Vietnamese parliament approves law on religions limiting freedom of worship
The new legislation was approved by 85% of lawmakers. It will come into effect on 1st January 2017. Since it was first proposed in April 2015, the bill was redrafted seven times. The Catholic Church and human rights activists have stressed that it still violates religious freedom and could lead to social unrest.
Hanoi – Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a new ‘Law on the beliefs and religions’. The final vote took place on 18 November. After going through seven drafts, 417 members out of 439 (84.7 per cent) voted in favour of the new legislation, which is set to come into force on 1st January 2017.
For now, religious groups have not commented the law’s adoption. The latter includes nine sections and 68 articles. However, several official newspapers, like Nhân Dân (The People), presented the law in great detail but without expressing critical commentaries.
According to some journalists, several lawmakers deem as "useless and irrelevant" a number of articles dealing with religious activities involving foreign nationals.
Since it was founded, the Vietnamese Communist Party has published several texts expressing its views on how to regulate religion. The first publications were mimeographed leaflets written by the Workers Party (when it was still illegal).
The first official regulation dates back to 1956 and was signed by Ho Chi Minh. A facade of liberalism was followed by the policy of oppression that characterised the attitude of the Party towards religion, in particular Catholicism.
The second major regulation was Decree 297/CP of 1977. Signed by the Prime Minister of the time, it served as the basis of legislation on religions for a long time. A series of lesser decrees followed until 2004 when the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions was adopted.
The fact that this regulation was approved by parliament gave it greater legitimacy to what existed previously, at least superficially.
The process that led to newest piece of legislation began on 22 April 2015 when the Office of Religious Affairs sent a copy of the fourth version of the hitherto unknown draft bill to religious groups.
In the following weeks, Caodaist and Catholic leaders strongly criticised the proposal, describing it as a form of imprisonment of religions. Still the National Assembly decided to go ahead.
The bill resurfaced last August, when a new version was sent to religious communities, who were given less than two weeks to submit any suggestions for change.
In a lengthy letter, the Bishops' Conference highlighted the progress the bill contained as well as its drawbacks. Under the new law, the Catholic Church will be recognised as a legal entity and will be able to open educational institutions; at the same time however, the State does not provide for building new churches and maintains stifling rules on religious activities.
According to several human rights activists, the law still contains too many violations of religious freedom and is likely to lead to more social unrest