A U.S. bipartisan commission called on Monday for Vietnam to be placed on a State Department blacklist of the world’s worst abusers of religious freedoms, noting that the country’s removal from the list 13 years ago has not eased violations under one-party communist rule.
Although the State Department removed Vietnam from its list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2006 amid improving diplomatic relations, “the government of Vietnam has continued to persecute religious individuals and organizations,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in an annual report.
Religious freedom conditions last year “trended negative,” USCIRF said, adding that 244 prisoners of conscience held in Vietnam’s jails at year-end included “some who advocated for freedom of religion or belief, and others who simply professed or practiced their faith.”
“Local authorities continued to seize property from Catholic churches, Buddhist temples, and other religious groups for economic development projects without providing just compensation,” USCIRF said, while police harassed religious leaders of different faiths for attending religious conferences overseas or for meeting with foreign diplomats.
“Based on these systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, USCIRF again finds that Vietnam merits designation in 2019 as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, under the Religious Freedom ACT (IRFA), as it has recommended every year since 2002,” the rights monitoring group said.
Meanwhile, Myanmar and China, already listed as "Tier 1" Countries of Particular Concern at the commission’s recommendation, should be maintained in their positions on that list, USCIRF said in its report.
Religious minorities targeted
In Myanmar, called Burma in the USCIRF report, military and nonstate actors targeted religious and ethnic minorities including Rohingya Muslims and Christians for discrimination and violence, driving over 700,000 Rohingya across the border with Bangladesh in a “massive military crackdown” over the last three years.
Heavy weapons attacks in Myanmar’s Kachin state in recent years have destroyed Christian churches, while assaults by mobs including Buddhist monks in Rakhine have injured Christian pastors and parishioners, with community members in one case left too frightened to attend services.
The spread of hate speech on social media has meanwhile incited violence in the ethnically divided country, leaving victims of abuses with little hope for justice, USCIRF said in its report.
Noting that the State Department has designated Myanmar as a CPC since 1999, and most recently again in November 2018, USCIRF called in its report for the country to maintain its ranking, with existing arms embargoes punishing Myanmar’s military kept in place.
Uyghurs held in camps
In China, the introduction in February 2018 of new Regulations on Religious Affairs banned all “unauthorized” religious teaching, with laws already in place also banning religious organizations deemed “subject to any foreign domination," a provision used especially to crack down on Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uyghur Muslims.
Campaigns to “Sinicize” religious belief also put the cultural and linguistic heritage of ethnic religious communities under pressure and attack, USCIRF said.
“During the summer, reports emerged that the government had detained 800,000 to possibly more than two million Uighur and other Muslims in Xinjiang. It also deployed one million party cadres to live with Uighur Muslim families and report on any signs of ‘extremist’ religious behavior,” according to the report.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has built a network of political “re-education camps,” where up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held since April 2017.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, it now describes the facilities as an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Around 700 prisoners of conscience in China were detained as of October 11, 2018 for engaging in religious practices outside of state control, USCIRF said, citing reporting by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
“Based on the Chinese government’s systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, USCIRF again finds that China merits designation in 2019 as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, USCIRF said.
Vaguely worded laws
The Southeast Asian country of Laos meanwhile remains on USCIRF’s Tier 2 Watch List for continuing serious abuses of religious freedoms, the rights group said in its report.
Countries on the Tier 2 Watch List have engaged in violations which, while not rising to CPC status, are still considered significant and serious.
Though the one-party communist state’s constitution “ostensibly protects its people’s inherent right to religious freedom,” regulations controlling religious observance in Laos are vaguely worded and open to interpretation by local authorities, USCIRF said.
“Some Lao authorities remained deeply suspicious of Christians, sometimes resulting in social exclusion, harassment, and arbitrary detention by law enforcement officials,” the rights group said, adding that it had continued to receive reports throughout the year of persecution of Christians in Savannakhet, “a province known for its religious intolerance.”
“In 2019, USCIRF again places Laos on its Tier 2, where it has been since 2009,” USCIRF said.