Vietnam is a communist one-party state where religious expression is strictly controlled and political dissent is not tolerated. It has been a partner country of Irish Aid since 2005, receiving over €120 million in aid.
In 1945 the communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed independence from Japan, which had taken control of French Indochina in 1940. Three decades of war followed.
In 1946 the French colonists tried to regain control and the First Indochina War began, ending when the Vietnamese expelled the French in 1954. Vietnam was then partitioned and for two decades the communist north fought the US-backed south in the Second Indochina or Vietnam War.
In 1975 the communist forces seized Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – and in 1976 the north and south were reunited in a communist state, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands fled the country, many as “boat people”.
On 28 July 2017, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over “the intensifying crackdown in Vietnam against human rights defenders who have questioned or criticised the Government and its policies”.
Christians in Vietnam
The Roman Catholic Church has about seven million members and enjoys relative freedom in Vietnam’s cities, although the government sees it as being tied to foreign powers and as a remnant of French colonial days.
Most of Vietnam’s Protestants are members of ethnic minorities in the Central and Northwest Highlands, where most persecution occurs. In recent decades, hundreds of thousands of tribal people in the Central and Northwest Highlands (especially the Hmong and Montagnard) have become Christians. They meet in unregistered house churches and suffer both for their faith (Christianity is seen as a Western threat) and for their ethnicity (fear of a tribal separatist movement). The authorities also target Montagnards for their support of US forces during the Vietnam war. Local officials often use discrimination, intimidation, property destruction, detention, beatings and forced renunciations of faith to stop Christianity spreading, and converts’ families and communities try to force them to renounce their faith and return to Buddhist or animist beliefs. Scores of tribal Christians are in prison.
Churches are required to register with the authorities, and unregistered churches are banned, but it is difficult to obtain registration. Many house churches say they have been trying unsuccessfully to register for years and churches that succeed are restricted, needing permission for extra activities such as building or altering places of worship, holding training sessions, doing charitable works and running religious schools. The government monitors all Christian groups.
Security police target house churches and sometimes break up meetings. Leaders of unregistered churches report various forms of government harassment including physical assault, short-term detention, prosecution, monitoring, travel restriction and property seizure or destruction, especially in the Central and Northwest Highlands. Many report police brutality.
The authorities control rural churches more tightly than urban ones, and some very large Christian events have been permitted in cities. Over 14,000 people attended the Spring Love Festival hosted by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association from 4-5 March 2023 in Ho Chi Minh City, organised by over nine hundred church leaders from sixty denominations. Before the event Rev Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the association, reportedly met with officials including Deputy Prime Minister Le Minh Khai to discuss religious freedom in the country.
The US State Department reports that government treatment of religious groups varies between regions and also between administrative levels (central, provincial, and local). It says religious followers report that local or provincial rather than central authorities commit the majority of harassment incidents.
New religion law
On 18 November 2016, Vietnam’s National Assembly ratified a new Law on Belief and Religion, which came into effect on 1 January 2018, superseding the 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief. State media proclaimed that the law would protect religious freedom, and many religious groups say it is a modest step forward, citing the reduced waiting period for religious groups to obtain recognition from 23 years to five years and the simplification of procedures for religious groups to obtain recognition or certificates of registration for specific activities.
However, the law has been criticised by parliamentarians, international human rights organisations and religious leaders who fear it will restrict religious freedoms by enshrining in the legal framework significant restrictions and excessive bureaucratic control over religious organisations’ internal affairs. The law states that religious groups must be registered and approved by the government in order to practice and it bans any religious activity that could “harm social order and/or national unity”. Many religious leaders are concerned that the law will continue to give the government significant discretion regarding approval of various types of applications.
Nguyen Van Dai
Christian human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai (48) is a renowned advocate for religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam and co-founder of the Vietnam Human Rights Committee. He and his legal assistant Le Thu Hua (35) were arrested on 16 December 2015 as Dai prepared to meet European Union representatives in Hanoi for the annual EU-Vietnam human rights dialogue. The two men were charged with “spreading propaganda against the state”.
Police officers broke into Dai’s home and took him into custody, and shortly afterwards about thirty security officers stormed the house with a search warrant. His wife Vu Minh Khanh said, “They confiscated books on human rights and anything that had human rights logos on it. They took his computers, USB sticks, cameras, phone, and even videos and CDs containing teachings on our Protestant faith.” She also said she and her husband had been “constantly under surveillance. There was always a camera in front of our house and people outside waiting for us.”
Vu Minh Khanh advocated internationally for her husband. In May 2016, Amnesty International reported that she said, “I am not an activist. Before my husband’s arrest, I was volunteering at our church in Hanoi. Because of his arrest, I am forced to fight for his freedom.” In April 2017, the authorities at Hanoi airport prevented her from boarding a plane to Germany, where she was to receive a human rights awards from the German Association of Judges on her husband’s behalf.
Vietnamese law stipulates monthly family visits for prisoners, but Khanh was only allowed to visit her husband twice during the 19-month investigation period.
On July 30 2017, after nineteen months in pre-trial detention, the charges against the two men were changed to “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the People’s administration”. The same day, four other human rights activists, including Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton (45), were arrested and charged with “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the People’s administration”. Sources said they believe the activists’ names were found on Dai’s computers or were obtained from him by “enhanced interrogation”.
On 5 April 2018, Dai was sentenced to 15 years in prison, to be followed by five years of house arrest; the other activists were given shorter sentences. Unexpectedly, on 7 June he was released, along with Le Thu Hua, on condition that they leave the country immediately. Together with Vu Minh Khanh, they were flown to Germany.
Dai had previously been imprisoned from 2007 to 2011 and held under house arrest from 2011 to 2015.
(Amnesty International, Asia News, Barnabas, BBC, Christian Aid Mission, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Front Line Defenders, Morning Star News, Open Doors, Release International, Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin, US State Department International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, Voice of the Martyrs Canada, World Watch List, World Watch Monitor)