When the “Government of Vietnam” posted two draft religion decrees the first week of June, even ranking staff members of the Government Bureau of Religious Affairs were taken by surprise and encouraged religious leaders to strongly object.

Congress of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam-South in 2018 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (ECVN-S photo)

The decrees with ancillary documents were posted online for input by government departments and the public. The document dump was 151 pages.

One draft decree would take the place of Decree 162/2017, which provided implementation guidelines for the penultimate Law on Belief and Religion (LBR) that went into effect Jan. 1, 2018. After three years, the government authors of the draft decrees admit to shortcomings in the original implementation decree and offer this attempt to fix them. In practice the revisions would only tighten control.

Most concerning is a draft decree stipulating remedies and punishments for administrative infractions of the existing LBR and other rules. It is already nicknamed the “Punishment Degree.” The original such draft decree floated three years ago received such a negative response that it was never passed or enforced. The current draft is hardly better.

One Vietnamese analyst put it this way: “If you start with something which is very bad at its core, any additions to it can only be bad too.”

He referred to Vietnam’s record on human rights, especially religious freedom, internationally known to be very deficient.

“Tinkering with the margins will not change the rotten core,” the analyst concluded.

In the draft punishment decree, each of the religion regulations and rules comes with an administrative punishment schedule ranging from “warning” to “severe warning,” then to graduated fines up to 30 million VND (US$1,300) for an individual and 60 million VND (US$2,600) for an organization. Beyond that, punishments range up to shutting down a religious organization entirely.

Further, those accused of breaking religion rules are warned that they may also be violating criminal codes, putting them in double jeopardy. Article 8 of the punishment decree, for example, says, that if someone disagrees with or disobeys their religious leader, they may also be charged with breaking civil laws such as violating social peace and order, or fire safety codes, etc.

There are extremely onerous reporting requirements. All local church activities must be reported and approved a year in advance. Every office address change and reassignment of church staff must be reported within short time limits, or churches would face fines.

Mandatory study of Vietnam’s “revolutionary history” and Vietnamese law must be included in all training curriculum for clergy. Punishments include everything up to shutting down the training institutions.

Foreigners are limited in their activities with Vietnamese co-religionists. The amount a foreigner puts into an offering plate at a worship service must be reported, as must all financial contributions from abroad.

Current regulations, unchanged in the new draft decree on LBR implementation, call for religious organizations to submit detailed bios for all leadership candidates for government preapproval. Only then will the government grant permission to meet in general assembly to vote.

In a current case, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam-South (ECVN-S) submitted the names and bios of 257 eligible candidates for about 30 leadership positions to be democratically decided. The government declined to accept one pastor whom they identified as a “troublemaker.”

The ECVN-S responded by asking the government “not to interfere in the internal affairs of their legally recognized organization” and advised authorities that if the said pastor were guilty of civil crimes they should go after him by legal means. This conflict now puts the ECVN-S’s long-planned July 2022 quadrennial General Assembly in jeopardy.

Three entire chapters of the punishment decree have to with the registration and legal recognition of religious organizations. In one of many head-scratchers, a religious organization that is not yet legally recognized may be fined if it “uses its religious reputation to further its cause.”

Very concerning is Article 28 of the proposed replacement decree for Decree 162/2017. It extends all religion regulation to apply also to online meetings and activities, an entirely new phenomenon of the COVID-19 era. Hard to imagine the interference that could cause.

Much ink is spilled about things that are “forbidden.” Most significant is the continued reference to nebulous “crimes” such as “taking advantage of belief and religion” or “causing social division” or “violating public morality” or “disturbing social order.” There are no definitions as to what these forbidden things actually mean, leaving them completely open to subjective interpretation.

Under such “forbiddens,” it is hard to tell if not worshipping one’s ancestors or venerating national heroes could lead to being classified as violating national morality or being labelled a cult. The “forbiddens” open the way to endless pretexts for accusing people.

One Vietnamese leader said of the new draft punishment decree, “It appears to be written with the purpose of encouraging the punishment of individuals and organizations. It’s not even the money fines as much as how this whole wretched system looks under the advertisement of providing more ‘freedom of religion.’”

While a few egregious examples are highlighted here, the root problem is that Vietnam puts on full display its embarrassing dogma of having to control all aspects of religion because it is still interpreted as a threatening and dangerous social phenomenon. Clearly, the top level of Vietnam’s extensive security apparatus, which always manages to place its own personnel in key positions in the religion bureaucracy, is behind the proposed measures.

Religion authorities in Hanoi invited leaders of non-recognized house churches in northern Vietnam to a June 12-14 seminar to propagandize the new regulations. The government invitation expressed the expectation that “the guidance and propaganda provided by the seminar will win the hearts of house church leaders to complete all the necessary legal documents.”

For most house churches, the regulations on religion themselves have made it impossible to apply for legal recognition. Officials have denied or ignored some that have tried to apply. But most house church groups have been reluctant to seek legal recognition because they have observed how the onerous regulations have handicapped legally recognized groups.

Said one knowledgeable Vietnamese observer, “If these decrees are passed in their present form, both legally recognized and unrecognized religious organizations will be like a small candle facing a typhoon.”

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