WASHINGTON (BP) -- Human rights abuses in Vietnam are receiving attention from the U.S. House of Representatives, with a particular focus on the religious oppression of ethnic minority Christians and other groups.
H.R. 1897, the "Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2013," was added to the House schedule July 26, a day after a brief state visit to Washington by Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang.
President Barack Obama said at a press conference following the visit that the United States and Vietnam had agreed on policies related to defense, technology and climate research. He also said he and the Vietnamese president had "discussed the challenges that all of us face when it comes to issues of human rights."
"We emphasized how the United States continues to believe that all of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly; and we had a very candid conversation about both the progress Vietnam has made and the challenges that remain," Obama said July 25.
In a statement released following the press conference, the White House noted "narrow differences" between the two countries on the issue of human rights, but a statement in Nhan Dan, the official newspaper of Vietnam's Communist Party, claimed the differences were "many and significant."
"As for democracy and human rights, there are still many and significant differences in approach between the countries," the statement from the communist newspaper read. "Yet it is important that the two sides stand ready to talk clearly and honestly to enhance mutual understanding, bridge the differences and continue to maintain an annual dialogue on human rights."
Human rights abuses in Vietnam have been a consistent topic of discussion between the two countries since the normalization of relations in 1995 under President Bill Clinton.
Religious freedom in particular became a focus of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) after forced recantations, imprisonments for preaching, the destruction and confiscation of churches and even the execution of ethnic minority Christians came to light in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.
Vietnam continues to deny such allegations, but USCIRF said in a statement prior to the Vietnamese president's visit that religious freedom has to be addressed for relations between the countries to improve.
According to USCIRF's current annual report, the government of Vietnam has, despite pledges to the contrary, continued to "expand control over all religious activities, severely restrict independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority."
The statement also said the Vietnamese government "uses a specialized religious police force and vague national security laws to suppress independent Buddhist, Protestant, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai activities, and seeks to stop the growth of ethnic minority Protestantism and Catholicism via discrimination, violence and forced renunciations of their faith.
"The government also continues to harass, threaten, intimidate, detain, and sentence lawyers and disbar human rights defenders who have assisted religious communities or religious freedom advocates in cases against the state."
Vietnam's constitution contains a statement guaranteeing religious freedom for its citizens, but that freedom extends only so far as it supports the shared goals of the state. A 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief also warns that actions which "undermine the country's peace, independence and unity" must be stopped because they "negatively affect the cultural traditions of the nation."
Vietnam once was designated a country of particular concern by the U.S. State Department for this reason and for the abuses experienced by church goers and other religious minorities in the country. The repression of Christians and other religious minorities also was a primary reason for H.R. 1897, which notes that positive steps toward religious freedom were halted in 2006 as soon as the State Department's CPC designation was lifted.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., notes that the government of Vietnam "continues to limit the freedom of religion, restrict the operations of independent religious organizations, and persecute believers whose religious activities the Government regards as a potential threat to its monopoly on power."
In particular, "unregistered ethnic minority Protestant congregations, particularly Montagnards in the Central and Northwest Highlands, suffer severe abuses because of actions by the Government of Vietnam, which have included forced renunciations of faith, arrest and harassment, the withholding of social programs provided for the general population, confiscation and destruction of property, subjection to severe beatings, and reported deaths."
If adopted by the House of Representatives, and later the Senate, H.R. 1897 will prohibit any increase in non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam if significant steps are not taken to end religious abuses and return confiscated property to churches and religious communities. The bill also will urge the State Department to return Vietnam to the CPC list.
To view the USCIRF report on human rights abuses in Vietnam, visit www.uscirf.gov/images/2013%20USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%20(2).pdf
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