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Vietnamese Activists Say Hanoi Adopting China's Model on Religious Policy

FILE - In this undated photo, Catholics pack Citeaux Chau Son abbey in Vietnam's Ninh Binh province. Late last year, the U.S. put Vietnam on a Special Watch List for being a country that "engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom during the previous year."
FILE - In this undated photo, Catholics pack Citeaux Chau Son abbey in Vietnam's Ninh Binh province. Late last year, the U.S. put Vietnam on a Special Watch List for being a country that "engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom during the previous year."

Days after Hanoi released its first white book on religious policies in 16 years, Vietnamese activists are pointing to its similarities to China's policies.

The white book, Religion in Viet Nam, catalogs the religions practiced in the country and outlines the "comprehensive" policy of the Communist Party of Vietnam guaranteeing religious freedom. A white book gathers rules and standards often in the form of an official government report that takes its name from the binding color.

Nguyen Tien Trong, deputy head of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, said at a release event on March 10 that the government and the party consider religious freedom a basic right, according to local media coverage.

Independent religious groups told VOA Vietnamese that the document was little more than a "wall curtain" hung to cover up the persistent violations of religious freedom after the U.S. put Vietnam on a Special Watch List (SWL) in December.

The white book "is probably a way for the government to resist the recent designation of the U.S. State Department on the SWL list," Catholic priest Dinh Huu Thoai of the Redemptorist Church in Ba Ria – Vung Tau told VOA last week during a telephone interview. "They can use this book to circumvent the world, to deceive international organizations."

Dinh added that the book is "a beautiful wall curtain that they set up. ... It's not like that in reality."

The U.S. State Department had no comment on the white book.

The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in December that the decision by the U.S. to put Vietnam on its special watch list on religious freedom is based on "unobjective assessment and inaccurate information regarding the situation of freedom of religion and belief in Vietnam."

China's regulations require religious organizations to obtain government permission for nearly every aspect of their operations, submit to greater state supervision and register all clergy in a national database, according to a 2022 Congressional Research Service report.

A similar law in Vietnam came into effect in early 2018 that required religious communities to register their organizations and their places of worship with the government as a prerequisite for religious activity, according to a 2019 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom USCIRF report.

Dan Slater, the John Orin Murfin Professor of Political Science and director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, said, "I think that Vietnam (has) a pretty clear example in China where the authoritarianism and the religious repression go together," he said.

"There aren't many sources as a potential anti-regime mobilization in Vietnam and religion is one of them, so they're going to be very allergic to religious expression in Vietnam, more so than a lot of other places in Southeast Asia," said Slater, who spoke with VOA Vietnamese at a virtual event on March 8 organized by USCIRF. It focused on the intersection of religious freedom and rising authoritarianism in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Vietnam is one of the group's 11 member nations

Thich Khong Tanh, a member of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, told VOA Vietnamese in a phone interview on Wednesday that "both countries crack down on independent religious groups."

Thich, who was evicted from the Lien Tri Pagoda by Ho Chi Minh City authorities in 2016 before they demolished it, added "Government bodies in charge of religion in both China and Vietnam are headed by top Communist Party members."

Le Minh Nguyen, who immigrated to the U.S. after the Vietnam War and now lives in Westminster, California, is the former chairman of the Tan Dai Viet political party in California — a group that advocates for democracy in Vietnam.

He told VOA Vietnamese via email that while the leaders of China and Vietnam fear any organized groups, they are especially wary of religious organizations with powerful leaders.

"They fear … civilization clashes in which religion plays a dominant role," said Le. "The Vietnamese Communists protect the regime by studying and following the example of the Chinese Communists, so it's not surprising that their policies of religious persecution have so much in common."

Beijing has restricted all but a few approved religious groups by creating a high-tech surveillance state, utilizing facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and other religions.

"Vietnam's Communist leaders are as anti-religion as those in China … but use more subtle and sophisticated approaches," Nguyen Dinh Thang, CEO of Boat People SOS, an NGO organization based in Virginia that advocates religious freedom in Vietnam, wrote to VOA Vietnamese on Thursday.

Nguyen said substituting a state-condoned religion for an original practice is one of them. "Vietnam follows in the footsteps of China in outlawing genuine churches and creating impostors as substitutes."

For example, in 1981 authorities outlawed the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which at the time represented Vietnam's majority religion. Most of its top leaders were sent to prison. In the same year, the government created the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Nguyen said.

Unrecognized religious groups in Vietnam, including Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Christian and Buddhist groups, face constant surveillance, harassment and intimidation, according to a 2020 Human Rights Watch report. Followers of independent religious groups are subject to public criticism, forced renunciation of faith, detention, interrogation, torture and imprisonment.