The constitution states that all people have freedom of belief and religion. The law 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. The 2016 Law on Belief and Religion, which came into effect in January, maintains a multistage registration and recognition process for religious groups but shortens the time for recognition at the national or provincial level from 23 to five years. It also specifies the right of recognized religious organizations to have legal personality. Religious leaders, particularly those representing groups without recognition or certificates of registration, reported various forms of government harassment – including physical assaults, arrests, prosecutions, monitoring, travel restrictions, and property seizure or destruction – and denials or no response to requests for registration and/or other permissions. For example, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were imprisoned in February on charges of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties.” There continued to be reports of severe harassment of religious adherents by authorities in the Central Highlands, specifically members of the Evangelical Church of Christ, and in the Northwest Highlands for H’mong Christians and Catholics, as well as for Catholic and Protestant groups in Nghe An Province. Religious group adherents reported local or provincial authorities committed the majority of harassment incidents. Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration were reportedly able to practice their beliefs with less government interference, although some recognized groups reported more difficulty gathering together in certain provinces, including the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) (ECVN) in Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, Ha Giang, and Hoa Binh Provinces. Others seeking to officially register their groups, including the United Presbyterian Church and the Vietnam Baptist Convention, also reported increased difficulty gathering in some provinces. Members of religious groups said some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close government management of their leadership, training programs, assemblies, and other activities. The government registered two religious communities, the Vietnam Full Gospel Denomination and the Vietnam United Gospel Outreach Church, during the year. Registration is the second step in the three-step process towards recognition and does not convey legal status. For the first time since 1998, United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) leader Thich Quang Do took up residence in a UBCV-affiliated pagoda. The government also allowed renowned Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh to return to the country. Hanh resided at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue at year’s end, and adherents reported no difficulties visiting him. Hanh also received diplomats and senior government leaders.
There were several reports of registered Cao Dai adherents preventing adherents of the unsanctioned Cao Dai from performing certain religious rituals. There continued to be some incidents of harassment of Catholics by the progovernment Red Flag Association, although the group reportedly dissolved itself in March.
The Ambassador and senior embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the independent UBCV, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent and “pure” 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. The Ambassador, Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, and senior embassy officers advocated for religious freedom in visits across the country, including to the Central Highlands. The Ambassador and officials met regularly and maintained recurring contact with religious leaders across the country. The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with the chairman of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs in Washington, D.C. in July and raised concerns about implementation of the new law, the status of religious believers detained or imprisoned, and the situation of ethnic religious minority groups. The Ambassador at Large and a senior official from the Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor raised issues of religious freedom during the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in Washington in May.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states that all individuals 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 Law on Belief and Religion and implementing Decree 162, which came into effect on January 1, serve as the primary documents governing religious groups and their activities. At year’s end, a decree prescribing penalties for noncompliance with the new law had yet to be finalized. The law reiterates citizens’ rights to freedom of belief and religion and 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; impede the exercise of civic rights and performance of civic obligations; or conduct superstitious activities or otherwise violate the law.
The government recognizes 38 religious organizations and one dharma practice (a set of spiritual practices) that affiliate with 15 distinct religious traditions as defined by the government. The 15 religious traditions are: Buddhism, Islam, Baha’i, Catholicism, Protestantism, Church of Jesus Christ, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Cao Dai, Buu Son Ky Huong, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Phat Duong Nam Tong Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao Tam Tong Mieu, Khmer Brahmanism, and Hieu Nghia Ta Lon Buddhism. Distinct denominations within these religious traditions must seek their own registration and/or recognition. Three additional groups – the Assemblies of God, Ta Lon Dutiful and Loyal Buddhism, and Vietnam Full Gospel Church – have “registration for religious operation” but are not recognized as official organizations.
The law provides for government control over religious practices and permits restrictions on religious freedom in the interest of “national security” and “social unity.”
The new law reduced the waiting period for a religious group, and its affiliate group or groups, to obtain recognition from 23 years to five years and for the first time specifies that recognized religious organizations and their affiliates are noncommercial legal entities. The law also specifies that religious organizations be allowed to conduct educational, health, social protection, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws, but it does not specify which law prevails in instances in which the law may contradict other laws, or where other laws do not have clear provisions, such as the Law on Education.
The CRA is responsible for implementing religious laws and decrees, and it maintains offices at the central, provincial, and, in some areas, district level. The law lays out specific responsibilities for central-, provincial-, and local-level CRA offices and delegates certain religion-related management tasks to provincial- 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.
By law, forcing others to follow or renounce a religion or belief is prohibited.
The law requires “religious practices” to register with communal authorities where the “lawful premises for the religious practice is based” and prescribes two stages of institutionalization for religious organizations seeking to gather at a specified location to “practice worship rituals, pray, or express their religious faith.” The first stage is “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 organize religious ceremonies and religious practice; preach and conduct religious classes at approved locations; elect, appoint, or designate functionaries; repair or renovate the headquarters; engage in charitable or humanitarian activities; and organize congresses to approve its charter. To obtain this registration, the group 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 provincial CRA office or the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), depending on whether the group in question is operating in one or more provinces, is responsible for approving a valid application for registration within 60 days of receipt. The relevant provincial CRA office or the MHA is required to provide any rejection in writing.
The second stage of institutionalization is recognition. A religious group may apply for recognition after it has operated continuously for at least five years since the date of receiving the “registration for religious operation.” The religious group is required to have a legal charter and bylaws, leaders in good standing without criminal records, and to have managed assets and conducted transactions autonomously. To obtain such recognition, the group must submit a detailed application package to the provincial or national level CRA, depending on the geographic extent of the organization. The application dossier must include a written request specifying the group’s structure, membership, geographical scope of operation and headquarters location; summary of history, dogmas, canon laws and rites; list and resumes, judicial records, and summary of religious activities of the organization’s representative and tentative leaders; charter; declaration of the organization’s lawful assets; and proof of lawful premises to serve as a headquarters. The relevant provincial people’s committee or the MHA is responsible for approving a valid application for recognition within 60 days of receipt. The relevant provincial people’s committee or MHA is required to provide any rejection in writing. Recognition allows the religious group to conduct religious activities in accordance with the religious organization’s charter; organize religious practice; publish religious texts, books, and other publications; produce, export, and import religious cultural products and religious articles; renovate, upgrade, or construct new religious establishments; and receive lawful donations from domestic and foreign sources, among other rights.
The law states that religious organizations and their affiliates, clergy, and believers have the right to file complaints or civil and administrative lawsuits, or make formal complaints about government officials or agencies (denunciations) under the relevant laws and decrees. The 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 were no specific analogous provisions in the previous laws.
The law provides 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 20 working days of receipt. The law specifies that a wide variety of religious activities require advance approval or registration from the authorities at the central and/or local levels. These activities 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.
Certain religious activities do not require advance approval, but instead require notification 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; the repair or renovation of religious facilities not considered cultural-historical relics; 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.
The law provides prisoners access to religious materials, with conditions, while in detention. It reserves authority for the government to restrict the “assurance” of that right. Decree 162 states detainees may use religious documents that are legally published and circulated, in line with legal provisions on custody, detention, prison, or other types of confinement. This use and/or practice must not affect rights to belief/religion or nonbelief/religion of others or go against relevant laws. The decree states the Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Defense, and Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs shall be responsible for providing guidelines on the management of religious documents, and the time and venue for the use of these documents.
The law specifies that religious organizations must follow numerous other laws for certain activities. Religious organizations are allowed to conduct educational, health, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws, but the law does not provide clarification as to which activities are permitted. In addition, construction or renovation of religious facilities must be undertaken in accordance with relevant laws and regulations on construction and foreigners participating in religious activities must abide by immigration law.
The law states that publishing, producing, exporting, or importing religious texts must be in accordance with laws and regulations related to publishing. Publishing legislation requires all publishers be licensed public entities or state-owned enterprises. Publishers must receive prior government approval to publish all documents, including religious texts. By decree, only the Religious Publishing House may publish religious books. 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 law, land use by religious organizations must conform to the land law and its related decrees. The land law recognizes that 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.
Under the law, 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. Religious institutions are not permitted to exchange, transfer, lease, donate, or mortgage their land-use rights. In land disputes involving a religious institution, the chairperson of the provincial-level people’s committee has authority to settle disputes. Those who disagree with the chairperson’s decision may appeal to the minister of natural resources and environment or 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 facilities owned by religious groups also requires notification to authorities, although it does not necessarily require a permit, depending on the extent of the renovation.
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. The government does not permit religious groups to run private schools; however, some religious groups, such as Catholics and Buddhists, run kindergartens, and some Christian churches have seminaries.
The law no longer requires individuals to specify their religious affiliation on national identification cards.
There are separate provisions of the law for foreigners legally residing 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 citizens 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.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Representatives from the Embassy in Hanoi and the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City regularly raised concerns about religious freedom with a wide range of government officials and CPV leaders, including the president, prime minister, and senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Public Security, the CRA, and other offices in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and in various provinces and cities. They stressed to government officials that progress on religious freedom and human rights was critical to an improved bilateral relationship.
The Ambassador and other officials at the embassy and consulate general urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the UBCV, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Cao Dai and Hoa Hao groups; sought greater freedom for recognized and registered religious groups; advocated access to religious materials and clergy for those incarcerated; and urged an end to restrictions on unregistered groups. Embassy and consulate general officials raised specific cases of abuse, as well as government harassment against Catholics, Protestant groups, the UBCV, independent Hoa Hao groups, and ethnic minority house churches, with the CRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and provincial- and local-level authorities. U.S. government officials called for the increased registration of church congregations around the country and for improvement in registration policies to make them more uniform and transparent. U.S. government officials also urged the government to resolve peacefully outstanding land-rights disputes with religious organizations.
The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with the Chairman of the CRA in Washington, D.C. in July and raised concerns about implementation of the new law, the status of religious believers detained or imprisoned, and the situation of ethnic religious minority groups. The Ambassador at Large and a senior official from the Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor raised issues of religious freedom during the annual U.S. Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in Washington.
Representatives of the Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom visited Vietnam in November and met with government officials from the MFA and the CRA as well as with registered and unregistered religious groups to discuss implementation of the Law on Belief and Religion and advocate for increased religious freedom, including allowing both registered and unregistered groups to exercise their rights freely, seeking accountability for reports of government harassment, and resolving lands-rights issues.
The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officials met with religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious groups and attended religious ceremonies to demonstrate support for religious freedom. On December 11, the Ambassador and the Consul General visited Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in Tu Hieu Pagoda in Thua Thien, Hue. On September 24, the Consul General addressed an estimated one hundred thousand attendees at the registered Cao Dai Holy Mother Goddess Festival in Tay Ninh Province and underscored the U.S. commitment to religious freedom. Senior embassy and consulate officials at every level traveled throughout the country, including to the Northwest and Central Highlands, to monitor religious liberty and meet with religious leaders. Representatives of the embassy and consulate general maintained frequent contact with many leaders of religious communities, including recognized, registered, and unregistered organizations.