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1/14/11 Vietnam (CNA) – A leaked U.S. State Department cable on religious freedom in Vietnam says the country has made progress and should not be re-designated as a “country of particular concern,” despite significant incidents involving the beatings and arrests of Catholics.

The confidential memo from the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, dated Jan. 20, 2010, was published on Jan. 12 on the website of WikiLeaks, a media organization which has obtained more than 250,000 leaked U.S. State Department cables.

According to CNA’s analysis of pre-released cable data, more than 600 of the cables concern Vietnam and religious freedom issues.

In recent years Vietnam’s Catholics and its communist government have disputed the ownership of confiscated properties. The embassy cable noted the government’s “poor handling” and “excessive use of violence” in situations such as the Dong Chiem Catholic parish incident.

On Jan. 6, 2010, the Vietnamese government demolished a crucifix on Dong Chiem church property. Parishioners who responded to the event with peaceful protest were beaten, arrested and suppressed. A Redemptorist brother was severely bludgeoned by police on Jan. 20 of that year for visiting the church.

Another issue was the eviction of nearly 400 Buddhist monks and nuns affiliated with French-based religious leader Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Order.

Such situations were “troublesome” and indicative of a larger “crackdown” on human rights ahead of the January 2011 Communist Party Congress, the embassy cable said.

However, the embassy characterized the Dong Chiem incident and others as primarily “land disputes.” Though more government transparency and a fair process for adjudicating claims are needed, these disputes do not meet the requirements of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act and the incidents should not divert attention from the “significant gains” in religious freedoms since the CPC designation was lifted in November 2006, the cable said.

“The widespread, systematic religious persecution that existed prior to Vietnam’s designation in 2004 does not exist anymore,” the author of the cable said.

The embassy recommended the U.S. State Department use “high-level engagement opportunities” to press the Vietnamese government for expanded religious freedom in their country.

Pre-2004, Vietnam’s repression of certain religious groups was “systematic and widespread,” the embassy’s summary said. Thousands of Central Highland villagers and other ethnic minorities were restricted from practicing their religion and many were forced to renounce their faith.

On Catholic issues specifically, the Vietnamese government limited the numbers of new seminarians and the ordinations of new priests below the rate necessary to replace those who left, retired or died. Church requests to create new dioceses, appoint new bishops, or form a new seminary also “languished” without formal government approval.

After Vietnam was designated a country of particular concern, the U.S. embassy reports, the country’s government enacted “sweeping changes” to religious freedom policy. Its new legal framework bans forced renunciation of religion and grants citizens the freedom of belief.

Government-conducted training programs tried to ensure compliance with the new laws and central government officials began responding to complaints from religious leaders about their treatment.

Following these measures, religious believers and the Vietnamese government both reported an increase in religious activity and observance in the North and Northwest Highlands. Nearly 1,000 places of worship were legalized in the regions, and the changes also allowed training for hundreds of new Protestant and Catholic clergy.

The U.S. government had listed 45 individuals imprisoned because of their religious beliefs, but all were released by September 2006.

Despite the land disputes, the U.S. cable says, the Catholic Church continues to report an improved ability to gather and to worship. Restrictions on the assignment of clergy have also eased, while the government has approved an additional Catholic seminary and no longer restricts the number of seminary students.

Despite continuing problems, like “isolated” harassment of Christians and some forced renunciations of faith, there are no indications that the Vietnamese government is “backsliding” on its commitment to register and recognize religious groups.

While the U.S. Embassy to Vietnam opposed the designation of Vietnam as a country of particular concern, Members of Congress such as Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) have called for the designation to be re-applied.

In a Dec. 15, 2010 hearing, he cited mounting tensions between the communist government and Catholic parishioners.

A May 2010 funeral procession in the Diocese of Da Nang tried to bury the body of an 82-year-old woman in Con Dau parish cemetery, which had been seized by the local government to build a tourist resort. Police broke up the procession, arrested 59 people and beat over 100 mourners.

Police deliberately beat two pregnant women so as to kill their unborn babies, charged Rep. Smith. In July a pallbearer at the funeral named Nam Nguyen was later kicked and bludgeoned to death by police.

A Dec. 8, 2010 police raid on the Redemptorists’ Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ho Chi Minh City interrupted scheduled liturgical celebrations and ongoing Christmas preparations. Local authorities took provincial superior Fr. Vincent Pham Trung Than in for questioning and the Redemptorists were accused of preaching anti-government sentiment, instigating disorder, inciting riots and violating social media codes.

“Congress, the president, and all those who espouse fundamental human rights ought to be outraged at Vietnam’s turn for the worse,” Rep. Smith added. “President Obama should re-designate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern for its egregious violations of religious freedom.”

WikiLeaks is slowly releasing many of the cables it has obtained, giving a partial view of the U.S. government’s diplomatic relations and its officials’ evaluations of other states.

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