillance by police around his pagoda, Thanh Minh Zen monastery in Ho Chi Minh City, and police pressured lay Buddhists at the pagoda in an apparent effort to isolate Thich Quang Do further.

The Government allowed many bishops and priests to travel freely within their dioceses and allowed greater, but still restricted, freedom for travel outside these areas, particularly in many ethnic areas. Local government officials reportedly discourage priests from entering Son La and Lai Chau provinces. Upon return from international travel, citizens, including clergy, officially are required to surrender their passports; this law is enforced unevenly. Some persons who express dissident opinions on religious or political issues are not allowed to travel abroad. Some Cao Dai believers were detained arbitrarily. In October 1998, the authorities detained two Cao Daists in Kien Giang province, Le Kim Bien and Pham Cong Hien, who sought to meet with United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance Abdelfattah Amor. They were sentenced to 2 years' imprisonment and are scheduled to be released in October 2000. Three Cao Daists, Lam Thai The, Do Hoang Giam, and Van Hoa Vui, who were arrested several years ago, reportedly remain imprisoned in Xuan Loc prison in Dong Nai province. Ly Cong Cuong, a Cao Daist arrested in 1983 in An Giang province, was released in July 1999.

The Hoa Hao have faced severe restrictions on their religious and political activities since 1975, in part because of their previous armed opposition to the Communist forces. Since 1975 all administrative offices, places of worship, and social and cultural institutions connected to the faith have been closed, thereby limiting public religious functions. Believers continue to practice their religion at home. The lack of access to public gathering places contributed to the Hoa Hao community's isolation and fragmentation. In July 1999, following official recognition of a Hoa Hao religious organization, an estimated 500,000 Hoa Hao believers gathered for a religious festival in An Giang province in the largest Hoa Hao gathering since 1975. Hoa Hoa believers stated that a number of church leaders continue to be detained.

In March 2000, hundreds of Hoa Hao gathered in An Giang province for a traditional holy day celebration despite reports of police roadblocks and interception of boats on the river surrounding the island where the celebration was organized. A group of dissident Hoa Hao followers, including prominent pre-1975 leaders such as Le Quang Liem, were attempting to organize an unofficial commemoration of the death of the Hoa Hao founder, but they were blocked by government authorities. In connection with that event, 13 Hoa Hao supporters were detained on March 11, 2000, at Thoai Son in An Giang province; 8 of them were released after being interrogated. Three others--Vo Thanh Liem, Nguyen Van Dien (Bay Dien), and Vo Van Hai--were tried and sentenced on May 26 to 30 months, 20 months, and 12 months' imprisonment, respectively. Two others--Nguyen Van Hoang and Nguyen Van Nhuom--still were detained in Thoai Son as of mid-2000. On March 28, 2000, eight other Hoa Hao supporters were arrested at Phu My (Hoa Hao) village, and five of them still were detained in mid-2000 at the Bang Lang detention facilities in Long Xuyen. These five are: Truong Van Thuc; Tran Van Be Cao; Tran Nguyen Hon; Nguyen Chau Lan; and Le Van Mong (Le Thien Hoa). In addition, in protest of government restrictions on the Hoa Hao, several Hoa Hao believers reportedly have threatened to immolate themselves.

The Penal Code establishes penalties for offenses that are defined only vaguely, including "attempting to undermine national unity" by promoting "division between religious believers and nonbelievers." In some cases, particularly involving Hmong Protestants, authorities imprisoned persons for practicing religion illegally. They use provisions of the Penal Code that allow for jail terms of up to 3 years without trial for "abusing freedom of speech, press, or religion." Some of the provisions of the law used to convict religious prisoners contradict the right to freedom of religion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

It is difficult to determine the exact number of religious detainees and religious prisoners. There is little transparency in the justice system, and it is very difficult to obtain confirmation when persons are detained, imprisoned, tried, or released. As of mid-2000, there were at least 13 religious detainees who were held without arrest or charge; however, the number may be greater since sometimes persons are detained for questioning and held under administrative detention regulations without being charged or without their detention being publicized. These persons include: Le Minh Triet (Tu Triet), a Hoa Hao leader detained at a Government house in the south; four Hmong Protestants in Ha Giang province, Sinh Phay Pao, Va Sinh Giay, Vang Sua Giang, and Phang A Dong; Dinh Troi, an ethnic Hre Protestant detained in Quang Ngai in 1999; and seven Hoa Hao followers who were detained in An Giang province in March. These Hoa Hao followers are: Nguyen Van Hoang; Nguyen Van Nhuom; Truong Van Thuc; Tran Van Be Cao; Tran Nguyen Huon; Nguyen Chau Lan; and Le Van Mong (Le Thien Hoa). In addition, others, most prominently Supreme Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang of the UBCV, are held under conditions that resemble administrative detention. Thich Huyen Quang is not allowed to leave the pagoda where he lives in Quang Ngai province without express police permission, and only then for medical appointments in the isolated town where he stays.

There are at least 16 religious prisoners, although the actual number may be higher. This figure is difficult to verify because of the secrecy surrounding the arrest, detention, and release process. In a positive development, many of the ethnic Hmong Protestants who were imprisoned in Lai Chau province at the beginning of 1999 are believed to have been released. Those persons believed to be religious prisoners as of May include: UBCV monks Thich Thein Minh and Thich Hue Dang; Catholic priests Pham Minh Tri, Pham Ngoc Lien, and Nguyen Thien Phung; Protestant house church leader Nguyen Thi Thuy, scheduled to finish her 1-year sentence in October; Hmong Protestant Va Sinh Giay; Hoa Hao lay persons Le Van Son, Vo Thanh Liem, Nguyen Van Dien (Bay Dien), and Vo Van Hai; Cao Daists Le Kim Bien and Pham Cong Hien, who are scheduled to finish their 2-year sentences in October; and Cao Daists Lam Thai The, To Hoang Giam, and Van Hoa Vui, who reportedly remain imprisoned in Dong Nai province.

Credible reports suggest that three Roman Catholic priests belonging to the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix remain imprisoned. The release in 1999 of one priest, Nguyen Minh Quan, was confirmed, and another, Mai Duc Chuong (Mai Huu Nghi), was released in the April 2000 prisoner amnesty. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that another person, Nguyen Van De, also was released in 1999.

Improvements in Respect for Religious Freedom

On balance conditions for religious freedom remained fundamentally the same during the period covered by this report, compared with the period from mid-1998 to mid-1999. However, there were improvements in some areas, such as the release of some persons detained or arrested because of their religious beliefs. In addition, in some parts of the country, there was continued gradual expansion of the parameters for individual believers of officially recognized churches to practice their faiths. Many lay believers who worship in officially recognized churches, especially Buddhists and Catholics in large cities, are able to practice their faith publicly without interference from government officials. This continues a trend of the past few years toward less official interference in the lives of citizens, such as the diminution of the block warden system, which is now much less pervasive and intrusive in monitoring persons. On religious celebration days, churches and pagodas are filled by worshipers. Most of the country's Buddhist and Catholic lay persons benefit from this development.

During the period covered by this report, many of the ethnic minority Protestant prisoners in Lai Chau province were released. Although severe restrictions on religious life remain in the northwest, U.S. and international advocacy on behalf of ethnic minority Christians in those provinces apparently had a positive impact; many of the 25 Hmong church leaders held at the beginning of 1999 were released by mid-2000.

In addition the April 2000 prisoner amnesty included two religious prisoners, Catholic priest Mai Duc Chuong (Mai Huu Nghi) and Hmong Protestant Vu Gian Thao. The MFA said that two other Catholic priests of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, Nguyen Minh Quan and Nguyen Van De, had been released in 1999.

In some provinces where harassment of religious believers has been egregious, local officials have lost their positions because of religious restrictions. Most prominently, the district committee chairman in Bu Bang district of Binh Phuoc province was not reelected by the local people's council to his position, and he was forced to retire in November 1999.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

SECTION II. Societal Attitudes

In general there are amicable relations among the various religious communities. In Ho Chi Minh City, there are nascent efforts at informal ecumenical dialog by leaders of disparate religious communities. In October 1999, four outspoken religious leaders based in Ho Chi Minh City--UBCV Buddhist leader Thich Quang Do, Redemptorist Catholic priest Chan Tin, Hoa Hao leader Le Quang Liem, and Cao Dai leader Tran Quang Chau --signed a public ecumenical petition urging the Communist Party to respect religious freedom and to establish clear separation of church and state.

SECTION III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City actively and regularly raised U.S. concerns about religious freedom with a wide variety of government officials including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Office of Religion, the Ministry of Public Security, and other government offices in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and provincial capitals. Embassy and consulate officials also meet and talk with leaders of all of the major religious groups, recognized as well as unregistered.

The U.S. Ambassador raised religious freedom issues with senior cabinet ministers including the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, senior government and Communist Party advisors, the head of the Government's Office of Religion, Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Public Security, and the chairpersons of Provincial People's Committees around the country, among others. Other embassy and consulate officials also raised U.S. concerns on religious freedom with senior officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Public Security and with provincial officials. The Embassy and Consulate maintained regular contact with the key government offices responsible for respect for human rights. Embassy officers informed government officials that progress on religious issues and human rights have an impact on the degree of full normalization of bilateral relations. The Embassy's public affairs officer distributed information about U.S. concerns about religious freedom to Communist Party and government officials.

In their representations to the Government, the Ambassador and other embassy officers urged recognition of a broad spectrum of religious groups in accordance with international standards of religious freedom, including members of the UBCV and the Protestant house churches. In general representations by the Embassy and Consulate focused on specific restrictions on religious freedom. These abuses included the detention and arrest of religious figures and restrictions on church organizational activities such as training religious leaders, ordination, church building, and foreign travel of religious figures. Several times the Embassy's and the Consulate's interventions on problems involving religious freedom resulted in improvements. For example, the release of several religious prisoners during amnesties in September 1999 and April 2000 followed long-term and direct advocacy on their behalf by the Embassy. The releases of some 20 Hmong Protestants detained in early 1999 by authorities in Lai Chau province followed demarches by the Embassy. One foreign nongovernmental organization (NGO) first told the U.S. Embassy that officials in Lai Chau had complained that, following the visit of Ambassador Pete Peterson to the province in the spring of 1999, during which he had presented a list of Hmong religious prisoners, the provincial officials had been told by national government authorities to ease up on their treatment of Hmong people.

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Robert Seiple visited in July 1999 for discussions with officials and leaders of several religious bodies. He urged that the parameters for religious freedom be expanded, during meetings with officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government Committee on Religion, and other government offices.

Representatives of the Embassy and Consulate met on several occasions with leaders of all the major religious communities, including Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Muslims. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, maintain a regular dialog with NGO's. An embassy officer visited UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang in Quang Ngai province in December, which was the first visit by a Westerner to the Supreme Patriarch in 18 years. Following the visit, Thich Huyen Quang was featured on national television for the first time in years, was moved out of his pagoda during flooding (unlike the previous year), and received improved medical care. On several occasions, embassy and consulate officers met with prominent religious prisoners after their release from prison. Consulate officers maintained an ongoing dialog with Thich Quang Do and other UBCV monks and with officially recognized Buddhists, as well as wide contacts within the Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Muslim communities. A consulate officer attended the first officially recognized Hoa Hao festival in An Giang in July 1999. Consulate and embassy officials worked closely with Assemblies of God pastor Tran Dinh "Paul" Ai to obtain a passport from the Government, then a religious worker's visa to travel to the United States to work in December, following many months of continuous harassment by local police in several areas.

The U.S. Department of State in Washington commented publicly on the status of religious freedom in Vietnam on several occasions. These comments included statements on the conditions faced by Thich Huyen Quang; the status of Paul Ai and his eventual travel to the United States, using a religious worker visa; and gatherings of Hoa Hao believers in An Giang province.

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