Negotiating for Religious Freedom

As the dispute about what happened on John Kerry's Swift boat more than 35 years ago filled the airwaves last summer, it was distressing that very few people focused on something that actually mattered and continues to matter: a much less publicized war that continues to rage in Vietnam. This new war pits religious leaders, democracy advocates, and independent journalists against the still-ruling Communist Party.

In announcing a new bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam in 2001, U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick promised that the agreement would be "an important step forward in bringing economic freedom and opportunity to Vietnam."

Just a few days before the announcement, however, a large number of Vietnamese police officers surrounded and stormed a church in Hue province to forcibly remove and arrest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest who had been a vocal advocate for religious freedom in Vietnam. Several months later a court convicted Ly after a two-hour closed trial. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Ly's crime? According to the Vietnamese government, he was "undermining national unity." In reality, his crime was informing the rest of the world about the harassment that Catholics and other religious minorities have suffered at the hands of the authorities in Vietnam. His case and the government's treatment of him provide a poignant illustration of the challenges facing believers in Vietnam today.

Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly was born on May 15, 1946, in the Quang Tri province of Vietnam. As an adult he committed himself to the Roman Catholic faith and became an ordained priest in 1974. In attempting to practice his religion, Ly discovered many legal and political barriers to free worship in Vietnam. Ly has repeatedly been arrested, harassed, and jailed for his advocacy of religious freedom.

In 1977, as a response to the government's arrest of several Buddhist monks in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as the oppression of Catholics, Ly distributed several critical statements including those stating that Catholics were treated by the government as "second-class citizens." Ly was arrested and detained for more than a year.

Upon his release Ly continued to actively practice Roman Catholicism. Part of that practice included in August 1982 organizing and attempting a pilgrimage to La Vang, a site holy to Vietnamese Catholics since about 1800. Soon after, in November 1982, he was arrested and charged with leading an illegal pilgrimage. He was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for "opposing the revolution and destroying the people's unity."

After his release in July 1992 Ly was banned from conducting religious activities and was placed under government surveillance. Since then he had continued to express his views, calling for the full realization of human rights in Vietnam. From issuing a "10-Point State-ment of the State of the Catholic Church in Hue Diocese," to hanging on his church a banner with the words "We need religious freedom," to peacefully confronting the government over the issue of whether villagers could cultivate disputed church land, Ly remained fully engaged in the struggle for religious freedom.

On the basis of his activities Ly was formally invited to testify before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. While he was denied permission to leave Vietnam to come to Washington, D.C., his testimony was read into the commission record on February 13, 2001. In his statement Ly spoke eloquently about the status of religious freedom in Vietnam.

Just two weeks later, on February 26, 2001, he was put under house arrest. A few months later about 600 police officers surrounded and stormed An Truyen church to arrest Ly as he prepared for mass. After a two-hour closed trial Ly, who was denied access to counsel, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for "undermining national unity."

Since then an international campaign has been conducted to secure his release. On November 27, 2003, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that he was being held in violation of international law, especially his right to freedom of opinion and expression. In its ruling the U.N. Working Group said, "The government has not presented convincing arguments to invalidate the allegations that . . . Rev. Ly was sentenced. . . to prison because he published articles critical of the government and the Communist Party and that he had not benefited from the norms of a fair trial."

His ongoing detention has caused an uproar in the United States. Of course, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, to which he testified, has publicly expressed its outrage at his treatment. In addition, a bipartisan group of more than 100 members of Congress, led by such stalwart champions of human rights as Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), cosponsored a resolution calling for Ly's release; it passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a 424-1 vote. The State Department has called for his release. And Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), chair of the East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee in the Senate Foreign Relations Commi-ttee, was given the unique opportunity to meet with Ly in his prison in January 2004.

While the government of Vietnam has bent under this intense pressure and reduced his sentence twice, by a total of 10 years, he remains imprisoned. Indeed, as U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom John Hanford recently reiterated, "We are deeply concerned about [Ly]. They reduced his sentence twice. He needs to be released."

Over the past year the government has stepped up its campaign against the Montagnard Christians in the Central Highlands. Restrictions on the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam leaders have intensified, with much of the group's leadership placed under official or pagoda (house) arrest.

And perhaps most disturbing are the widespread government-sponsored forced renunciations of faith, in which local and occasionally central government officials are using great pressure and sometimes physical abuse to achieve their goals.

Unfortunately, the replies of the Vietnamese government to concerns raised by anyone about their repression of religion are generally counterproductive. It appears the government believes it can just gloss over religious human rights abuses through persistent disinformation, distortion, and outright lies. For example, the government's reply to the petition that my organization submitted to the United Nations on Ly's behalf is illustrative of the tone of a typical response: "The information provided to the Working Group that Mr. Ly's detention and sentence are a punishment for peacefully exercising his rights is totally untrue if not a brazen slander. . . in fact, Mr. Nguyen Van Ly is a recidivist."

Of course, Vietnam's actions were inconsistent with its words, and without facts to back up its rhetoric, the Vietnamese government lost the case in the United Nations. Until Vietnam is willing to acknowledge that it makes mistakes, rather than having a uniform and reflexively defensive response to all criticism, it is unlikely real progress can be achieved without the use of more blunt instruments of policy.

When Senators John Kerry and John McCain successfully led the effort to reestablish diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995, there was great hope that engagement with that country would both enable the United States to put the Vietnam War behind it and also have a liberalizing effect on Vietnam's government, thereby improving the lives of its people. These hopes were only reinforced with the opening of borders between the United States and Vietnam after the bilateral trade agreement in 2001. But the government has remained an authoritarian regime and has successfully resisted many of our efforts to pry open their borders to allow not only for a free flow of goods but also of ideas. One can only conclude that our policy of engagement with Vietnam as implemented is not working and must be tailored to acknowledge deficiencies in the performance of the Vietnamese government.

First, the president should communicate to Vietnam that its actions undermine the bilateral relationship. These actions are especially frustrating because they come in the context of President Bush's having recently selected Vietnam as the fifteenth country to benefit from his $15 billion emergency plan for HIV/AIDS. While we applaud this initiative and do not begrudge the aid to Vietnamese victims of this terrible disease, provision of such help affords the opportunity—one missed by the administration last time—to insist on improved respect for religious freedom in Vietnam.

To this end, then Secretary of State Colin Powell made the right decision to designate Vietnam as a "country of particular concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act. This decision gives the administration the flexibility to impose graduated sanctions against Vietnam if its respect for religious freedom does not improve. The administration should demand the release of Ly as tangible evidence of the improvement of religious freedom in Vietnam, and as a prerequisite, along with other actions, for the removal of this designation.

Finally, the United States should signal to the Vietnamese government that it is prepared to take more aggressive actions, such as suspending nonhumanitarian financial assistance or reexamining the trade agreement (which must be renewed annually), unless its record on religious freedom and human rights improves.

Our nation's commitment to religious freedom is deep and long-standing. Shortly after our country's founding, Thomas Jefferson declared, "Almighty God hath created the mind free." Since then every generation has had its own struggle to preserve religious liberty at home and around the world.

The United States is not imposing its own views of religious liberty on the world. Rather, we should seek to support Ly and the many others like him who have taken up the banner of religious freedom in Vietnam and elsewhere. The "official" Vietnam War may have ended in 1973 with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, but the struggle for freedom of religion and other hallmarks of an open society in Vietnam continues.

Editor's Note: It is worth emphasizing that while the case of Thadeus Ly raises questions about the situation of religious minorities in Vietnam, and the commitment of that nation to move in the direction of full religious freedom, there are other aspects that give hope.
Jared Genser is a Washington attorney and president of Freedom Now, a nonprofit organization that seeks to secure the release of prisoners of conscience. Before forming Freedom Now, he represented James Mawdsley, a British national who served 416 days of a 17-year sentence in solitary confinement in Burma (now Myanmar) for handing out prodemocracy leaflets there. He currently represents Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly.

Article Author: Jared Genser