John Hanford, U.S. Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, says Vietnam is among several countries, including North Korea, China, and Burma, in which totalitarian or authoritarian regimes attempt to control religious belief or practice. Ambassador Hanford spoke as the U.S. State Department released its Fifth Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
Vietnam requires religious groups to be registered and uses this process to monitor and control them, as it does with all social organizations. Those who resist may be subjected to harassment and imprisonment. The Most Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, the head of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church, was kept under conditions resembling house arrest from 1982 to March 2003. And in October 2003, restrictions were re-imposed.
In July 2001, Father Thaddeus Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He had provided written testimony on Vietnamese human rights abuses to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In July 2003, the Vietnamese government announced that Father Ly's sentence would be reduced to ten years, plus two years of house arrest. Two of his nephews have also been jailed for sending information about his imprisonment to U.S.-based organizations.
Hmong and other ethnic minority Protestants in Vietnam's northwestern provinces, and the Montagnards in the Central Highlands, have reportedly been pressured by local officials to renounce their religious beliefs. Hundreds of churches and meeting places have been closed, and religious believers have reportedly been arrested and beaten. There are credible reports concerning the deaths of two Protestant leaders in custody in 2002 and 2003. Some prisoners of faith have been released, but others remain in jail. The Vietnamese government restricts access to the northwestern provinces and Central Highlands by diplomats, journalists, and human rights monitors.
Freedom of religion, as President George W. Bush pointed out, "is the first freedom of the human soul." The government of Vietnam should respect that right.