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Executive Summary

The constitution states that all people have the right to freedom of belief and religion. Current law, however, provides for significant government control over religious practices and includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. In November the National Assembly passed a new Law on Belief and Religion, which is scheduled to come into effect in January 2018. The implementation decree for the new law remained pending release. According to legal experts, the new law maintains many current restrictions such as prescribing a multistage registration process, but significantly reduces the waiting period for a religious group to obtain recognition; specifies the right of recognized religious organizations to have legal personality; and streamlines processes for religious groups to obtain recognition or certificates of registration for specific activities. In January the head pastor of an unregistered Degar evangelical church died from injuries sustained during a police beating in December 2015. Government authorities continued to limit the activities of unrecognized religious groups and those without certificates of registration for religious activities, particularly those groups the government believed to be engaged in political activity. Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration were reportedly able to practice their beliefs with less interference. The government continued to restrict the activities of recognized religious groups in education and health, although less so than in previous years, and severely restricted such activities by groups without certificates of registration. Religious leaders, particularly those of groups without recognition or certificates of registration, reported various forms of governmental harassment, including physical assault, short-term detention, prosecutions, monitoring, restrictions on travel, property seizure or destruction, and denials of registration and/or other permissions, especially in the Central and Northwest Highlands. Government treatment of religious groups varied from region to region and among the central, provincial, and local levels. Religious followers reported local or provincial authorities, rather than central authorities, committed the majority of harassment incidents. Some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close governmental management of their leadership structures, training programs, assemblies, and other activities. The government granted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) official national-level recognition in June. In September authorities permitted the Catholic Church to open its first institute of higher education in the country since 1975.

There were some reports of tensions within the H’mong ethnic group concerning religious observance.

During their visits, the U.S. President and Secretary of State called for improvements in religious freedom in meetings with senior government officials. U.S. embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups. They sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups, and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of groups without recognition or registration. U.S. officials maintained regular contact with religious leaders across the country. The U.S. President met with civil society and religious leaders during a visit to the country in May. The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom discussed religious freedom concerns with government officials during the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in April. The Ambassador at Large visited the country in March and the Assistant Secretary in May, meeting a broad range of recognized and unrecognized religious groups and advocating for improvements to freedom of religion in law and practice. The embassy and senior U.S. officials submitted recommendations on language for the Law on Religion and Belief to government leaders during the law-drafting process aimed at bringing the text more in line with the country’s constitution and international commitments to protect religious freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that all people have the right to freedom of belief and religion, including the freedom to follow no religion. The constitution acknowledges the right to freedom of religion or belief of those whose rights are limited, including inmates or any foreigners and stateless persons. The constitution states all religions are equal before the law and the state must respect and protect freedom of belief and religion. The constitution prohibits citizens from violating the freedom of belief and religion or taking advantage of a belief or religion in order to violate the law.

The 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief and implementation Decree 92, issued in 2012, serve as the primary documents governing religious practice. Both the ordinance and Decree 92 reiterate citizens’ rights to freedom of belief and religion while also stipulating that individuals may not use the right of belief and religious freedom to undermine peace, national independence, and unification; incite violence or propagate wars; proselytize in contravention of the state’s laws and policies; divide people, nationalities, or religions; cause public disorder, infringe upon the life, health, dignity, honor and/or property of others, or impede the exercise of civic rights and performance of civic obligations; or conduct superstitious activities or otherwise violate the law.

In November the National Assembly passed the country’s first Law on Belief and Religion, which is scheduled to come into effect in January 2018 and will supersede the 2004 ordinance. The government did not release the implementation decree for the new law by the end of the year; the decree will impact the final interpretation and enforcement of the new law and is expected to supersede Decree 92.

The new law continues to provide for significant government control over religious practices and permits restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. “Strictly prohibited” acts include “undermining national defense, national security, national sovereignty, public order, public safety, and the environment,” “doing harm to social ethics or others’ health, life, dignity, honor, or property,” “sowing division among the people,” and “abusing belief and religious activities to gain personal benefit.”

The new law reduces the waiting period for a religious group to obtain national-level or provincial recognition from 23 years to five years, lessens the number of religion-related procedures requiring advance approval from authorities, aims to clarify the process by which religious organizations can obtain registration for their activities and recognition, and for the first time specifies the right of legal status for recognized religious groups. The law also specifies that religious groups be allowed to conduct educational, health, social protection, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws.

The CRA is responsible for implementing the 2004 ordinance and all other related ordinances, decrees, and regulations, and will be responsible for implementing the new law. The CRA maintains offices at the central, provincial, and in some areas, district level. Current regulations and the new law lay out specific responsibilities for central-level, province-level, and local-level CRA offices, and delegate certain religion-related management tasks to provincial-level and local-level people’s committees (i.e. local leaders). The central-level CRA is charged with disseminating information to authorities and assuring uniform compliance with the legal framework on religion at the provincial, district, commune, and village levels.

Current regulations and the new law state forcing others to follow, or renounce, a religion or belief is prohibited.

Current regulations prescribe a multistage process to obtain recognition. A religious organization must first apply for and obtain a “registration of religious practice” from the commune-level government by providing a dossier of information, including on its structure, leadership, membership, and activities. A registration of religious practice allows a group of individuals to gather at a specified location to “practice worship rituals, pray, or express their religious faith.” After operating lawfully for 20 years under a registration of religious practice, a religious organization is permitted to apply for a “registration for religious operation” with the provincial or national-level CRA, depending on the geographic extent of the group’s activities. A registration for religious operation allows the group to conduct religious ceremonies, services, and preaching at the registered venue; hold congresses to adopt its charter and statutes; elect or designate its leaders and organize training courses on religious tenets; repair and renovate its facilities; and conduct missionary, charity, and humanitarian activities. Three years after obtaining a registration for religious operation, a religious organization becomes eligible to apply for legal recognition after electing its leaders through a national convention. The application for recognition must include information about the organization’s leadership, number of believers, history of operations, tenets and canons, and bylaws. Under current regulations, applications for recognition must be approved by the prime minister (for religious organizations operating in more than one province) or the chairman of the provincial people’s committee (for religious organizations operating within one province).

At every stage of the registration and recognition application process, current regulations specify time limits for an official response, which can be up to 45 days, depending on the scope of the request. Although current regulations require government authorities to explain formally any denial in writing, the denial may be for any reason, given the significant discretion the law gives to those authorities. There is no mechanism for appeal.

The new law also prescribes a multistage process for a religious organization to receive recognition. First, an unrecognized religious organization must obtain a certificate of registration for religious activities from the provincial-level CRA (if the organization will operate only within one province) or national-level CRA (if the organization will operate in multiple provinces). To obtain such registration, the organization must submit a detailed application package with information about its doctrine, history, bylaws, leaders, and members and proof it has a legal meeting location. The relevant CRA office is responsible for approving a valid application for registration within 75 days of receipt. The CRA is required to provide any rejection in writing.

Under the new law, religious organizations with a certificate of registration (“registered religious organizations”) are allowed to preach, organize religious ceremonies, and conduct religious classes at approved locations; organize conferences to approve its charter and bylaws; elect or appoint leaders; repair or renovate religious facilities; and conduct charitable or humanitarian activities. Under the new law, however, a wide variety of these religious activities continue to require advance approval or registration from government authorities. The new law states that all such activities must also comply with other laws governing construction and charitable activities.

The next step is for a registered religious organization to seek recognition. Under the new law, a religious organization is permitted to apply for recognition after it operates continuously for at least five years with legal registration, has developed a legal charter and bylaws, has leaders in good standing without a criminal record, and manages assets and conducts transactions as its own entity. After meeting these requirements, a registered religious organization must submit a detailed application package to the provincial or national-level CRA, depending on the geographic extent of the organization. The application must include information about the structure, membership, location, history, charter, and finances of the organization. The relevant CRA office is responsible for approving a valid application for recognition within 75 days of receipt. The CRA is required to provide any rejection in writing.

Under current regulations, the government has regulatory oversight of religious groups, which must be officially registered or recognized as formal religious organizations. Current regulations stipulate that local government authorities must approve the leadership, activities, and the establishment of seminaries or religious classes, and require religious organizations to register their religious leaders and officials with the CRA at the central or provincial level. Current regulations specify curriculum guidelines for religious training institutions.

Under both current law and the new law, religious organizations have the right to publish religious materials, produce and export religious objects and icons, construct and maintain religious facilities, and accept donations from domestic and foreign sources. Both current law and the new law imply, but do not specify, that these rights apply only to recognized religious organizations. Religious organizations must also follow other laws governing publishing.

Current regulations do not specify whether religious organizations have legal personality. The new law, however, states a recognized religious organization will attain the status of a “noncommercial legal person” from the date of its recognition. There is no provision for registered but unrecognized religious organizations to attain such legal personality. Organizations previously recognized before the implementation of the new law will retain their recognized status and organizations with certificates of registration before the implementation of the new law will retain their certificates of registration. Affiliates of a recognized organization are permitted to apply for their own legal personality.

The new law specifies that religious organizations and their affiliates, clergy, and believers have the right to file complaints or civil and administrative lawsuits, or make denunciations (formal complaints about government officials or agencies) under the relevant laws and decrees. The new law also states that organizations and individuals have the right to bring civil lawsuits in court regarding the actions of religious groups or believers. There are no specific analogous provisions in the current regulations.

The 2005 prime ministerial Directive on Some Tasks Regarding Protestantism instructs authorities to help unrecognized and unregistered Protestant congregations to register so they can worship openly and work to attain recognition. The directive specifically instructs authorities in the Central and Northwest Highlands to help groups of Protestants register their religious activities and practice in homes or “suitable locations,” even if they do not meet the criteria to establish an official congregation. The directive also instructs local officials in the Central Highlands, central Vietnam, and the southern Annamese Mountains region to allow unrecognized “house churches” to operate as long as they are “committed to abide by the law” and are not affiliated with separatist political movements or “Degar Protestantism.” CRA officials stated during the year that the 2005 directive would remain in place after the new law comes into force.

Both current regulations and the new law provide a separate process for unregistered, unrecognized religious organizations or groups of individuals to receive permission for specific religious activities by submitting an application package to the commune-level people’s committee. Current regulations require the people’s committee to respond in writing to such an application within 15 working days of receipt, while the new law requires a response in writing within 25 days of receipt.

Both current regulations and the new law specify that a wide variety of religious activities require advance approval or registration from the national-level CRA, provincial-level CRA, or local authorities. Under the new law, these activities continue to include “belief activities” (defined as traditional communal practices related to ancestor, hero, or folk worship); “belief festivals” being held for the first time; the establishment, split, or merger of religious affiliates; the ordination, appointment, or assignment of religious administrators (or clergy with administrative authority); establishment of a religious training facility; conducting religious training classes; holding major religious congresses; organizing religious events, preaching, or evangelizing outside of approved locations; traveling abroad to conduct religious activities or training; and joining a foreign religious organization.

According to current regulations, certain religious activities do not require advance approval, but instead must be notified to the appropriate authorities. Activities requiring notification include recurring or periodic “belief festivals;” dismissal of clergy; conducting fundraising activities; notification of enrollment figures at a seminary or religious school; and the repair or renovation of religious facilities not considered cultural-historical relics. Under the new law, additional activities requiring notification and not advance approval include the ordination, appointment, or assignment of religious clergy (such as monks); transfers or dismissals of religious administrators (or clergy with administrative authority); conducting operations at an approved religious training facility; routine religious activities (defined as “religious preaching, practicing religious tenets and rites, and management of a religious organization”); and internal conferences of a religious organization.

Both current law and the new law specify that religious organizations must follow numerous other laws for certain activities. Current law and the new law specify that religious organizations be allowed to conduct educational, health, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws. In addition, both current law and the new law state that construction or renovation of religious facilities must abide by relevant laws and regulations on construction, and foreigners participating in religious activities must abide by immigration law.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public and private schools. Private schools are required to follow a government-approved curriculum, which does not allow for religious instruction.

Both current law and the new law specify that publishing, producing, exporting, or importing religious texts must be in accordance with laws and regulations related to publishing. The Law on Publishing requires all publishers be licensed public entities or state-owned enterprises. Publishers must receive prior approval by government authorities for the publication of all documents, including religious texts. By decree, only the Religious Publishing House may publish religious books. In practice, however, other licensed publishers print books related to religion. Publishers have received permission to print the Bible in Vietnamese and a number of other languages, including Chinese, Ede, Jarai, Banar, M’nong, H’mong, C’ho, and English. Other published texts include, but are not limited to, works pertaining to ancestry worship, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Cao Dai. Any bookstore may sell legally published religious texts and other religious materials.

The constitution states the government owns and manages all land on behalf of the people. According to the new law, land use by religious organizations must conform to the Land Law and its related decrees. The Land Law recognizes licensed religious institutions and schools may acquire land use rights and be allocated or leased land. The law specifies religious institutions are eligible for state compensation if their land is seized under eminent domain. The law allows provincial-level people’s committees to seize land via eminent domain in order to facilitate the construction of religious facilities.

The current law states provincial-level people’s committees may grant land-use certificates for a “long and stable term” to religious institutions if they have permission to operate, the land is dispute-free, and the land was not acquired via transfer or donation after July 1, 2004. According to the law, religious institutions are not permitted to exchange, transfer, lease, donate, or mortgage their land use rights. In the case of land disputes involving a religious institution, the law gives the chairperson of the provincial-level people’s committee the authority to settle disputes. The law allows parties who disagree with the chairperson’s decision to appeal to the minister of natural resources and environment or to file a lawsuit in court.

In practice, if a religious organization has not obtained recognition, members of the congregation may acquire a land use title individually, but not corporately as a religious establishment. The renovation or upgrade of religious facilities also requires notification to authorities, although it does not necessarily require a permit, depending on the extent of the renovation. Decree 92 stipulates authorities must respond to a construction permit application within 20 days, although the law does not provide for accountability of authorities if they do not comply with the deadline.

The 2005 prime ministerial Directive on Some Tasks Regarding Protestantism calls on authorities to facilitate the requests of recognized Protestant denominations to construct churches and to train and appoint pastors.

Individuals are no longer required to specify their religious affiliation on national identification cards. During the year, the government began issuing new cards, which no longer listed religious affiliation.

Separate provisions of the new law exist for foreigners legally resident in the country to request permission to conduct religious activities, teach, attend local religious training, or preach in local religious institutions. The law requires religious organizations or Vietnamese individuals to receive government permission in advance of hosting or conducting any religious activities involving foreign organizations, foreign individuals, or travel abroad. Current regulations also contain requirements for foreigners conducting religious activities within the country, including those involved in religious training, ordination, and leadership, to seek permission for their activities.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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