COUNTRY PROFILE: VIETNAM
Updated February 2015
Population: 93.4 million
Government type: Communist state
Religion: Buddhist 52.4%; Non-religious 23.3%; Christian 9.4%; Ethnoreligionist* 7.8%; Other 7.1%
Vietnam was once a poor, divided country beset by independence wars. Today its sights are set on becoming a ‘developed nation’ by 2020.
Its people endured three decades of conflict in which the communists routed first French colonisers and then the US-backed regime in South Vietnam.
The division of north and south, implemented under the Geneva Accords of 1954, ended in 1975 when the north Vietnamese overran the south and reunified the nation under communist rule.
A fast-growing economy and social development have not, however, made Vietnam any more liberal.
Despite the fact that Vietnam joined the World Trade Organisation in January 2007, its society remains repressive.
Vietnam’s constitution guarantees freedom of worship – but the reality for Vietnam’s religious minorities contradicts this claim.
Churches have to register their congregations and are then subject to close surveillance and tight control.
Registered groups need specific permission for most activities outside their ordinary meetings, including: building or making alterations to places of worship, holding training sessions, doing charitable works, running religious schools.
In 2013, Vietnam’s Government implemented a new policy, Decree 92, which allows religious groups to register legally. But it also hinders the day-to-day functioning of these groups even further by imposing even tighter restrictions on reporting and registration. Churches wanting to register now have to have been in operation for more than 20 years without ‘civil and criminal infraction’.
All unregistered groups are banned and their members may face imprisonment or torture – even death, according to reports relating specifically to ethnic minority hill tribes. Many house churches say they have been trying unsuccessfully for years to register and so remain outside the law.
There has been some encouraging signs hinting that Vietnam is wanting to give the appearance at least of becoming more liberal: large-scale ‘motivational’ meetings addressed by Australian evangelist Nick Vujicic were held in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi in 2013. Yet, Christianity continues to be seen as a Western religion and its adherents as potential subversives.
The Vietnamese authorities reserve some of their worst venom for the country’s ethnic groups. Two-thirds of Vietnamese Protestants are members of an ethnic minority.
The Montagnard hill tribes in the Central Highlands are reportedly harassed and persecuted on a regular basis because of their faith.
Hundreds have tried to escape to Cambodia, risking their lives to cross malaria-ridden jungles. The Vietnamese authorities reportedly pay Cambodian bounty-hunters for any refugees they capture and repatriate.
Other reports suggest that Christian minority groups have been forced to sign documents renouncing their faith and conduct rituals linked to tribal belief systems.
The highest law on religion in Vietnam remains the 2004 Ordinance of Belief and Religion. This restates citizens’ freedom of worship – but also imposes penalties for activities undermining ‘the country’s peace, independence and unity’.
The Government’s definition of such activities has been controversial, as shown in its ongoing harassment of some groups. Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang’s Mennonite Church is a case in point.
Officials harassed members of his Bible college north of Ho Chi Minh City for months in 2014 – before Pastor Nguyen was seriously injured in an attack on him and an associate pastor by ‘hired thugs’ in January 2015. Pastor Quang has been detained several times, including in a high-profile case involving five other church leaders in 2004. Officials bulldozed his home and Bible school in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010.
Current and recent projects include:
Practical support for the families of prisoners
Support for families to visit prisoners
Gift packages for prisoners
Sources: BBC; Britannica Online Encyclopaedia; International Christian Concern; Morning Star News; VOM Canada; VOM USA; The World Factbook 2015.
* Ethnoreligionist: followers of local, tribal, animistic or shamanistic religions, with members restricted to one ethnic group
Updated February 2015