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Vietnam Issues White Paper on Religious Policy

Vietnam has released its first government white paper on religious policy. The paper underscores Vietnam's growing religious freedom, and the resurgence of spiritual belief in the country since the 1990s. But some believers say communist hostility toward religion has not entirely disappeared. From Hanoi, Matt Steinglass has more in this VOA report.

Nguyen The Doanh, the vice chairman of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs, says the Communist Party's attitude toward religion has undergone a change in recent years.

Doanh says, the Communist Party and the government agree that religious belief is a spiritual need of the people, and that religious believers are "an integral part of national solidarity." He calls this a "new approach to religion" on the part of the government and the party.

A new government white paper shows evidence of a significant long-term shift in official attitudes. The policy paper puts the number of registered religious believers in Vietnam in 2005 at about 25 percent of the population. The 1999 census reported it was under 20 percent.

At the time, the government was suspected of underestimating the number of believers to support the Communist Party's long-standing anti-religion attitude. The new white paper makes the higher number of believers a point of pride.

Doanh says the government is making it easier for new religions to be recognized in Vietnam. He says two new religions will be officially recognized this year.

One, called Tu An Huu Nghia, is an obscure group with just 70,000 members. But the other includes followers of the Buddhist "Pure Land" sect, who have been practicing in their homes, and have never been recognized up to now. The government puts their numbers at close to 1.5 million.

Many rights advocates still criticize the fact that Vietnamese religions need government recognition. The country's Law on Religion, which came into force last year, requires religions to register with the government.

Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have accused Vietnam in years past of repressing some religious sects, particularly the evangelical churches popular among ethnic minorities in the country's northern and central highlands. In 2004, the United States put Vietnam on the list of "Countries of Particular Concern" for religious freedom.

The U.S. took Vietnam off that list last October, after noting dramatic improvements in the religious climate. But Mai Hai, pastor of an evangelical congregation in the central city of Da Nang, says some harassment continues.

Hai says that, in some rural areas, officials ban certain religious practices, or interfere with the jobs of Protestant leaders. He says the local officials claim they are following orders from above, but their superiors blame the harassment on misunderstanding by the locals.

Doanh at the Committee on Religious Affairs blames a failure by provincial officials to adapt to the new policies.

Doanh says local officials do not always understand or observe the laws passed at the central level. He admits there are violations, but says they do not represent the policy of the Communist Party.