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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Vietnam


International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
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Both the Constitution and government decrees provide for freedom of worship; however, the Government continued to restrict significantly those publicly organized activities of religious groups that were not recognized by the Government or that it declared to be at variance with state laws and policies. Although some non-recognized groups faced relatively few restrictions in practice, their status remained technically illegal. The Government generally allowed persons to practice individual worship in the religion of their choice, and participation in religious activities throughout the country continued to grow significantly. However, strict restrictions on the hierarchies and clergy of religious groups remained in place, and the Government maintained supervisory control of the recognized religions, in part because the Communist Party (CPV) fears that not only organized religion but any organized group outside its control or supervision may weaken its authority and influence by serving as political, social, and spiritual alternatives to the authority of the central Government.

The CPV moved more formally to recognize and more fully to support the role of "legal" religious activity in society, but at the same time, citing the overriding importance of "national unity," asserted more explicitly its control over religious groups. Religious groups faced difficulties in training and ordaining clergy, and some restrictions in conducting educational and humanitarian activities. Religious figures encountered the greatest restrictions on their activities when they engaged in activities that the CPV perceived as political activism and a challenge to its rule. There have been credible reports since 1999 that officials pressured many Hmong and other ethnic minority Protestants in several northwestern provinces as well as many Montagnards in several Central Highland provinces to renounce their faith. Local police appeared also to have attempted to coerce some Protestants in Khanh Hoa province to abandon their faith during 2002. The penal code, as amended in 1997, established penalties for offenses that are defined only vaguely, including "attempting to undermine national unity" by promoting "division between religious believers and non-believers." In some cases, particularly involving Hmong and Montagnard Protestants and Hoa Hao followers, when authorities charged persons with practicing religion illegally, they used Article 258 of the Penal Code that allowed for jail terms of up to 3 years for "abus(ing) the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of belief, religion, assembly, association and other democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State." There were reports that officials fabricated evidence, and that some of the provisions of the law used to convict religious prisoners contradicted international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights that Vietnam has ratified. According to credible reports, the police arbitrarily detained and sometimes beat religious believers, particularly in the mountainous ethnic minority areas. Police abuses of unrecognized Protestants in the Central Highlands in part were related to the Dega independence movement actively espoused by some groups that identify themselves as Protestants.

The Government controlled the administrative process leading to the creation of official organizations for the major sanctioned religions, including the naming of their officers. In some cases, (most notably with Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Buddhist, and Protestant followers), some former leaders of the unofficial pre-1975 organizations, as well as many believers, rejected the official organizations.

While there were some improvements in the status of respect for religious freedom in the country during the period covered by this report, the situation remained poor or worsened for many ethnic minority Protestants in the Central Highlands and Northwest Highlands. Official government recognition is required for all religious groups (as well as for social organizations) to operate legally; those without official status, especially certain sects and denominations of Buddhists, Protestants, Hoa Hao, and others, operated illegally. Oversight of recognized religions and harassment of unrecognized religious followers varied from locality to locality, often as a result of varying local interpretations of national policy. These restrictions were particularly harsh in the Central Highlands, the Northwest Highlands, and some other, mostly border, provinces during the period covered by this report, although the numbers of religious believers in those locations appears nonetheless to continue to grow. Religious practice and observance was generally less restricted in other parts of the country. During the period covered by this report, some members of unrecognized religious groups were beaten, arrested, and/or detained by the authorities. There were unverifiable reports that between one and seven ethnic minority Protestants died in police custody or died as a result of beatings during the period covered by this report. The Government confirmed the death of only one, but stated that it was due to natural causes. In April 2001, the Government officially recognized the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV). The Government also recognized some additional SECV congregations during the period covered by this report. However, the SECV complained that the Government forced over 400 congregations in the Central Highlands that were affiliated with the SECV's underground predecessor to disband since 2001. The Government also reportedly destroyed or forced the demolition of a number of buildings used for worship in the Central Highlands. Since ethnic unrest in February 2001 in the Central Highlands provinces of Gia Lai and Dak Lak, the Government has taken action against Protestant ethnic minorities whom it suspected of participating in unauthorized political activities. Many of these Protestant ethnic minorities, however, did not belong to recognized denominations, and were not protesting for religious reasons, but rather were protesting against the loss of traditional homelands to recent migrants, mostly ethnic Vietnamese, and abusive police treatment in the provinces. The authorities detained several Protestant leaders during the reporting period and security forces harassed some local Christians. Ethnic minority Protestants reportedly continued to be forced or pressured to recant their faith, especially those suspected of belonging to the Dega movement, which advocated political autonomy for the region. Foreign diplomats visited the Central and Northwest Highlands several times during the period covered by this report, although the provinces continued to provide "escorts" and plainclothes "security." The Government continued to restrict or supervise closely access to these provinces by diplomats, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), journalists, and other foreigners, making it difficult to verify conditions in those areas. In a few areas, police routinely questioned persons on account of their religious views and arbitrarily detained some religious believers whose activities were deemed to constitute illegal gatherings or other violations of criminal law. Local officials occasionally broke up unsanctioned religious meetings, apparently using a noxious gas on one such occasion, and arbitrarily subjected groups of Protestant Christians who were worshipping in house churches in ethnic minority areas to detention and harassment. Authorities also imprisoned persons under article 258 of the Penal Code for "using religion to infringe upon the interests of the State."

During the July 2002 to June 2003 period covered by this report, the Government lifted house arrest-like restrictions on Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and ended administrative detention on deputy head Thich Quang Do of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). Subsequent to the end of the reporting period, however, severe restrictions were reimposed on these and other UBCV members.

The relationship among religions in society generally is amicable. In various parts of the country, there were modest levels of cooperation and dialog between Catholics and Protestants, Buddhists and Hoa Hao, and also between Buddhists and Cao Dai. Dialog between Buddhist groups inside and outside government recognized structures increased during the reporting period. Religious figures from most major recognized religions participated in official bodies such as the Vietnam Fatherland Front and the National Assembly.

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) maintained an active and regular dialog with senior and working-level government officials to advocate greater religious freedom. The U.S. Ambassador and other U.S. officials discussed concerns about the repression of Protestantism in the Central and Northwest Highlands, detention and arrest of religious figures, and other restrictions on religious freedom with cabinet ministers, Communist Party officials, provincial officials, and others. Intervention by the U.S. Government may have prompted the Government to improve treatment of some prominent but non-recognized Buddhist leaders, to moderate treatment of some ethnic minority Protestants in some Central Highlands provinces, as well as to promote some liberalization of Government treatment of other religions.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of approximately 127,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 80 million. The Government officially recognizes one Buddhist organization (Buddhists make up approximately 50 percent of the population), the Roman Catholic Church (Catholics make up 8 to 10 percent of the population), several Cao Dai organizations (Cao Dai followers make up 1.5 to 3 percent of the population), one Hoa Hao organization (Hoa Hao followers make up 1.5 to 4 percent of the population), two Protestant organizations (Protestants make up 1.2 percent of the population), and one Muslim organization (Muslims make up 0.1 percent of the population). Most other Vietnamese citizens consider themselves nonreligious.

Among the country's religious communities, Buddhism is the dominant religious belief. Many Buddhists practice an amalgam of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucian traditions that sometimes is called the country's "triple religion." Some estimates suggest that more than half of the population is at least nominally Buddhist. Buddhists typically visit pagodas on festival days, and have a worldview that is shaped in part by Buddhism, but in reality these beliefs often rely on a very expansive definition of the faith. Many individuals, especially among the ethnic majority Kinh, who may not consider themselves Buddhist, nonetheless follow traditional Confucian and Taoist practices and often visit Buddhist temples. One prominent Buddhist official has estimated that only about 30 percent of Buddhists are devout and practice their faith regularly. The Office of Religious Affairs uses a much lower estimate of 8 million practicing Buddhists. Mahayana Buddhists, most of whom are part of the ethnic Kinh majority, are found throughout the country, especially in the populous areas of the northern and southern delta regions. There are fewer Buddhists, proportionately, in certain highland areas, although migration of Kinh to highland areas is changing the distribution somewhat. Mahayana Buddhist monks in the country historically have engaged on occasion in political and social issues, most notably during the 1960s, when some monks campaigned for peace and against perceived injustices in the former Republic of Vietnam. A Khmer ethnic minority in the south practices Theravada Buddhism. Numbering just over 1 million persons, they live almost exclusively in the Mekong Delta.

There are an estimated 6 to 7 million Roman Catholics in the country (approximately 8 to 10 percent of the population). French missionaries introduced the religion in the 17th century. In the 1940's, priests in the large Catholic dioceses of Phat Diem and Bui Chu, to the southeast of Hanoi, organized a political association with a militia that fought against the Communist guerrillas until defeated in 1954. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics from the northern part of the country fled to Saigon and the surrounding areas ahead of the 1954 partition of North and South. Catholics live throughout the country, but the largest concentrations remain in the southern provinces around Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and in the provinces southeast of Hanoi. Catholicism has revived in northern regions. In recent years, congregations in the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong and many nearby provinces have rebuilt churches and reinstituted religious services. The proportion of Catholics in the population of some provinces appears to be increasing modestly.

Recently, several bishoprics that had been vacant for a number of years were filled by the Vatican, in coordination with the Government. In June 2000, a bishop was named for Da Nang, and in August 2000, a bishop was named for Vinh Long. During a Vatican delegation's visit in June 2001, the Government reportedly agreed to the Vatican's appointment of three additional bishops: a new bishop for Bui Chu Diocese; an auxiliary bishop for HCMC; and a coadjutor bishop for Phan Thiet. During the reporting period bishops were ordained for Lang Son and Haiphong. Shortly after the end of the period covered by the report, new bishops were also named for Kon Tum and Hung Hoa Dioceses, leaving open only the bishopric of Thanh Hoa, where the incumbent died in 2003. Provincial authorities have explicit veto power over the transfer of priests and the assignment of newly ordained priests, and exercised that power during the period covered by this report. Some seminary graduates have waited up to 10 years before the government consents to their ordination, although they usually serve in some capacity while waiting and this appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Government officials have stated that they "view the Catholic Church as a positive force."

There are at least 1,000,000 Protestants in the country (over 1.2 percent of the population), with more than half of these persons belonging to a large number of unregistered evangelical underground churches that often operate in members' homes, frequently in rural villages and ethnic minority areas. Protestantism, particularly the house church movement in ethnic minority areas, is the fastest growing religion in the country. Perhaps as many as 175,000 or more of the followers of house churches are Pentecostals. Protestantism in the country dates from 1911, when a Canadian missionary from the Christian and Missionary Alliance arrived in Da Nang. Numerous reports from believers indicated that Protestant church attendance continued to grow during the period covered by this report, especially among the house churches, despite continued government restrictions on proselytizing activities. Based on believers' estimates, two-thirds of Protestants are members of ethnic minorities, including ethnic Hmong, Thai, and other ethnic minorities (an estimated 200,000 followers) in the northwest provinces and some 350,000 members of ethnic minority groups of the Central Highlands (Ede, Jarai, Bahnar, and Koho, among others). The house church movement in the northwest was sparked in part by Hmong language radio broadcasts from the Philippines beginning in the late 1980's. In more recent years, missionaries, mostly ethnic Hmong, have increased evangelism in the area.

The Cao Dai religion was founded in 1926 in the southern part of the country. The Office of Religious Affairs estimates that there are 1.1 million Cao Dai. Some NGO sources estimate that there are from 2 to 3 million followers. Cao Dai groups are most active in Tay Ninh Province, where the Cao Dai "Holy See" is located, and in HCMC and the Mekong Delta. There are approximately 13 separate groups within the Cao Dai religion; the largest is the Tay Ninh sect, which is comprised of more than half of all Cao Dai believers. The Cao Dai religion is syncretistic, combining elements of many faiths. Its basic belief system is influenced strongly by Mahayana Buddhism, although it recognizes a diverse array of persons who have conveyed divine revelation, including Siddhartha, Jesus, Lao-Tse, Confucius, and Moses. During the 1940's and 1950's, the Cao Dai participated in political and military activities. Their opposition to the Communist forces until 1975 was a factor in government repression after 1975. A small Cao Dai organization, the Thien Tien sect, was formally recognized in 1995. The Tay Ninh Cao Dai sect was granted legal recognition in 1997.

The Hoa Hao branch of Buddhism was founded in the southern part of the country in 1939. Hoa Hao is largely a quietist faith, emphasizing private acts of worship and devotion; it does not have a priesthood and rejects many of the ceremonial aspects of mainstream Buddhism. According to the Office of Religious Affairs, there are 1.3 million Hoa Hao followers; affiliated expatriate groups estimate that there may be up to 3 million followers. Hoa Hao followers are concentrated in the Mekong Delta, particularly in provinces such as An Giang, where the Hoa Hao were dominant as a political and military, as well as a religious, force before 1975. Elements of the Hoa Hao were among the last to surrender to Communist forces in the Mekong Delta in the summer of 1975. The Government recognized Hoa Hao Administrative Committee was organized in 1999.

Mosques serving the country's small Muslim population, estimated at 65,000 persons, operate in western An Giang province, HCMC, Hanoi, and provinces in the southern coastal part of the country. The Muslim community mainly is composed of ethnic Cham, although in HCMC and An Giang province it includes some ethnic Vietnamese and migrants originally from Malaysia, Indonesia, and India. About half of the Muslims in the country practice Sunni Islam. Sunni Muslims are concentrated in five locations around the country. Approximately 15,000 live in Tan Chau district of western An Giang province, which borders Cambodia. Nearly 3,000 live in western Tay Ninh province, which also borders Cambodia. More than 5,000 Muslims reside in HCMC, with 2,000 residing in neighboring Dong Nai province. Another 5,000 live in the south central coastal provinces of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan. Approximately 50 percent of Muslims practice Bani Islam, a type of Islam unique to the ethnic Cham who live on the central coast of the country. Bani clerics fast during Ramadan; ordinary Bani followers do not. The Bani Koran is an abridged version of only about 20 pages, written in the Cham language. The Bani also continue to participate in certain traditional Cham festivals, which include prayers to Hindu gods and to traditional Cham "mother goddesses." Both groups of Muslims appear to be on cordial terms with the Government and are able to practice their faith freely. They have limited contact with Muslims in foreign countries, such as Malaysia.

There are a variety of smaller religious communities not recognized by the Government, the largest of which is the Hindu community. Approximately 50,000 ethnic Cham in the south-central coastal area practice a devotional form of Hinduism. Another 4,000 Hindus live in HCMC; some are ethnic Cham, but most are Indian or of mixed Indian-Vietnamese descent.

There are estimated to be from several hundred to 2,000 members of the Baha'i faith, largely concentrated in the south, a number of whom are foreign-born. Prior to 1975, there were an estimated 130,000 believers, according to Baha'i officials.

There are several hundred members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) who are spread throughout the country but live primarily in HCMC and Hanoi. Some are pre-1975 converts, while others became Mormons while living in Cambodia.

Of the country's approximately 80 million citizens, 14 million or more reportedly do not practice any organized religion. Some sources strictly define those considered to be practicing Buddhists, excluding those whose activities are limited to visiting pagodas on ceremonial holidays. Using this definition, the number of nonreligious persons would be much higher, perhaps as high as 50 million. No statistics are available on the level of participation in formal religious services, but it generally is acknowledged that this number has continued to increase from the early 1990s.

Ethnic minorities constitute approximately 14 percent of the overall population. The minorities historically have practiced sets of traditional beliefs different from those of the ethnic majority Kinh. Except for the Khmer and the Cham, most minorities are more likely to be Protestant than the majority Kinh.

Several dozen foreign missionary groups throughout the country are engaged in developmental, humanitarian, educational, and relief efforts. These organizations legally are registered as NGOs providing humanitarian assistance. Foreign missionaries legally are not permitted to proselytize or to carry out religious activities. In order to work in the country, they must be registered with the Government as an international NGO. Undeclared missionaries from several countries are active in Vietnam.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution, government decrees, and January 2003 CPV Central Committee resolution on religion provide for freedom of belief and worship as well as of nonbelief; however, the Government continued to restrict significantly those organized activities of religious groups that it declared to be at variance with state laws and policies. The Government generally allowed persons to practice individual worship freely and to participate in public worship under the leadership of any of the major recognized religions; the Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Muslim faiths. In some localities authorities even allowed many members of unregistered religious groups to practice their faith freely. Participation in religious activities throughout the country continued to grow significantly. However, the Government used regulations to control religious hierarchies, organized religious activities, and other activities of religious groups. While the Office on Religious Affairs oversees recognized religious bodies and is tasked with protecting their rights, in practice there are few effective legal remedies for violations of religious freedom committed by government officials. The constitutional right of freedom of belief and religion is interpreted and enforced unevenly. In some areas, local officials allow relatively wide latitude to believers; in other provinces in the north, the Central Highlands, and the central coast, religious believers in nonrecognized entities are subject to significant harassment because of the lack of effective legal enforcement, and are subject to the whims and prejudices of local officials in their respective jurisdictions. This particularly was true for Protestants in highland areas, very few of whom are affiliated with one of the two recognized Protestant organizations. There are no known cases in recent years in which the courts acted to interpret laws so as to protect a person's right to religious freedom.

The secular Government does not favor a particular religion, and virtually all senior Government and Party officials as well as the vast majority of National Assembly delegates are formally "without religion." The prominent traditional position of Buddhism does not affect religious freedom for others adversely, including those who wish not to practice a religion. The Constitution expressly protects the right of "nonbelief" as well as "belief." The Government requires religious and other groups to register and uses this process to monitor and control religious organizations, as it does with all social organizations. The Government officially recognizes Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai and Muslim religious organizations. However, some leaders of Buddhist, Protestant, Hoa Hao and Cao Dai organizations and many believers of these religions, do not recognize or participate in the government-approved associations. Some leaders of the pre-1975 Buddhist and Hoa Hao religious bodies unsuccessfully have requested official recognition of their organizations. Their activities, and those of the unregistered Protestant house churches, are considered illegal by the authorities, and they sometimes experience harassment as a result. Some unregistered Protestant denominations are negotiating with the Government for recognition, and other Protestant non-official churches are seeking affiliation with one of the two existing recognized organizations. Under the law, only those activities and organizations expressly sanctioned by the Government are deemed to be legal. In order for a group to obtain official recognition, it must obtain government approval of its leadership, its structure, and the overall scope of its activities. Recognized religious groups in principle are allowed to open, operate, and refurbish places of worship, to train religious leaders, and to obtain permission for the publication of materials.

Officially recognized religious organizations are able to operate openly in most parts of the country, and followers of these religions are able to worship without government harassment. Officially recognized organizations must consult with the Government about their religious and administrative operations, including leadership selection, although not about their religious tenets of faith. While the Government does not directly appoint the leadership of the official religious organizations, to varying degrees it plays an influential role in shaping the process of selection and must approve investitures of religious titles. The Government's influence varies by level of the title, religion, and local authority. For example, the power to approve a religious office holder below the provincial level lies with the provincial government. Higher level officials receive much closer scrutiny. Decree 26/1999 explicitly gives the Government the power to approve all holders of religious offices, and the Government effectively, but not explicitly, has veto power. In general, religious bodies are confined to dealing specifically with spiritual and organizational matters. Over the past several years, the Government has accorded much greater latitude to followers of recognized religious organizations, and the majority of the country's religious followers have continued to benefit from this development. The Government has held conferences to discuss and publicize its religious decrees. The CPV issued a resolution on religion during the reporting period and also held seminars throughout Vietnam to inform authorities about the resolution, which reaffirmed the right to believe but reiterated the need for all religious activities to be "legal," thus facilitating government control. The Religious Affairs Committee has frequently met with house church leaders from HCMC and the Central Highlands.

Religious organizations must register their regular activities with the authorities annually. Religious organizations must obtain government permission to hold training seminars, conventions, and celebrations outside the regular religious calendar; to build or remodel places of worship; to engage in charitable activities; to operate religious schools; and to train, ordain, promote, or transfer clergy. They also must obtain government permission for large mass gatherings, as do non-religious groups. Many of these restrictive powers lie principally with provincial or city people's committees, and local treatment of religious persons varies widely. In April 2001, the Government recognized the SECV. The SECV was able to elect its own officers, apparently free of government control. The newly recognized church is represented in all of the southern provinces of the country. The SECV is descended from churches associated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA). Some additional "underground" congregations that were once affiliated with the CMA reportedly joined the SECV. However, the Government has allowed few former CMA churches in the Central Highlands to join the SECV. The northern branch of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN), which also is a derivative of the CMA, has been recognized since 1963 and officially has 15 approved churches in the northern part of the country. During the reporting period the ECVN enrolled over seven hundred, mostly ethnic minority congregations in northern and northwestern Vietnam, and issued them papers certifying the groups as members of the EVCN. The ECVN intends to officially request government recognition of the new congregations after its convention, which the church hopes to hold in 2004, if it is able to come to agreement with the Government. A number of other Protestant denominations continued to be engaged in discussions with the Government on registration during the period covered by this report.

The Government turned down an attempt by the Baha'i faith to register in 2001 because the Baha'i had not yet met the administrative criteria for registration. It is unknown which specific criteria the Baha'is were unable to satisfy.

The degree of Government control of church activities varied greatly among localities. In some areas, especially in the south and in Danang, Catholic churches operated kindergartens and engaged in a variety of humanitarian projects. Buddhist groups engaged in humanitarian activities in many parts of the country. The Hoa Hao organization reported that it engaged in numerous charitable activities and local development projects. Foreign missionaries and religious organizations are not allowed to operate as such in the country, but many are registered as NGOs with the Government to carry out humanitarian assistance. They may not engage in proselytizing.

Most Catholic churches are allowed to provide religious education to children. Children also are taught religion and language at Khmer Buddhist pagodas and at mosques outside regular classroom hours.

Because of the lack of meaningful due process in the legal system, the actions of religious adherents are subject to the discretion of local officials in their respective jurisdictions. There are no meaningful punishments for government officials who do not follow laws protecting religious practice in particular. Because the court system is subservient to the Communist Party and its political decisions, and because persons are not charged specifically with religious offenses, there are no known recent cases in which the courts acted to interpret laws so as to protect a person's right to religious freedom.

There are no specific religious national holidays.

The Office of Religious Affairs occasionally hosts meetings for leaders of diverse religious traditions to address religious matters.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government continued to maintain broad legal and policy restrictions on religious freedom, although in many areas, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and the Government reported an increase in religious activity and observance. Operational and organizational restrictions on the hierarchies and clergy of recognized religious groups remained in place. Religious groups faced difficulty in obtaining teaching materials, expanding training facilities, publishing religious materials, and expanding the number of clergy in religious training in response to increased demand from congregations, although these types of restrictions appear to have been easing gradually for several years.

The Government continued to ban and actively discourage participation in what it regards as illegal religious groups, including the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and Protestant house churches, as well as the unapproved Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups. The withholding of official recognition of religious bodies is one of the means by which the Government actively restricts religious activities. Religious and organizational activities by UBCV monks are illegal, and all UBCV activities outside of private temple worship are proscribed. Many evangelical house churches do not attempt to register because they believe that their applications would be denied, or because they want to avoid any semblance of government control. Some recognized religious groups carry out underground activities that they do not report to the Government and have faced little or no harassment. Some nonrecognized Protestant denominations also conduct religious services and training with tacit approval from the Government.

The Government requires all Buddhist monks to work under the officially recognized Buddhist organization, the Central Buddhist Church of Vietnam (CBS). The Government influenced the selection of the leadership of the CBS, excluding many leaders and supporters of the pre-1975 UBCV organization. Some UBCV leaders and followers refused to acknowledge the CBS on the grounds of its connection with the Government. The Government also restricted the number of Buddhist monks that may be trained. Khmer Theravada Buddhists are allowed a somewhat separate identity with the CBS. The Government continued to oppose efforts by the unrecognized UBCV to operate independently. Talks between CBS and UBCV leaders about unification of their organizations occurred near the end of the reporting period. Several prominent UBCV monks faced Government restrictions on their civil liberties during the period covered by this report. Restrictions on UBCV leader Thich Huyen Quang and deputy leader Thich Quang Do were lessened during the period covered by this report. Though previously held in conditions similar to house arrest, Thich Huyen Quang traveled to Hanoi for medical treatment in March, and met Prime Minister Phan Van Khai during that trip. Thich Quang Do was released from administrative detention in June. (Since the end of the period covered by this report, restrictions have been reimposed on Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do).

Buddhist UBCV monks in Hue complained in 2001 and 2002 that petitions to local authorities for permission to repair or renovate pagodas go unanswered. The UBCV monks in Hue have complained that the CBS has "donated" Buddhist properties for government use. Buddhist believers in Ha Nam province complained in 2002 that CBS pagoda grounds have been seized in recent years and that their complaints go unanswered. Monks at the One Pillar Pagoda (CBS) in Hanoi have resisted local government efforts to replace them with monks favored by the local government. The Roman Catholic Church continued to face many restrictions on the training and ordination of priests, nuns, and bishops. The Government effectively maintains veto power over Vatican appointments of bishops; however, in practice it has sought to cooperate with the Church in nominations for appointment. The Prime Minister received the Episcopal Council (the grouping of Bishops nationwide) for the first time in December 2001 and met them again in December 2002. During the period covered by this report, the Catholic Church hierarchy remained frustrated by government restrictions; but it has sought to accommodate itself to them. A number of clergy reported a modest easing of government control over church activities in certain dioceses, including in a few churches in Hanoi and HCMC that offer English-language masses for expatriates. The Church was able to engage in religious education, including the education of children, and to perform charitable activities in some geographic areas. Six Roman Catholic seminaries throughout the country had over 800 students enrolled; new seminarians are recruited every 2 years. The national Government approved a seventh seminary, but the provincial government where it was to be located blocked the seminary on the grounds that the province had no office to oversee institutions of higher education. The Catholic Church is now attempting to locate the seminary in a different province. All students must be approved by local authorities, both upon entering the seminary and prior to their ordination as priests. The Church believes that the number of students being ordained is insufficient to support the growing Catholic population.

Until 2001, approximately 15 Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) churches in the northern provinces were the only officially recognized Protestant churches. The ECVN has not held an annual meeting or elected new leadership since 1988, reportedly because the Government and the ECVN have been unable to reach consensus on new ECVN leadership. The GVN agreed to the formal appointment of the long-standing Acting Chairman in June 2003, and has indicated that the next general congress could take place in early 2004. The ECVN operated a theological school from 1988 to 1993; informal training of religious and lay leaders continues. The Government reportedly has rebuffed attempts by largely Hmong house churches to affiliate with the ECVN over the last several years. The ECVN began enrolling several hundred mostly ethnic minority congregations located in the northern and northwestern highlands from September 2002, although the Government has not publicly accepted these enrollments and they remain unrecognized and, therefore, vulnerable to harassment and restrictions. On April 17, 2002, the former ECVN church building in Vinh, Nghe An province was torn down. The Government had expropriated the building in the 1960's and the congregation since has been meeting in members' homes.

In April 2001, the Government conferred legal recognition on the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV). This body represents several hundred Protestant churches primarily in the southern part of the country, with representatives from every southern province, including the Central Highlands, where many house churches operate. Some SECV churches exist in other large cities such as Da Nang. Officials in the SECV's main HCMC office have stated that gradual progress in improving their church's situation was determined to be preferable to outright confrontation with the Government. The SECV opened a Government-sanctioned theological school in HCMC in February 2003 with almost 50 students. Provincial governments have recognized only twenty of the several hundred congregations in the Central Highlands that were affiliated with the SECV's underground predecessor. It remains unclear to what extent provincial officials will allow these churches, particularly those whose members are ethnic minorities, to be represented by or to participate in the organization. Some Protestant pastors in the Central Highlands remain suspicious of the SECV and reportedly do not plan to seek affiliation with it.

Many pastors of Protestant denominations such as Baptists, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Mennonites, and the Assemblies of God (AOG) still do not wish to join the SECV because of doctrinal differences. The Government has held discussions about recognition and registration with leaders of at least four Protestant denominations including Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists. The Government had repressed the AOG by causing members to lose their jobs, forbidding their children from attending school, or confiscating their property, but it no longer imprisons AOG believers or pastors. In at least some - primarily urban - areas, Government harassment of Pentecostals diminished during the reporting period. Some Mennonites have faced harassment by government officials in some parts of the country during the reporting period.

The provincial governments restrict Protestant practice in the Central Highlands, particularly among the region's ethnic minorities, such as the Mnong, Ede, Jarai and Bahnar. Christmas celebrations by Protestants in the Central Highlands were allowed in some localities, but prohibited in others. There is substantial networking among Protestant denominations in HCMC, but less in the rest of the country. Underground churches from pre-1975 denominations generally were reported to have fewer restrictions than those that were established more recently. Officials in Lai Chau, Ha Giang, and other provinces in the north and northwest attempted to pressure Hmong and other ethnic minority Christians to renounce their faith, often without success. Some local officials reportedly also encouraged Hmong clan elders to convince members of their clans to renounce their faith. Efforts to force Protestants to deny their faith appear to be connected to the CPV's Program 184, designed to reverse the spread of Protestantism in areas where it has been advancing rapidly. Local and provincial officials in these areas circulated official documents urging persons to give up their illegal "foreign" religion and to practice traditional animist beliefs and ancestor worship. Regional and police newspapers printed articles documenting how persons were deceived into following the house church "cults." A Khanh Hoa provincial police document from May 2002 discussed some successes in convincing individuals to renounce the Protestant faith, whereupon the individuals were given financial rewards. The Government Office of Religious Affairs has not responded to Embassy requests to investigate and report. Officials appear to have used a noxious gas, perhaps tear gas or pepper spray, to break up a Protestant service in Lau Chau province in late December 2002, reportedly causing at least one woman pregnant woman to miscarry.

The Hoa Hao have faced severe restrictions on their religious and political activities since 1975, in part because of their previous armed opposition to the Communist forces. After 1975 all administrative offices, places of worship, and social and cultural institutions connected to the Hoa Hao faith were closed. Believers continued to practice their religion at home but the lack of access to public gathering places contributed to the Hoa Hao community's isolation and fragmentation. A new official Hoa Hao body, the Hoa Hao Representative Committee, was formed in 1999. Several leaders of the Hoa Hao community, including several pre-1975 leaders, openly criticized the committee, claiming that it was subservient to the Government, and demanded official recognition of their own Hoa Hao body instead. The Government turned down a group that subsequently tried to register an independent Hoa Hao organization. Some members of this group were incarcerated and remained in custody at the end of the reporting period, although one was released in an amnesty in September 2002 and another completed his prison sentence in 2002. According to the Hoa Hao Administrative Council and local media, turnout for major Hoa Hao festivals range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands each year. The Government restricts the number of clergy that the Hoa Hao can train.

The Government never dissolved the Cao Dai church but placed it under the control of the Vietnam Fatherland Front in 1977. The Government banned several of its essential ceremonies because it considered them to be "superstitious," and it imprisoned and reportedly killed many Cao Dai clergy in the late 1970's. The Government began recognizing Cao Dai organizations in 1995. In 1997, a Cao Dai Management Council drew up a new constitution under government oversight. It confirmed the ban on certain traditional "superstitious" rituals, including the use of mediums to communicate with spirits. Because the use of mediums was essential to ceremonies accompanying promotion of clerics to higher ranks, the new Cao Dai constitution effectively banned clerical promotions. In December 1999 the Management Council reached agreement with Cao Dai clergy that the Cao Dai church would modify its rituals in a way that would be acceptable to the Government, but maintain enough spiritual direction to be acceptable to Cao Dai principles. As a result, a congress was held in which several hundred Cao Dai clergy were promoted for the first time since 1975. A second congress was held in September 2002, with numerous additional promotions. The Cao Dai Management Council has the power to control all of the affairs of the Cao Dai faith, and thereby manages the church's operations, its hierarchy, and its clergy within the country. Independent Cao Dai officials oppose the edicts of this council as unfaithful to Cao Dai principles and traditions. Religious training takes place at individual Cao Dai temples rather than at centralized schools; Cao Dai officials have indicated that they do not wish to open a seminary.

The Muslim Association of Vietnam was banned in 1975 but reauthorized in 1992. It is the only registered Muslim organization in the country. Association leaders state that they are able to practice their faith, including saying daily prayers, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and teaching the Koran. At least 55 Muslims journeyed to Mecca for the Hajj in 2001; Saudi Arabia and Dubai paid their travel expenses. In 2002 no Muslims made the Hajj. Muslim sources in the country stated this was because the traditional financial sponsors had curtailed their foreign sponsorships in late 2001, not because of any restriction on travel for the Hajj on the part of the Government. Overseas financial sponsorship resumed in 2003 and some Muslims made the Hajj.

The Government restricts and monitors all forms of public assembly, including assembly for religious activities; however, on some occasions, large religious gatherings have been allowed, such as the Catholic celebrations at La Vang, and the 2002 Easter sunrise service, which was witnessed by foreign dignitaries in Kon Tum, and which was attended by over 10,000 Catholic worshippers. Attendance at Buddhist festivals and pilgrimage sites has increased dramatically in recent years. The Hoa Hao also have been allowed to hold large public gatherings in An Giang province on certain Hoa Hao festival days since 1999. Estimates of attendance at the Founding Day and commemoration of the Founder's death range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands each year since then.

In April 1999, the Government issued a decree on religion that prescribed the rights and responsibilities of religious believers. The religious decree states that persons formerly detained or imprisoned must obtain special permission from the authorities before they may resume religious activities. Religious activities reportedly are not allowed in prisons, nor are visits by religious workers. Some persons previously detained were released and were active in their religious communities during the period covered by this report.

The Government prohibits proselytizing by foreign missionary groups and discourages public proselytizing outside of recognized worship centers even by Vietnamese citizens. Some missionaries visited the country despite this prohibition and carried on informal proselytizing activities. The Government has in the past deported some foreign persons for unauthorized proselytizing, sometimes defining proselytizing very broadly, although there were no known cases during the reporting period. Other individuals apparently suspected of proselytizing have been unable to renew their visas or had valid visas revoked. Non-citizens must comply with the law when practicing their religions. In both Hanoi and HCMC, there were Sunday morning Catholic masses conducted in English by local Vietnamese priests for the convenience of foreigners. In both cities, there also were well-publicized Protestant worship services for foreigners conducted by foreigners, some of whom were affiliated with religious NGOs; these activities are permitted under the 1999 decree. There were regularly scheduled Muslim services for citizens and foreigners in both cities.

The Government technically forbids persons who belong to unofficial religious groups from speaking publicly about their beliefs, but at least some continue to conduct religious training and services without harassment. In limited circumstances, members of registered groups are permitted to speak about their beliefs and attempt to persuade others to adopt their religions, although public proselytizing is not allowed. The Government has been known to restrict religious speech on various legal pretexts including "sowing division between believers and non-believers" and "damaging national unity."

The Government officially requires all religious publishing to be done by the Religious Publishing House, which is a part of the Office of Religious Affairs, or by other government approved publishing houses once the Government approves the proposed items. A range of Buddhist sacred scriptures, Bibles, and other religious texts and publications are printed by these organizations and are distributed openly. The government-sanctioned Committee has printed 250,000 copies of publications of parts of the Hoa Hao sacred scriptures, along with 100,000 volumes featuring the Founder's teachings and prophesies; however, Hoa Hao believers reported that the Government continued to restrict the distribution of the full scriptures, specifically the poetry of the Founder. However, the official Hoa Hao Representative Committee cited a lack of funds, not government restrictions, as the reason why the Hoa Hao scriptures had not yet been published in full. The Muslim Association reportedly was able to print enough copies of the Koran in 2000 to distribute one to each Muslim believer in the country.

The Government allows religious travel for religious persons; Muslims are able to undertake the Hajj, and Buddhist, Catholic, and Protestant officials also have been able to travel abroad for study and for conferences. Some religious believers who do not belong to officially recognized religions, such as Buddhist monk Thich Thai Hoa, occasionally have not been approved for foreign travel, but many ministers of underground Protestant churches have been able to travel overseas since early 2001. Like other citizens, religious persons who travel abroad sometimes are questioned about their activities upon their return and required to surrender their passports. However, this practice appears to be becoming more infrequent and even many leaders of underground Protestant churches reported in 2002 and 2003 that they were not questioned. Catholic bishops face no restrictions on international travel, including to Rome, and many nuns have also been able to go abroad for study and conferences. The Government allowed many Catholic bishops and priests to travel freely within their dioceses and allowed greater, but still sometimes restricted, freedom for domestic travel outside of these areas, particularly in many ethnic areas. Local officials reportedly discourage priests from entering Son La and Lai Chau provinces, where there are no Catholic churches.

Religious affiliation is indicated on citizens' national identification cards and on "family books," which are household identification documents. In practice, many citizens who consider themselves religious do not indicate this on their identification card, and government statistics list them as non-religious. There are no formal prohibitions on changing one's religion; in principle, it is possible to change the entry for religion on national identification cards, but many converts may not go to the trouble. Formal conversions appear to be relatively rare. The Government does not designate persons' religions on passports. The Government allows, and in some cases encourages, links by officially recognized religious bodies with coreligionists in other countries. However, the Government actively discourages contacts between the UBCV and its foreign Buddhist supporters. Contacts between Vatican authorities and the domestic Catholic Church occur routinely, and the Government maintains a regular, active dialog with the Vatican on a range of issues including organizational activities, the prospect of establishing diplomatic relations, and a possible papal visit. Contacts between some illegal Protestant organizations such as the house churches and their foreign supporters are discouraged but appear to occur regularly, including provision of some financial support. The Government is particularly vigilant about contact between "Dega" Protestants and their overseas supporters. A Dega group overseas has set up a self-proclaimed government in exile and contacted some individuals in Vietnam to advance its agenda. Authorities, particularly in the Central Highlands, seem to have made little effort to distinguish Dega Protestants from the much larger number of apolitical Protestant believers. The Government also claims that Protestantism in the Hmong community is a front for Hmong nationalism, although very few Hmong Protestants are likely to ascribe to a separatist agenda.

Adherence to a religious faith generally does not disadvantage persons in civil, economic, and secular life, although it likely would prevent advancement to the highest government and military ranks. Attainment of senior military rank is not a prerequisite for senior government or private sector employment. The military does not have a chaplaincy. Avowed religious practice was formerly a bar to membership in the Communist Party. Party sources indicated that tens of thousands of the 2.6 million Communist Party members are religious believers and the January 2003 Party resolution on religion called for recruiting and advancing more religious believers into the Party's ranks. Party and government officials routinely visited pagodas and temples and sometimes even attended Christian church services.

The religious decree of April 1999 stipulates which local government offices must approve renovations, modifications, and repairs of religious structures. It also requires groups to obtain the approval of provincial governments before constructing religious structures. Local authorities have reportedly used these measures to justify the closure and demolition of religious structures belonging to unregistered Protestant groups, particularly in Dak Lak and other Central Highlands provinces. The decree stated that no religious organization can reclaim lands or properties taken over by the State following the end of the 1954 war against French rule and the 1975 Communist victory in the south. Despite this blanket prohibition, the Government has returned some church properties confiscated since 1975. The People's Committee of HCMC returned two properties to the Catholic Church in 2001 after the Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City wrote authorities requesting their return. On one of the properties, in Cu Chi District, the church is constructing an HIV/AIDS hospice to be operated by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. The other property is now a church-operated orphanage. One of the vice-chairmen of the official Buddhist Sangha stated that approximately 30 percent of Buddhist properties confiscated in HCMC have been returned since 1975, and from 5 to 10 percent of all Buddhist properties confiscated in the south have been returned. However, UBCV leaders stated that their properties were not returned. The former Protestant seminary in Nha Trang is used for secular purposes, as is a former Protestant seminary in Hanoi. Most Cao Dai and Hoa Hao properties also have not been returned, according to church leaders. The official Representative Committee for the Hoa Hao stated that the Government returned 12 previously confiscated Hoa Hao pagodas in Dong Thap province in 2001 and 2002.

The Government does not permit religious instruction in public schools; however, it does permit clergy to teach at universities in subjects in which they are qualified. Buddhist monks have also lectured at the Ho Chi Minh Political Academy, the main CPV school. Several Catholic nuns and at least one Catholic priest teach at HCMC universities. They are not allowed to wear religious dress when they teach or to identify themselves as clergy. Catholic religious education, on weekends or evenings, is permitted in most areas and has increased in recent years in churches throughout the country. Khmer Theravada Buddhists and Cham Muslims regularly hold religious and language classes outside of normal classroom hours in their respective pagodas and mosques.

In March 2001, teachers at a public primary school in Ban Don district reportedly ordered all the Christian students to renounce Christ. When the students refused, they were suspended from school and not allowed to return until further notice. Local sources alleged that authorities in many localities in Dak Lak prohibited Protestant children from attending school past the third grade. The outcome of this episode is not known. Similar allegations have been made regarding Lai Chau, Ha Giang, and Cao Bang provinces in the Northwest Highlands. Also, there have been unconfirmed allegations that Christians are excluded from special ethnic minority boarding schools. Discrimination of this sort has been denied by local authorities, but such reports persist.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

A significant number of religious believers experience harassment because they operate without legal sanction. Local officials have repressed unregistered Protestant believers in the northwest provinces, the Central Highlands, and other areas, through forcing church gatherings to cease, the demolition of church buildings, and through pressure to renounce their religious beliefs. Some UBCV leaders continued to be harassed and had their rights severely restricted by the Government. Officials also have detained or otherwise harassed some persons, primarily Buddhists and ethnic majority Kinh, who have used purported spiritual activities or powers to cheat and deceive believers. Police authorities routinely question persons who hold independent religious or political views. There are credible reports that police arbitrarily detained, beat, and harassed an unknown number of persons based on their religious beliefs and practice, particularly in mountainous ethnic minority areas.

The penal code establishes penalties for offenses that are defined only vaguely, including "attempting to undermine national unity" by promoting "division between religious believers and non-believers." In some cases, particularly involving Hmong Protestants, authorities have used provisions of the penal code that allow for jail terms of up to 3 years without trial for "abusing freedom of speech, press, or religion." There have been ongoing complaints that officials fabricated evidence and that some of the provisions of the law used to convict religious prisoners contradict the right to freedom of religion.

A 1997 directive on administrative probation gives national and local security officials broad powers to detain and monitor citizens and control where they live and work for up to 2 years if they are believed to be threatening "national security." In their implementation of administrative probation, some local authorities held persons under conditions resembling house arrest. The authorities use administrative probation as a means of controlling persons whom they believe hold independent opinions. Some local authorities cite "abuse of religious freedom" as a reason to impose administrative probation.

The authorities in the northwest provinces reportedly restricted the religious freedom of evangelical Protestants, including ethnic Hmong and ethnic Thai. The growth of Protestant house churches in ethnic minority areas continued to lead to tensions with local officials, particularly in several border provinces. Several leaders of these churches, especially among the Hmong in the northwest and among ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands, reportedly were harassed or detained. The underground nature of the house churches, notably among ethnic minorities, has contributed to greater pressure on these groups and individuals. There are credible reports that house churches are tolerated or ignored in some places, especially in urban areas, but the extent and provincial locations in which this occurs are difficult to confirm. Provincial officials in certain northwest provinces, including Lai Chau and Son La, have reported that there are no churches or Buddhist pagodas at all. Reports of arrest and imprisonment for non-violent religious practice continue to persist, especially in large groups in contravention of local government edicts, because national security and national solidarity provisions in the Constitution override guarantees of religious freedom.

Hmong Protestant believer Mua Bua Senh of Lai Chau province died in July 2002 after reportedly being beaten in April 2001 and on two subsequent occasions by authorities. The Government conducted an investigation into the cause of his death and concluded that Senh died of natural causes, but it did not release the full report. Local officials reportedly beat him because he refused to either renounce his faith or leave his village. Senh's family, and four other families left their village after the first beating and eventually settled elsewhere. Senh was brought to Hanoi at one point for medical treatment, but for unclear reasons received little or no care. Senh's case was not reported until after his death.

Hmong Protestant Vang Seo Giao of Ha Giang province died on July 1 reportedly after being beaten by authorities at the office of the People's Committee in Che La Commune. A CPV member since 1990 who had recently converted to Christianity, Giao was reportedly beaten for reasons related to a refusal to renounce his faith and build an ancestral altar, and for refusing to drink alcohol. Giao's family and friends appealed to the Government and to the ECVN-North to investigate his death. In response to Embassy inquiries, Ha Giang provincial officials stated that Giao died in a flood.

Several detailed, but not entirely consistent reports describe a late December 2002 use of a noxious gas by local authorities to break up a Hmong Protestant worship service in the Lai Chau village where Mua Bua Senh initially sought refuge. Reports of casualties vary, but many indicate that several people required medical treatment and that one woman miscarried shortly afterwards. Provincial authorities initially acknowledged that something happened at the time and place the gas was reportedly used, but disputed the details of the reports. Later, they denied the reports entirely.

There were several unverifiable reports that ethnic minority Protestant believers detained as part of the Government's continuing response to the February and March 2001 unrest in the Central Highlands were killed while in custody during the reporting period. The most detailed reports involve three individuals supposedly given lethal injections. Later reports suggested that the three physically resisted receiving an unknown injection and that one or more of them may have been injured. The Government later reported that none of them were under detention. Subsequently there was another unverified report that one of the three died a few months later, although the cause of death is not known.

On numerous occasions throughout the country, small groups of Protestants belonging to house churches were subjected to arbitrary detention after local officials broke up unsanctioned religious meetings. There were many reported instances, particularly in remote provinces, in which Protestant house church followers were punished or fined by local officials for participation in peaceful religious activities such as worship and Bible study. According to credible reports from the Central Highlands, some local officials extorted goods, livestock, and money from Protestant believers. There were reports from the northwest and the Central Highlands of local officials driving ethnic minority persons out of their home villages for refusing to renounce their Protestant faith. The extent to which religious affiliation or other factors such as ethnicity or political activism caused these reported abuses cannot be determined, although many reports state that authorities cited religion as the reason for their actions.

Despite the Government's restrictions, the number of Protestants continued to grow. The repression of Protestantism in the Central Highlands is complicated by the presence of a group, the "Dega Protestants," that advocates a separate state for the indigenous persons who live in the area, particularly in southern Gia Lai and northwestern Dak Lak provinces. The Dega Protestants have links to a group residing in the U.S. that has proclaimed itself a Dega "government-in-exile." The Dega Protestants' relationship with the more apolitical Protestant believers in the area has deteriorated. The Dega Protestants reportedly have made threats against certain mainstream Protestant pastors. A small number of Protestant pastors in this area reportedly support the establishment of an autonomous "Dega" state; however, the more orthodox majority of Protestant pastors in the Highlands appear not to support such a political movement. In February and March 2001, ethnic minority groups apparently encouraged or organized by the Dega Protestants held widespread demonstrations in the Central Highlands provinces of Gia Lai and Dak Lak primarily to protest the loss of traditional homelands to recent migrants, who mostly were ethnic Vietnamese. On March 10, 2001, at a Protestant church in Plei Lau village in Gia Lai province, hundreds of soldiers and police clashed with hundreds of ethnic minority Protestants. Two or three soldiers reportedly shot and killed a civilian who had threatened another soldier with a spear. According to unconfirmed reports, in the immediate aftermath of the February/March 2001 demonstrations, between 1 and 5 persons were killed as a result of police actions, and allegedly hundreds were injured in beatings by authorities. Hundreds of persons were detained in February and March 2001. Most were released, but local police reportedly beat many of the detainees severely while they were in custody. It was difficult, if not impossible to confirm reports from the Central Highlands during the reporting period, but there were continued reports that dozens to as many as a few hundred people were in detention and that others have "disappeared." The latter may be in hiding, may have fled abroad or to other parts of Vietnam, or may have been in custody. Over 1,000 persons fled to Cambodia in 2001, but over 400 were repatriated, some apparently against their will.

Small outflows of ethnic minority highlanders - usually called "Montagnards" in French and English - seeking refugee status in Cambodia on religious grounds continued during the rating period, but, apparently at the request of Vietnam, many other Montagnards who sought to flee to Cambodia during the reporting period were repatriated by Cambodian authorities. At least eight Montagnards were sentenced in a one-day trial in December 2002 to terms of 8-10 years for organizing people to flee to Cambodia in the aftermath of ethnic unrest in 2001. Five ethnic Jarai in Gia Lai province were sentenced to terms of 5-6 years in March 2003, while nine Ede in Phu Yen received sentences of 18 months to 3 years for the same offense, according to local media. Government officials insist that these sentences are not related to any religious activities, although often their adherence to Dega Protestantism complicates the issue. The Government has allowed foreign observers into the area several times, but strict monitoring by government officials, police, or plainclothes security agents, made obtaining genuinely free and independent assessments of the situation in the area extremely difficult.

Protestants also reported that during the period covered by this report, authorities in Dak Lak, Gia Lai, and some nearby provinces detained, beat, and harassed numerous Protestant believers, often in conjunction with pressure to renounce their faith. In April 2002, officials reportedly cut off electricity to the homes of ethnic Ede villagers in Ea Trol village in coastal Phu Yen province after they refused to give up Christianity.

There have been unconfirmed reports of groups of inebriated youths beating religious believers at the instigation of authorities. There were credible but unconfirmed reports from multiple sources that local police tortured Protestant detainees in some instances. In December 2001, police in Buon Cuor Knia village in Dak Lak province reportedly beat and shocked with electric wires 12 Christians who had attempted to flee across the border to Cambodia.

During the period covered by this report, the Government's main response to the ethnic unrest in the Central Highlands was directed at supposed Dega Protestants. However, particularly in Dak Lak, authorities have made little differentiation between Dega and other Protestants. In October 2002, the SECV complained that authorities had forced about 400 Protestant congregations in Dak Lak to disband since 2001. The Catholic Bishop's council sent a very unusual complaint letter, apparently largely about the difficulties Christians were experiencing in the Central Highlands, to the Government and National Assembly in late 2002.

There were reports that from February 2001 through mid 2002 groups of vigilantes abducted and beat Protestant worshippers at non-recognized worship centers in some locations. According to one report, the Protestant churches in Ban Don district in Dak Lak province were closed following the February 2001 demonstrations; authorities allegedly have prevented all assembly for worship since that time. In early 2002, reports claimed that police intermittently broke up all non-sanctioned Protestant gatherings, including weddings and funerals, in Krong Pak district, Dak Lak province. A May 2003 report described efforts by authorities, with the stated intention to "eradicate Christianity," to force Protestants in Dak Song district in Dak Lak province to stop holding church gatherings of more than five persons.

The Government continued to isolate certain religious figures by restricting their movements and by pressuring supporters and family members. Thich Huyen Quang, the Supreme Patriarch of the UBCV, lived in Quang Ngai province under conditions resembling house arrest from 1982 until March 2003, when he traveled to Hanoi for medical treatment and a meeting with Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and other senior officials. He later traveled to Hue, HCMC, and other locations. While confined to the pagoda, he was not allowed to lead prayers or participate in worship as a monk, and his ability to receive visitors was limited. Those who met with him were often questioned by the police. Despite this, government officials have maintained that Thich Huyen Quang has been under no formal restrictions since 1997. Thich Huyen Quang has called for the Government to recognize and sanction the operations of the UBCV. On June 27 the Government lifted an administrative probation order on Thich Quang Do that was to expire in September 2003. Thich Quang Do visited Thich Huyen Quang in February 2001, after which HCMC police detained him twice and questioned him for a total of 6 hours, at one point forcing him to undergo a strip-search. In June 2001, authorities enforced the remainder of a 1998 5-year administrative surveillance order on Thich Quang Do by confining him to his living quarters under guard. The confinement was in response to his attempt to organize a group of monks and nuns to go to Quang Ngai province to take Thich Huyen Quang to HCMC. Except for meeting Thich Huyen Quang in April 2003, Thich Quang Do had not met any outsiders since June 2001, at least partly by his own choice. (Since the end of the period covered by this report, restrictions have been re-imposed on several UBCV members, including - on an extralegal basis - Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do.)

In February 2001, UBCV monks Thich Thai Hoa and Thich Chi Mau organized a "week of prayer" at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue City. Local authorities reportedly ordered public high school and college students to attend classes throughout the week, even on Sunday - traditionally a non-school day - in an attempt to prevent their attendance at the event. Persons who visited the pagoda during the week reported that security forces detained and questioned them at local police stations. In September 2001, UBCV lay follower Ho Tan Anh immolated himself to death in Da Nang. According to a letter left behind by Anh, he took this action to protest CPV policies towards the UBCV (particularly a campaign directed at UBCV followers in Quang Nam province that began in June 2001).

On March 17, 2001, Le Quang Liem, leader of the unofficial Hoa Hao Central Buddhist Church (HHCBC), met with HHCBC Vice-Chairman Nguyen Van Dien and several other supporters in HCMC. Police placed Liem under administrative probation the next day after a day in police custody. Liem claims that he was beaten severely during that time. Police also detained, then released the other members of the group. Nguyen Van Dien was returned to his home province of Dong Thap and placed under a 2-year administrative probation order. Both Liem and Dien have now finished their detentions and are again free. On March 19 2001, 75-year-old unofficial Hoa Hao member Nguyen Thi Thu immolated herself to death at a village on the border between Dong Thap and Vinh Long provinces to support the Hoa Hao cause. It is unknown whether Thu was among those detained in HCMC on March 17, 2001.

Two Hoa Hao supporters, Truong Van Thuc and Nguyen Chau Lang were arrested on March 28, 2002 and sentenced to 3 years in prison. They were among 8 persons arrested for planning to organize a commemoration of the death of the Hoa Hao founder. Thuc was released in an amnesty in September 2002; six others had been released earlier. Only Nguyen Chau Lang remained in Xuan Loc camp, Dong Nai province serving a 3-year sentence at the end of the period covered by this report. He is described as being in good health. On April 14, 1999, police detained Ha Hai, the third-ranking officer of the HHCBC, in An Giang province and subsequently placed him under house arrest. Hai violated the house arrest order in November 2000, and was then arrested by HCMC police, and tried, and sentenced to 5 years in prison for abusing "democratic rights" on January 16, 2001. On November 28, 2000, a group of persons armed with clubs beat three of Hai's adult children who had visited the jail. The following day, several dozen persons protested the beatings at the police station. On December 7, 2000, during a clash between police and approximately 1,000 persons demanding Hai's release, Vo Hoang Van stabbed himself in the stomach and Mai Thi Dung slit her own throat. Both eventually recovered. Hai remains imprisoned in Xuan Loc camp, Dong Nai province.

In April 2001, Hoa Hao follower Bui Van Hue violated an administrative probation order, and crossed the border to Cambodia. In August 2001, he reportedly decided to apply to UNHCR for refugee status, but Cambodian police apprehended him and deported him back to Vietnam. In January 2002, a court in An Giang province sentenced him to 3-years' imprisonment for violating the administrative probation order and for leaving the country illegally.

Hoa Hao believers stated that a number of their leaders remained in detention at the end of the period covered by this report. Police arrested two Hoa Hao followers, Truong Van Duc and Ho Van Trong after a December 20, 2000 incident in which a group of persons and allegedly some police officers, attacked a group of Hoa Hao believers led by Le Quang Liem at a Hoa Hao festival. On May 20, 2001, Duc and Trong were tried, convicted, and received 12-year and 4-year prison sentences respectively. They remain imprisoned at Dinh Thanh camp, An Giang province.

On November 1, 2001, police in Cho Moi district of An Giang province ordered Hoa Hao monk Vo Thanh Liem (Nam Liem) to remove the Hoa Hao flag and photograph of the Hoa Hao founder that he had displayed in his pagoda. He refused and police remained at the pagoda for several days. On November 6, 2001 Liem climbed up a tree with a knife and a container of gasoline, threatening to kill himself if the police did not go away. After 3 days in the tree and a self-inflicted knife wound to his leg, Liem came down. He was not subjected to arrest or administrative detention.

Priests and lay brothers of the Catholic order Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix continue to face Government restrictions. Founded by Reverend Tran Dinh Thu in Bui Chu Diocese in 1953, the historically anticommunist order re-established its headquarters in Thu Duc District of HCMC in 1954. In 1988 police surrounded the 15-acre site and arrested all the priests and lay persons inside the compound. Father Thu was released in 1993 after serving nearly 5 years of a 20 year prison term. All but two others - Reverend Pham Minh Tri and layperson Nguyen Thien Phung - subsequently were released. Father Tri reportedly is in poor health; he and Phung remain imprisoned at Xuan Loc camp, Dong Nai province under 20 year sentences.

Two Cao Dai believers Ho Vu Khanh and Tran Van Nhi, were arrested in 1983 and received life sentences, later commuted to 20 years. Khanh completed his sentence on January 19 and was freed. Nhi received an amnesty in September 2000 and was freed. Another Cao Dai, Ngo Van Thong was arrested in 1977 and sentenced to death by a Tay Ninh provincial court; his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. He is believed to be in prison near Hanoi, but no recent news about him is available.

In February 2001 at Tu Hieu Pagoda, on the day before the start of the "week of prayer," Catholic Father Nguyen Van Ly, Hoa Hao elder Le Quang Liem, and Buddhist monks Thich Thien Hanh and Chan Tri met for the purpose of forming an interreligious body independent of government authority. Later in the same month, police surrounded Father Ly's church and placed him under administrative probation. His detention was reported widely in the state-controlled press, which identified him as a "traitor" for submitting written testimony critical of the Government to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. On May 16, 2001, allegedly as many as 300 police surrounded his church and arrested him. On October 19, 2001, the Thua Thien Hue Provincial People's Court convicted Father Ly and sentenced him to a total of 15 years in prison, 2 years for disobeying the administrative probation order, and 13 years for "damaging the Government's unity policy." Father Ly had called not only for religious freedom, but also for an end to one party rule. The Ha Nam provincial court reduced Father Ly's sentence by 5 years on July 16, 2003, in recognition of good behavior.

It is impossible to determine the exact number of religious detainees and religious prisoners. There is little transparency in the justice system, and it is very difficult to obtain confirmation of when persons are detained, imprisoned, tried, or released. Moreover, persons sometimes are detained for questioning and subsequently held under conditions amounting to house arrest using administrative probation regulations without being charged or without their detention being publicized. By the end of the period covered by this report, there reportedly were at least eight religious detainees who were held without formal arrest or charge; however, the number may be much greater. Unconfirmed reports suggest there may be over 100 other Protestants detained in the Central Highlands. Among those believed to be detained without having gone to trial are: Hmong Protestant Mua Say So (brother of the late Mua Bua Senh) in Lai Chau; Hmong Protestants Sinh Phay Pao, Va Sinh Giay, Vang Sua Giang, and Phang A Dong in Ha Giang province; Dinh Troi, an ethnic Hre Protestant detained in Quang Ngai in 1999; and Ama Ger and Ama Bion detained in Dak Lak in February 2001. A number of other UBCV, Cao Dai, Catholic, Hoa Hao, and Protestant dignitaries and believers had their movements restricted or were watched and followed by police.

Those persons believed to be imprisoned or detained at least in part for the peaceful expression of their religious faith as of June 2003 included: UBCV monk Thich Thien Minh; Catholic priests Pham Minh Tri and Nguyen Van Ly, and Catholic lay person Nguyen Thien Phung; Cao Dai believer Ngo Van Thong; Hoa Hao lay persons Bui Van Hue, Nguyen Chau Lang, Ha Hai, Ho Van Trong, and Truong Van Duc. Hoa Hao leaders Le Quang Liem and Nguyen Van Dien remain under formal administrative detention (house arrest). Ethnic minority Thai Protestants Lo Van Hoa, and Lo Van Hen, and ethnic majority Kinh Protestant Nguyen Thi Thanh, were placed under administrative probation.

There were numerous reports that groups of vigilantes or "gangs of hoodlums" beat Protestant believers in the Central Highlands. On April 1, 2002, allegedly at the instigation of commune and district authorities, a "gang" in the predominantly Catholic village of Dak Chach, Dak La commune, Kon Tum province reportedly beat Protestant believers Du Van Anh and Y Thet (husband and wife) and pastor Dinh Van Truc for not renouncing their faith. Forced to flee the village soon after, Anh and Y Thet sought refuge in neighboring villages during 2002 and into early 2003, reportedly being expelled by village authorities each time. On April 14 2002, a "gang" in Buon Eu Sup village, Dak Lak, reportedly beat Protestant believer Siu Kret. His father complained to local police about the incident. The police fined the gang members $33 (VND 500,000) and a pig, but the victim's father had to swear to police he was not a Protestant believer in order to collect the compensation. In April 2001, assailants severely beat two ethnic Vietnamese female primary school teachers on their return from a Protestant service in Phu Nhon district in Gia Lai Province. There were dozens of additional specific reports of similar beatings in the area.

Forced Religious Conversion

On multiple occasions, local officials in several northwestern villages reportedly attempted to convince or force Hmong Protestants to recant their faith and to perform traditional Hmong religious rites such as drinking blood from sacrificed chickens mixed with rice wine. Local authorities reportedly also encouraged clan elders to pressure members of their extended families to cease practicing Christianity and to return to traditional practices.

Following the ethnic unrest in the Central Highlands in February/March 2001, there also were numerous reports of local authorities attempting to force ethnic minority Protestants to renounce their faith. In the villages of Druh, B'Le, B'Gha, V'Sek, Koyua, Tung Thang, Tung Kinh, and Dung in Ea H'Leo district of Dak Lak province, ethnic minority commune and district officials, some of whom are ethnic minorities themselves, were assigned to coerce Protestant followers symbolically to abandon Protestantism by drinking alcohol mixed with animal blood in a ritual called "the ceremony of repentance." In the villages of Buon Sup, Buon Ea Rok, and Buon Koya in Ea Sup district, Dak Lak province, ethnic minority Protestants were pressured to undergo a similar ritual recantation of faith. There were sporadic unconfirmed reports of this occurring in other instances during the period covered by this report.

In other provinces, authorities encouraged a "revival of traditional culture," which includes abandoning Christian beliefs. During the last week of May 2001, in Ninh Son district of Ninh Thuan province, officials reportedly gave a picture of Ho Chi Minh to each family in an ethnic Roglai community that had been selected to be upgraded to a "cultural village," with instructions to place the picture on an altar and burn incense in front of it. When four Christian families declined, they were threatened with banishment from the village.

According to what appears to be an official document from Khanh Hoa province, police in May 2002 convinced numerous households to abandon Protestantism and in some cases provided a cash reward, as part of efforts to stamp out "illegal" religious activities.

There were no reports of forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

The status of respect for religious freedom overall remained fundamentally unchanged during the period covered by this report. It improved in some areas, but remained poor or even deteriorated in the Central Highlands and Northwest Highlands. The Party resolution on religion acknowledged the legitimate role of religious groups in social and charitable activities and clearly ended any prohibitions on the profession of religious belief by Party members. However, it also reinforced that the Party should control religious groups, that their activities should take place within legally defined bounds, and that illegal religious activity would be suppressed. In March, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai had a widely publicized meeting with UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang, who was subsequently able to travel to Hue, HCMC, and Quy Nhon during the period covered by this report. He also met with foreign diplomats a number of times during the period covered by this report. UBCV deputy leader Thich Quang Do was released from administrative detention in June.

The SECV opened an official theological school with 50 students and informed the Government that it is training more students outside the school. Some leaders of non-recognized Protestant churches reported that they continued negotiating with the Government for recognition, although no new recognitions were granted. Some pastors also reported that police surveillance of their worship activities has declined or ended, in some cases as long ago as early 2001. Some also reported that they have been able to conduct training activities openly. Leaders of some Protestant house churches have been allowed to travel overseas on multiple occasions. Catholic leaders report that they are able to assign priests more easily than in the past, even in some remote areas where no priests had been assigned for decades. Attendance at religious services continued to increase during the period covered by this report. The number of Buddhist monks and Catholic priests also continued to increase. Local authorities in many parts of the country allowed religious organizations to engage in more charitable and social activities in line with the Party's new resolution. In addition, there was continued gradual expansion of the parameters for individual believers adhering to one of the officially recognized religious bodies to practice their faiths.

Several thousand prisoners benefited from early releases through general amnesties during the period covered by this report, but it is unknown whether any of them were imprisoned for reasons related to expression of their religious faith.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

In general there are amicable relations among the various religious communities, and there were no known instances of societal discrimination based on religion during the period covered by this report. The U.S. Mission in Vietnam is aware of only one claim of violence between religious groups, in which a Catholic gang beat a Protestant couple in April 2002, allegedly because of their religious beliefs. In HCMC, there were some informal ecumenical dialogs among leaders of disparate religious communities. Buddhists, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai reportedly sometimes cooperate on some social and charitable projects. Working level cooperation between the Catholic and Protestant churches occurs in many parts of the country. Various elements of the UBCV Buddhists, Catholics, Cao Dai, Protestant, and Hoa Hao communities appeared to network with each other; many of them reportedly formed bonds while serving prison terms at Xuan Loc.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and the U.S. Consulate General in HCMC actively and regularly raised U.S. concerns about religious freedom with a wide variety of government officials, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Office of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Public Security, and other government offices in Hanoi, HCMC, and the provinces. During a visit to Vietnam, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom advocated for greater religious freedom and enquired about reported abuses with the Deputy Foreign Minister, the head of the Office of Religious Affairs, and Party intellectuals. He also met with leaders of various recognized religious groups. He also requested the government investigate the death of Mua Bua Senh. An Embassy officer requested that the Government release the report into Mua Bua Senh's death. Embassy and Consulate officials discussed religious freedom with Party officials and with leaders of mass organizations several times during the period covered by this report. All public organizations fall under the Vietnam Fatherland Front, which is in turn under the control of the Communist Party. Embassy and consulate officials also met with some of the Religious Council officials, which also falls under the Vietnam Fatherland Front, in their capacity as religious leaders as well as with all of the major religious groups, recognized as well as unregistered.

The U.S. Ambassador, the Deputy Chief of Mission, and other embassy officers have raised religious freedom issues with senior cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister, two Deputy Prime Ministers, the Foreign Minister, senior Government and Communist Party advisors, the head of the Office of Religion, the Vice Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Public Security, the chairpersons of Provincial People's Committees around the country, and other senior officials, particularly in the Central Highlands and the Northwest Highlands. The Consulate General and other consulate general officials also raised U.S. concerns about religious freedom with senior officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Public Security, with the Government's Office of Religious Affairs, and with the Provincial People's Committee Chairpersons, Religious Affairs Committee officials, and Department of Public Security officials. Embassy and consulate general officials maintained regular contact with the key government offices responsible for respect for human rights. Embassy officers informed government officials that the lack of progress on religious problems and human rights are a significant impediment to the full normalization of bilateral relations. The Embassy's public affairs officer distributed information about the U.S. concerns regarding religious freedom to Communist Party and government officials.

In their representations to the Government, the Ambassador and other Embassy officers urged recognition of a broad spectrum of religious groups, including members of the UBCV, the Protestant house churches, and dissenting Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups. They also urged greater freedom for recognized religious groups. Embassy and consulate general officials also have focused on specific abuses and restrictions on religious freedom. The Ambassador repeatedly advocated freeing Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do, and Father Nguyen Van Ly. The Ambassador also requested that the Government investigate whether Khanh Hoa police had in fact encouraged Protestant believers to renounce their religion, and if so, to punish the responsible officials. The April 2001 recognition of the SECV followed direct advocacy by U.S. officials during the annual Human Rights Dialog and ongoing discussions involving the Ambassador, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and other U.S. officials. The Ambassador and other U.S. Mission officials in HCMC called on the Government to release Thich Quang Do from administrative probation and to allow Thich Huyen Quang to relocate to HCMC on humanitarian grounds. The Ambassador and other U.S. Mission officials expressed concern for Father Nguyen Van Ly during his detention. After Father Ly's sentencing, the Ambassador and other Embassy officials, noting the harshness of the sentence, called for his early release.

Representatives of the Embassy and the Consulate General met on several occasions with leaders of all the major religious communities, including Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Muslims, Hindus, and Baha'is. When traveling in the provinces, embassy and consulate general officers make a point of meeting with local Religious Affairs Committees, village elders, local clergy, and believers. In February 2001 and February 2002, a consulate general officer met with the government-sanctioned Hoa Hao Committee in An Giang province and maintained regular contact with Hoa Hao dissident Le Quang Liem and Hoa Hao elder Tran Huu Duyen. Mission officers met Cao Dai Archbishops affiliated with the pre-1975 Cao Dai leadership in February 2002. The Consulate General re-established contact with UBCV monk Thich Quang Do after the lifting of his administrative probation order in June 2003, and maintained regular contact with other UBCV Buddhists and officially recognized Buddhists. Embassy and consulate general officers have also maintained contact with leaders of the Central Buddhist Sangha. In May 2001, a consulate general officer met with the 95 year old founder of the Co-Redemptrix Order Father Tran Dinh Thu in HCMC. An embassy officer met with Thich Thai Hoa in Hue in September 2000. Embassy and consulate general officers met with the Catholic Archbishops of Hanoi, HCMC, and Hue as well as other members of the Episcopal Conference. The Ambassador and other mission officers met with outspoken priest Chan Tin on numerous occasions during the period covered by this report. The Ambassador also met with the Catholic Archbishops of Hanoi and HCMC. The Ambassador and Consul General attended an Easter sunrise service in 2002 in the Central Highlands that was conducted in two ethnic minority languages and presided over by the Bishop of Kon Tum. Embassy and consulate general officers also met repeatedly with leaders of various Protestant house churches and with leaders of the Muslim community.

The U.S. Government commented publicly on the status of religious freedom in the country on several occasions. The Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom and other U.S. officials discussed problems in religious freedom in Vietnam during the November 2002 Human Rights dialog in Washington, and warned that failure by the Government to improve conditions might lead to designation of Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act. Senior U.S. officials repeated this warning on several occasions during the year.

Some religious sources have cited diplomatic intervention, primarily from the U.S., as a reason why the Government is seeking to legalize more religious groups and is allowing already legalized groups more freedom. Other religious sources noted U.S. diplomatic intervention as a factor that contributed to the Government's improved treatment of Thich Huyen Quang.



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