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Vietnam Could Be Removed from U.S. Blacklist

8/31/2006 Vietnam (Compass Direct News) – Following an August 15-18 visit to Vietnam by U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom John Hanford, indications are that Vietnam will be taken off the U.S. list of the world’s worst religious liberty offenders.

Nearing the planned September 2 release from prison of key Hmong Christian leader Ma Van Bay for Vietnam’s National Day amnesty – described as “propaganda exercises” by one human rights advocate – various releases by the official Vietnam News Agency signal that Vietnamese officials expected Ambassador Hanford to take good news of religious liberty progress back to Washington. The State Department usually announces designations of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) in September.

An August 20 posting on the Vietnam News Agency website noted that Hanford said Vietnam had made “significant improvements” in religious activities. “He said it is time for the U.S. to accelerate the process of removing Vietnam from the list of ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ in religion, and [that] freedom of religion is no longer a barrier to the approval of Permanent Normal Trading Relations [PNTR] status for Vietnam,” the agency said.

A staff member from Hanford’s office, however, clarified that the ambassador’s actual statement was, “It’s time for the Vietnamese to accelerate the process of registrations and other commitments they made in our exchange of letters, so we could be in a position to make a positive decision on CPC status.”

According to an August 18 Agence France-Presse report, an embassy spokesman confirmed that meetings between Hanford and Vietnamese officials were “going well.” The U.S. Embassy in Vietnam has been trying to get the nation off the CPC list.

The CPC designation has remained a significant barrier to PNTR status, which Vietnam needs to clear the way for U.S. support for its accession to the World Trade Organization. Vietnam is also anxious to get off the black list in advance of President Bush’s planned state visit in November that is to follow Hanoi ’s hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Ambassador Hanford also met with some leaders of Vietnam ’s still unregistered house churches during his visit, who said he hinted that he was inclined to see the CPC status dropped. The staff member in his office said the Protestant leaders told him that most people in the country are able to worship with little harassment today, a marked improvement over the situation in Vietnam before it was designated as a CPC.

To be removed from the list, Vietnam must show Washington lawmakers that religious persecution in Vietnam is no longer “egregious, systematic and long-standing,” according to the 1998 U.S. International Religious Freedom Act.

Vietnam ’s new religion legislation, promulgated between November 2004 and March 2005, was supposed to bring significant improvement in the ease of registration of local religious activity and stop widespread discrimination against Christians. According to representatives of the majority of Protestants in Vietnam who remain unregistered, and thus illegal, while there have been some modest and spotty improvements, there is still no clear indication of a breakthrough – or even that reform is uniform and systematic.

They also note that not one of the many officials who have broken Vietnam ’s laws in mistreating Christians has yet been charged.

Further, no new Protestant organizations have been nationally registered since the new legislation. Members of the Danang-based Christian Mission Church (CMC), which applied three years ago and was promised national registration by the government a few months ago, still waits. Leaders of the CMC reported they were discouraged after recent meetings with Hanoi officials.

“They just made demands, demands,” one leader said.

Pushing the Limit

Vietnam ’s many house church organizations say they are willing to register but are still waiting for clarity on the process before proceeding. They say they are still looking for clear signs the government is acting sincerely and are troubled by continuing acts of persecution against Christians, especially in remote areas.

Pastor Eric Dooley of the New Life Fellowship (NLF), an international English-language church in Ho Chi Minh City , has appealed to Vietnam ’s new prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, for the reopening of the church in a letter dated last Thursday (August 24). The NLF church was shut down by District 5 police without explanation a year ago after operating eight years without incident or difficulty.

The church had requested government guidance on getting permission many times without reply. Dooley wrote, “Many foreigners are extremely surprised when they arrive in Vietnam and learn that our church is not allowed to meet in a public place for worship. From Bejing to Kwei Chow, to Bangkok and Singapore , English-speaking congregations meet in hotels or restaurants for worship, and local authorities readily grant permission without any concerns for their national security or their cultural values.”

One influential church leader told Compass that he and other colleagues feared they had likely pushed the limit in their cooperation with the United States to press for religious freedom. If they pushed harder, he feared, they might increase the bitterness that Vietnamese officials felt toward them and suffer a backlash. It is this fear, rather than faith in positive change, he said, that has led some church leaders to concede that a decrease in U.S. pressure – including removal of CPC status – may not be altogether undesirable.

The church leader emphasized that there is still a huge difference between how local Christians and government officials perceive what did and could happen to people of faith in cities and in remote areas.

Vietnam has just announced the planned release of a prominent Christian leader of the Hmong minority, Ma Van Bay, in the September 2 National Day amnesty of 5,352 prisoners. U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Marine told the Voice of America that once Pastor Bay is released, all those the United States lists as “prisoners of concern” in Vietnam will be free – a statement that would surprise many of the ethnic minorities or Montagnards in the Central Highlands.

Many Montagnards Christians were arrested and imprisoned following demonstrations in 2001 and 2004 over the loss of their traditional land and over lack of religious freedom. Human Rights Watch has a list of 355 Montagnards, mostly Christians, many of whom are serving long sentences on vaguely worded national security charges. HRW says that this enables the Vietnamese government to make peaceful dissent or unsanctioned religious acts a crime. Only one Montagnard, Y Oal Nie, is listed in the National Day Amnesty.

Many were imprisoned on false charges on matters relating to “national security.” Vo Van Ai of the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights welcomed the release of Pastor Bay and ailing cyber-dissident Pham Hong Son, who was serving a long sentence for having translated an article on democracy. But he called the releases “piecemeal” and “a propaganda exercises,” noting that two prisoners of conscience out of more than 5,000 in Vietnam ’s 800 prisons and labor camps did not amount to much.