Freedom of religion, much like freedom of speech, is subject to interpretation by the government reports Asia Sentinel’s Khanh Vu Duc

Vietnam is considering amendments to its constitution in an apparent bid to bend freedom of worship laws to better fit the needs of the state, which in the past year has arrested Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist religious leaders.

Protestant pastor Nguyen Trung Ton was arrested in January 2012 on unknown charges, according to Human Right Watch. Three Catholic Ha Mon Montagnard activists—Blei, Phoi, and Dinh Pset—were arrested in March. Two Hoa Hao activists, Nguyen Van Lia and Tran Hoai An, were arrested in April and July. Also in April Protestant pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh was arrested and charged with “undermining national unity.” At least 15 Catholics affiliated with Redemptorist churches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, including bloggers Le Van Son and Ta Phong Tan, were arrested in July, August, and September.

Vietnamese seminarian line up during ceremonies at the Catholic Church of Hanoi in Vietnam. Pic: AP.

Freedom of religion, as with other fundamental rights, is supposedly constitutionally protected. As evidenced by the government’s actions, however, “protection” is not always guaranteed. Built-in loopholes in the constitution, as well as government decrees, provide the state with certain grounds on which to overrule human and civil rights of citizens. Where the line is blurred between the government’s support and absence of support for religious freedom occurs at the reading of the law.

Freedom of religion is set out in Article 70 of the 1992 Constitution and amended in 2001, which states that citizens have the right to freedom of belief and religion, and may practice or not practice any religion. All religions are equal before the law and public places of religious worship are protected.

Presently, however, new amendments (linked site in Vietnamese) are being considered but have not yet been implemented. When Article 70 is compared to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which addresses the right to religion, the two articles appear fairly similar. Article 18 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Thus, at a glance it would seem that Vietnam indeed recognizes and encourages the diversity of its citizens in protecting their varied beliefs and religious practices. Of course, the devil is in the details. The third section of Article 70 states that freedom of religion cannot violate Vietnam’s state laws and policies. Such a statement would seem reasonable enough, except state laws and policies are less than clearly defined limits. Despite the fact that the constitution has set out to protect religious freedoms, the constitution is designed to ensure power and control of the state rests in the Communist Party.

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