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US Lawmakers Question Assessment of Freedom of Religion in Vietnam

The Bush administration is defending its decision to remove Vietnam from an annual list of the world's worst violators of freedom of religion. The decision, announced last month, constituted the first time the United States has deemed that a nation merits removal form the ignominious list since Washington began cataloging global religious liberties in 1999. VOA's Michael Bowman reports, the Bush administration's 2006 list of so-called "Countries of Particular Concern" was the focus of a congressional hearing Thursday.

Last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designated seven Countries of Particular Concern, or CPCs, that carried over from 2005: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Newly added to the 2006 list of egregious religious violators was Uzbekistan. But notably absent was a 2005 designee: Vietnam.

Testifying before the House International Relations Committee, the director of the Office of International Religious Freedom, Stephen Liston, explained the Bush administration's rationale in excluding Vietnam.

"When Vietnam was first added to the list of Countries of Particular Concern in 2004, conditions for many religious believers were truly dire, with campaigns to force people to renounce their faith in certain regions, dozens of religious prisoners, and the harassment and physical mistreatment of some believers. Over the last two years the government of Vietnam has put into place new laws prohibiting forced renunciations, which provided the opportunity for registration of many hundreds of congregations," he said. "It legalized hundreds of meeting places and allowed for training of hundreds of new clergy members. The government has released all prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs."

The explanation did not appear to sit well with International Relations Committee Vice Chairman Christopher Smith. The New Jersey Republican said he was appalled by the lack of religious freedom he encountered in Vietnam during a 2005 visit.

"It is difficult to believe that in only one year, the situation in Vietnam has improved sufficiently to warrant its removal from the list," he said.

That opinion was seconded by the head of the US Commission on International Freedom, an independent, bipartisan agency tasked with assessing freedom of thought and creed worldwide. Felice Gear acknowledged Hanoi has made progress with regard to religious liberty, but not enough to warrant Vietnam's removal from the CPC list.

"New laws on religion are not fully implemented, according to the assessment reached by our commission, and in some cases these laws are being used to restrict and control freedom, rather than to fully protect it. In our view, retaining the CPC designation would have indicated that US human rights concerns remain a priority. It would have continued to provide incentives for the Vietnamese government to address remaining US concerns," she said.

Congressman Smith questioned aloud whether Vietnam's exclusion from the CPC list was in any way connected to the bill President Bush recently signed into law normalizing trade relations between the two countries. Speaking with VOA after his testimony, Stephen Liston said the two matters were not related.

Earlier, Liston testified that Vietnam remains far from perfect when it comes to protecting religious freedom. But he said progress should be rewarded.

"Removal from the CPC list does not mean that [optimal] religious freedom conditions are fully achieved. But the government of Vietnam has addressed the central issues that constituted severe violations of religious freedom, and the decision not to re-designate Vietnam is an important signal that our purpose is to improve conditions for religious believers, and that we will recognize progress when it occurs," he said.

Commenting on other nations, Liston said religious freedom in Uzbekistan has deteriorated significantly, with observant Muslims routinely accused of involvement in terrorism and often facing repression and torture as a result. He alleged persistent violations of freedom of religion in Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Sudan.

But he noted modest efforts by the government of Saudi Arabia to combat extremism and intolerance of non-Muslim faiths, and said he hoped further progress would be made in the coming year.