Blind Eye?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the prime minister of Vietnam visited the United States in late June, the Bush administration gave a lot of attention to trade and military cooperation.

But what about the persecution of religious people? Vietnam is, after all, still a communist country.

Human rights advocates say Bush practically ignored the topic after he met with Phan Van Khai June 21.

“You used the right word; he ‘mentioned'” religious freedom, said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Relations. “I'm disappointed he did not use strong diplomatic language” to send a clear signal to Khai that the United States does not approve of such behavior.

The president “had an engraved invitation to put this issue on center stage,” he added.

But the only reference Bush made to it was this: “We signed a landmark agreement that will make it easier for people to worship freely in Vietnam.” That agreement, though, was actually made in May, and it has not been made public.

The State Department, at the request of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, has designated Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” in regards to religious freedom, according to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

That list contains countries like Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Once a country has received “country of particular concern” status, the president has several options to sanction it. Sanctions can be avoided, however, if the country signs a binding agreement with the United States that addresses the religious freedom violations.

The secrecy surrounding the “landmark agreement” on freedom of worship in Vietnam does not make Nina Shea very happy. The vice-chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a press release June 22 calling for the State Department to release the contents of the agreement.

“This is a tragic move and a tragic signal that the United States can be appeased with a secret agreement” on religious freedom in order to get at the seemingly more important issues of trade and military cooperation, Shea told the Register.

Susan Dittman, a State Department spokeswoman, said it was not being disclosed under a provision that allows it be kept from the public if revealing it would jeopardize its implementation. However, she could not say what reasons the department had for believing that would happen.

Smith said he will ask the State Department directly for the agreement.

“This isn't the Manhattan Project,” he said. He accused the Bush administration of being “secretive” on human rights and said that the failure to disclose “is in and of itself a bad sign.”

“You can't have the flowery language without the details,” he said. “Otherwise, how do you hold them to account?”

Smith has already taken action on the issue. The day before Khai's visit with Bush, he held a hearing on human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. All of those who testified were clear — despite the agreement, religious freedom violations continue unabated.

John Hanford is the U.S. State Department ambassador-at-large for religious freedom issues. At a May press briefing on the agreement, he said that Vietnam had issued decrees prohibiting the forced renunciation of faith and mandating the training of local officials to be more tolerant of religious practice.

But Helen Ngo, chairwoman of the Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam, based in Bethesda, Md., called the decrees “a step backward.”

She told Smith's subcommittee that two priests in Vietnam, Fathers Nguyen Huu Giai and Phan Van Loi, wrote that the decrees “practically give the local authorities full control of all religious activities. Local government officials now can do whatever they want, causing uncountable obstacles to the appointment of clergy members, to the registration of seminarians, to the organization of religious activities, and to the demand for the return of confiscated Church properties.

“Both Catholic priests are under house arrest,” Ngo stated.

Nguyen Thang Tranh, chairman of the Vietnam Human Rights Network in Garden Grove, Calif., confirmed the priests’ observations. The decrees, he said, “create more conditions to control religion than to allow it. For instance, anytime you have a religious activity with more than five people, you have to apply for a permit.”

Catholics are not the only targets of the communist government's suppression. Evangelical Protestants, Baptists and various strains of Buddhism have come under fire as well. The government also targets two ethnic minorities, the Hmong and the Montagnard.

“The Montagnard are severely punished not for violating the law, but for being indigenous people, persecuted for their Christian faith and political views,” Y-Khim Nie told the subcommittee.

Nie, is a Montagnard (in French, “mountain dweller”), and now lives as a refugee in North Carolina. His people live in the central highlands and were helpful to U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. The Hmong live in Vietnam and Cambodia and were also helpful to the U.S. during the war.

Ngo also cited testimony from a Protestant pastor, Pham Dinh Nhan: “However, there have been many signs showing that this document is aimed at dealing with the international community rather than reflecting a real change in policy.”

The central government, he said, is “letting local authorities continue to oppress Protestant groups. … In reality, the situation is becoming worse. … As a matter of fact, just this Sunday night, June 19, 2005, there were 16 believers who were at Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang's house. The police came and ordered them to disperse; the police also filed a report on them.”

During Khai's visit, Bush accepted an invitation to visit Vietnam next year. Between now and then, Smith said he plans to hold another four or five hearings on the matter to make sure that Vietnam is making progress.

In addition, he has reintroduced a bill, the Vietnam Human Rights Act, which would limit non-humanitarian spending in Vietnam until the country can show it has improved its human rights record. The bill has passed the House twice, but has never never received approval from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz is based in Peterson, Minnesota.