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.
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.”