Open Doors Urges Bush to Focus on Religious Freedom during Vietnam Meeting

A ministry to the persecuted church is urging President Bush to make religious freedom the focus of a historic meeting with Vietnam’s Prime Minister next week.

Although the United States and Vietnam have made giant leaps in trade and economic issues over the years, religious freedom – including persecution of Christians and other religious minorities – remains a key issue, says Dr. Carl A. Moeller, President/CEO of Open Doors USA.

“Vietnam has made promises this year to give religious liberty to all groups – including Christians – and allow freedom to worship. However, the reality is that Christians are still being arrested and harassed, especially the minority Montagnard Christians in the Central Highlands,” he added.

Next week, when Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai makes an historic visit to the United States by being the first Vietnamese leader to travel to the United States since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, he and President Bush “will discuss ways to further strengthen cooperation on a range of bilateral, regional and international issues,” according to a White House release. The focus could be the burgeoning trade ties between the two countries. Vietnam is also hoping to win United States approval to join the World Trade Organization.

“I urge President Bush to make religious freedom the focus of the talks,” Moeller stated in the June 15 release by Open Doors. “This is a golden opportunity to bring religious freedom to the forefront.”

Vietnam, which Open Doors ranked as No. 3 on a list of 50 countries where Christians suffer most for their faith, was designated last month as a “country of particular concern (CPC)” for a second consecutive year for having "engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious violations of the universal right to freedom of religion or belief."

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which released its list of CPCs last month, noted in a May 9 statement that Vietnam had made several gestures in the past couple of months that were cited by the State Department as evidence of progress, including the release of prominent dissidents, a directive to stop forcing Protestants to recant their faith, and another to streamline the application process for religious groups registering with the government.

However, important issues appear to remain unresolved or unaddressed in the agreement that had resulted in Vietnam’s CPC designation, the USCIRF claimed in its statement.

"Over a thousand churches, home worship centers, and meeting places remain closed, and forced or coerced renunciations of faith continue in some parts of the country," the U.S. government agency said, adding that "troubling reports continue of new arrests and pressure on religious and ethnic minorities."

According to human rights groups, over a hundred individuals remain in prison or under some form of house arrest for religious activity, although actual numbers are difficult to obtain because of the lack of judicial transparency.

“Evidence emerging from the Central Highlands suggests that the Prime Minister’s ‘Instructions on Protestantism’ is being used by security forces to compel ethnic minority Protestants to join the government-approved Protestant organization, give up their distinctive faith tradition, or face criminal penalties,” the USCIRF also claimed.

USCIRF Chair Preeta D. Bansal said last month that “the Commission remains concerned that Vietnam does not appear to have made any commitments or taken positive steps in these important areas of religious freedom concern.”

In addition to the USCIRF, Christian Persecution watchdogs such as Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Compass Direct, and Voice of the Martyrs have also continued monitoring the status of religious freedom in the communist nation.

Moeller asks for believers to join him in praying for President Bush and Prime Minister Khai during the meetings next week and to continue to pray for Christians who are imprisoned for their faith.

According to Open Doors, Khai is scheduled to make the historic visit to the United States June 19-25.