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Religious Freedom Still Only a Dream for Many Vietnamese


U.S. and international pressure on Vietnam to improve religious freedom is working, but there is still considerable work to be done. This was the opinion of a group of experts before a U.S. House of Representatives committee Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Vietnam is one of only eight nations the United States has designated as a "Country of Particular Concern" - or CPC - because it severely restricts the religious freedoms of its citizens.

The closing of Christian churches, the harassment of worshippers, the imprisonment or detention of people for religious reasons and the pressuring of tens of thousands of Vietnamese to renounce their faith are just some of the charges against the Vietnamese government.

Vietnam is eager to get off the CPC list because it wants to join the World Trade Organization and needs U.S. support in order to do that. Michael Cromartie is the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"Unfortunately, the hope of some that Vietnam's progress toward WTO membership would bring about legal reform, transparency, and improvements in human rights has not been fulfilled," said Cromartie. "There has not been a direct correlation between economic and individual freedoms."

The United States has been involved in a dialogue with Vietnam to improve religious freedom. John Hanford is the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. He told the committee he is encouraged by a number of improvements over the past year.

"Religious leaders, in general, report they are allowed more freedom to participate in religious activities, there is greater acceptance of various types of religious activities including worship and house churches, and they experience fewer difficulties from Vietnamese authorities," said Hanford.

But the ambassador said concerns remain, including that religious freedoms have expanded in urban areas faster than in rural regions, and that restrictions remain on clergy members. Also, at least six people remain imprisoned and 15 others are being held in administrative detention for their religious beliefs.

Kay Reibold works with Montagnard refugees who have left the Central Vietnamese Highlands and settled in the southeastern United States. The Montagnard people are an ethnically distinct race from the Vietnamese. Reibold says there is still no freedom of religion in many areas of the Central Highlands and she urged the U.S. government not to repeal Vietnam's Country of Particular Concern designation.

"There is a pervasive police presence in every village," said Reibold. "Montagnards are permitted to worship in some places, but only in churches recognized by the government. House church worship is occasionally tolerated, but is more often disrupted and forced renunciations of Christianity continue to be reported."

Professor Doan Viet Hoat spent more than 20 years in Vietnamese jails for his pro-democracy writings. He was freed in 1998 and came to the United States. He says he does not believe the Vietnamese government's attitude toward human rights has really changed.

"They still consider respect of human rights a favor that the government gives to the people - and only under international pressure - and not the duty that the government must perform to the people," he said.

Ambassador Hanford says the United States continues to closely monitor developments in Vietnam and will continue to press for progress, and Hanoi will only be removed from the CPC list once it fulfills commitments it made to the United States to improve the religious freedoms of all its citizens.

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