NHA TRANG — In a provincial church in Nha Trang, on Vietnam’s southern coast, a steady stream of parishioners arrive for Saturday evening mass. This chapel is typical of the many churches that dot the landscape, as is its relationship with the authorities.
Outside, Catholics make the sign of the cross and pray at a grotto as a cool breeze sweeps in from across the South China Sea. They practice openly and are quick to say that life as a Christian in communist Vietnam has improved dramatically in recent years.
“It’s a much better relationship with the government. Before they didn’t understand us at all. Now, it’s okay – to a point,” one parishioner said, on condition of anonymity.
People here are still wary of upsetting the authorities in Hanoi, where religions of all persuasions are viewed with suspicion. New laws have just passed to manage the faithful and ensure “national security and social harmony” are not upset by what the government sees as “wayward beliefs in god.”
The law requires all religious groups to register with the authorities and report on their activities. Authorities have the right to approve or refuse requests.
This is also the first law governing religion passed by the National Assembly since the communists took control of North Vietnam in 1954 and the south 21 years later. The separation of powers between church and state remains an anathema.
Hanoi, however, does recognize 39 religious organizations within 14 religions that have more than 24 million followers, representing about a quarter of the country’s 90 million people. Twelve percent are Buddhist and almost nine percent are Christian while the remainder include Hoa Hao and Cao Dai.
For those diverse reasons, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs insists the Law on Belief and Religion was necessary to increase its management scope and keep out unwanted elements, which authorities insist are prepared to use religion to threaten national unity.
But those reassurances are falling on deaf ears outside and even inside the one-party state. Criticism from within the Communist Party’s own ranks was as hostile as it was unprecedented even before the law was passed by the National Assembly in mid-November.
More than 15 percent of the assembly declined to support this legislation, unheard of in a parliament with a reputation for simply rubber stamping Communist Party policy.
They were backed by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which produced a submission ahead of the law’s passage arguing it maintains mechanisms that allows police and the military to arbitrarily persecute religious groups.
Among the examples HRW cited was clause five of article six, prohibiting the abuse of freedom of religion to sow division among “the national great unity, harm state defense, national security, public order, and social morale.”
Wordings like “national great unity,” “national security,” and “social morale,” HRW said, are vague and can also be arbitrarily used by the authorities to punish bloggers and political activists.
HRW also said that under article 32, candidates for religious appointments must “have the spirit of national unity and harmony” while under article 22 religious education must include “Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law” as core subjects.
It also noted that the legislation will enshrine into law current regulations that require religious groups to register with the government for routine events like annual religious festivals, conferences, and conventions.
These were points picked up on by David Saperstein, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, who has said many clerical leaders “agree that religious freedom is gradually expanding” in Vietnam, particularly in the cities, a development marked by a higher tolerance of traditional religions.
“But,” Saperstein cautioned, “in the rural areas that message from the central government is not being felt in the same way.”
He also noted that authors of the legislation had made “significant improvements” to the law when it was in the draft stages but despite this the committee still maintains a tight grip over religious practices.
“If people go to the seminary it requires government approval. If they’re going to be ordained it requires government approval,” he said. “If they’re going to be hired at a house of worship — a monk in a pagoda, a priest in a church or an imam at the mosque — it requires government approval.”
The legislation was passed on November 18 but Hanoi has been slow to release the details, which Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) also noted had already been revised numerous times.
CSW Chief executive Mervyn Thomas said the final law was not expected to have altered significantly from previous drafts.
“Some improvements to the draft were made during the revision process, possibly in response to the feedback offered by religious communities,” Thomas explained.
“However, these improvements, and the inclusion of basic guarantees of the right to freedom of religion or belief, were undermined by onerous registration requirements and excessive state interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations.”
CSW had hoped, when first mentioned, that the new law would address the obstacles to freedom of religion or belief in the existing regulations. That was not to be: “Unfortunately, throughout the drafting process the law continued to focus on the control and management of religious activities, rather than the protection of religious freedom.”
“Basic guarantees of the right to freedom of religion or belief must not be undermined by onerous registration requirements, and groups which cannot or choose not to register must not be excluded from the enjoyment of this right,” Thomas said.
Vietnamese parishioners will also be looking for a response and a lead from the Vatican in regards to the law.
Pope Francis recently met with President Tran Dai Quang at the Vatican in a bid to foster bilateral ties. Relations with Vietnam have been strained since 1975, when the communists confiscated church properties in the south.
After that meeting, the Vatican indicated that it has adopted a wait-and-see approach to the Law on Belief and Religion and that it wants to know what Vietnamese congregations are thinking while gauging public opinion before passing judgement.
Churches and chapels, like the ones here in Nha Trang, are a test case.
Nha Trang is a provincial city with stronger and closer connections with the wider rural community than people of faith in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Nha Trang will witness first-hand whether these laws are a help or just another hindrance, particularly in remoter areas.
“Out there it is a little different to here,” said the parishioner, an aging man who declined to be named.
“It’s isolated and people who belong to a religion must deal with local police and the authorities who don’t like them very much and can act with impunity,” he said of life in the remote countryside.
“There’s no central figure ensuring they act appropriately and there are these new laws governing religion which they can use any way they want to. That’s a worry.”
Luke Hunt can followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt