Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — Vietnamese bishops are at odds with Hanoi officials on a proposed government document dealing with religious freedom.
The bishops say wording in the proposed document continues to violate religious freedom and imposes additional restrictions on local religious organizations.
The Hanoi government had asked religious leaders to offer their reactions to the legislative proposal before it appears before the National Assembly, where it set for passage sometime in 2016.
The law, which contains 12 chapters with 71 articles, aims to regulate activities and duties of religious organizations. It deals with such matters as establishing procedures for registering religious activities, establishing and closing religious organizations and training centers, and for repairing and building religious facilities. It also covers regulations by which religious organizations will be allowed to do charitable work.
In a May 4 statement, the Vietnamese bishops say the draft proposal violates "the right to freedom of faiths and religions" and "causes concerns rather than bringing peace to people."
The proposed law shows that the government "completely imposes its power on religious organizations and creates loopholes for executive bodies to carry out abuse of power," the bishops' statement said.
The bishops said they were particularly troubled by clause 46, which would require religious officials, including lay leaders, to seek permits before attending religious activities, organizing conferences or training abroad.
The bishops' response document was signed by Bishop Cosme Hoang Van Dat, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Vietnam, and was addressed to Nguyen Sinh Hung, president of the Vietnam National Assembly, and to Pham Dung, who heads the government's Committee for Religious Affairs. While religious freedoms have made gains in Vietnam over the years and have spotty histories, often depending on the whims of local officials, the government maintains serious religious restrictions.
Religious organizations under Vietnamese law do not have the right to the ownership or use of buildings and are not allowed to sell, buy or transfer properties. Religions in Vietnam are also banned from taking part in educational and health care work.
The Vietnam bishops' document also called for prisoners and others held in detention centers to be allowed pastoral care, a practice currently forbidden.
In their response letter, the bishops said the proposed law represents a violation of the current Vietnamese Constitution, adopted in November 2013 by the 13th National Assembly, and is a step back from a government document called the "Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions," issued in 2004. That ordinance was meant to set the context for the operations of religions in Vietnam.
"Is it quite unusual that non-believers set standards for people of faiths?" asked Bishop Michael Hoang Duc Oanh of the Kontum diocese. The government continues to apply an asking-and-granting mechanism to further restrict freedom of worship and other church-related activities in the country, he said.
Vietnam, which has a population of 90 million, currently lists 38 religious organizations run by 14 certified religions with approximately 25 million followers. Catholics represent 7 percent.
[Joachim Pham is an NCR correspondent based in Vietnam.]