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Religious Tension Mounts in Vietnam

ICC Note:

Religious minorities continue to face restrictions to religious freedom in Vietnam.

9/30/09 Vietnam (BBC) Four years ago the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a monk who popularised Buddhism in the West, was invited by the Vietnamese government to return home after 39 years in exile.

The move was seen as a sign that the authorities were becoming more tolerant of religion, a very sensitive issue in the communist state.

But four years on, there are signs that the authorities’ new-found tolerance is waning.

Followers of Thich Nhat Hanh say they have been forced out of a monastery by police and angry crowds who ransacked the building over the weekend.

And Catholics in Vietnam have been embroiled in a two-year dispute with the government, holding mass demonstrations to demand that the authorities return land they say belongs to the Church.

Relaxed approach

The government believes religion should be a private matter but had begun to ease its grip on religious freedom largely for economic reasons.

Some analysts say that before joining the World Trade Organisation in 2007, Hanoi was under pressure from the US and European governments to grant people greater religious freedom.

But with Vietnam now in the WTO and removed from a US State Department religion blacklist, some analysts believe the government has reverted to its old ways.

There is also the land dispute between the Catholic church and the government.

Despite many high-profile meetings, the Vatican and the government have failed to reach agreement and Hanoi shows little sign of backing down.

Efforts to normalise relations with the Vatican have been further hampered because some Catholic activists have been jailed, and there have been confrontations between demonstrators and security forces.

State media have played down the growing tensions but the international Catholic media have published videos and news reports of the ongoing protests and tensions.

Father Huynh Cong Minh from the Archdiocese of Saigon says that ”like it or not, the Catholics in the world are organised and that is what the communist government fears the most.”

Despite the official unease, many people, and especially young professionals are increasingly turning to religion.

Millions of pilgrims now travel annually across the country to distant shrines of local deities as well as Buddhist temples and Christian churches.

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