Ominous New Decree in Vietnam Will Make It Easier to Shut Churches Down

  • Morning Star News India Correspondent
  • Updated Mar 20, 2024
Ominous New Decree in Vietnam Will Make It Easier to Shut Churches Down

Two millennia ago, Jesus of Nazareth said, “Yes, what sorrow awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease their burden.” (Luke 11:46, NLT).

What Jesus said about the religious zealots of His day could also be said about the religious control zealots of today’s communist Vietnam, to wit: Decree 95, which has just been released in both Vietnamese and an official English translation.

The new religion decree, promulgated on Dec. 29 and effective on March 30, considerably adds to the crush of demands on religion while “elaborating some Articles and measures for execution of the Law on Religion and Folk Belief” (LRB) of 2016.

When the LRB came into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, it was followed by two draft decrees, which were circulated for public comment. Domestic and international reaction to the implementation of Decree 162 was extremely harsh, but with modest revision, it was quietly put into effect in 2019.

The second draft decree, which became known pejoratively as the “punishment decree,” consisted of a multi-page schedule of administrative fines and harsher consequences for infractions of virtually all provisions of the LRB. It was so amateur and misguided that it made the purpose of the LRB look like it existed to generate funds for the government, certainly not to expand religious freedom. It was so scorned that it quietly disappeared.

However, the intent of the LRB and the two ancillary decrees, which firmly pointed in the direction of ever more control over religion, did not. The highly influential Vu Chien Thang, deputy minister of Home Affairs and long-time head of the Government Committee of Religious Affairs, insisted the religion legislation needed strong enforcement measures. And now we have them.

Decree 95 appeared within less than three months of its effective date and without any public consultation. There is some speculation that it was rapidly promulgated to help Vietnam get off the U.S. State Department’s Special Watch List for religious freedom violators. If that’s the case, it will certainly fail.

Decree 95 replaces Decree 162 and the punishment decree. It contains 33 articles, eight more than Decree 162. Decree 95 also adds three more forms to the already 47 prescribed for asking permission for and reporting on religious activities. The decree and attached forms total 98 pages!

The two most important additions to Decree 162 are 1) measures on shutting down and rehabilitating activities of religious organizations and religious education institutions, and 2) requirements for local fundraising and financial management, and, for the first time, highly detailed procedures necessary for receiving foreign aid and forms for reporting on it, both finances and goods in-kind.

Also included are new requirements for promptly reporting personnel and location changes by foreign religious congregations and local congregations. These additions make the required scrutiny and threats of Decree 95 even heavier than Decree 162.

With the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and government still frozen in the “religious freedom by management and administrative control” mindset, the way forward is ever more rules. With its 50 model forms for asking for permissions and reporting, Decree 95 certainly maintains control over the “ask and receive” bargain long offered to religious groups. By clarifying what religious groups have to do or comply with, authorities seem to rationalize that they will be seen as granting more “freedom.”

From an international religious freedom perspective, however, each new regulation diminutes the almost unqualified freedom offered in Article 24 of Vietnam’s 2013 constitution and can be used as a sharp tool to exercise control over religion. Let’s look at the two major expansions of control.

Suspending and Rehabilitating Religious Activities

Ten of the 33 articles of the decree, more than a third of the entire document, concern suspending religious activities of a religious congregation or educational institution for “serious violations” of religious rules and the steps for reapproving religious organizations' activities after satisfactory correction.

Should a religious entity or educational training institution be suspended, it has a maximum of 24 months to “correct” its behavior to the satisfaction of the suspending authority or, failing that, face permanent dissolution.

As if to mitigate the public relations damage of the earlier draft “punishment decree,” lawmakers have discarded the whole financial fine and administrative penalty idea. The punishment, however, is much harsher. Decree 95 gives to officials of various levels of government administration, right down to the commune level, the authority to order the cessation of any religious organization deemed guilty of a “serious violation” of religious regulations, especially those named in Article V of the LRB. That article lists “absolutely forbidden” items such as “infringing on the morality of our indigenous culture” and “using religion for personal aggrandizement” and other subjective practices.

And nowhere in the decree is “serious violation” defined. This has been the perennial problem with all of Vietnam’s voluminous religion legislation – a “serious violation” thus becomes a subjective judgement of any competent official. Abuses are endemic. There is much room for various interpretations in these “forbiddens.” Objective clarity is lacking. Decree 95 does not ameliorate these shortcomings.

Financial Scrutiny

A second major elaboration is in articles 25-27, detailing new regulations about the complete and prompt reporting of all funds/goods in-kind received from foreign sources.

For more than 30 years, house churches have been quite dependent on regular help from fraternal organizations abroad with little government oversight. Articles 25-27 represent a giant leap in scrutinizing finances.

A quote from Article 26 not only lists the cumbersome rules for receiving foreign aid but also demonstrates the demanding tone of the decree. The “notification” refers to the paperwork that must be delivered to the appropriate government authorities in advance of receiving foreign aid. Copies of documents may be submitted, but originals must be shown to authorities when the notification is delivered.

An example of the demands: “The notification shall specify the name of the religious organization or religious affiliate that receives financial aid, the address and full name of the representative of the religious organization or religious affiliate; the name and headquarters of the foreign organization, or the full name and nationality of the foreign individual who provides financial aids; the form for reporting financial aids in cash and in-kind (value to be calculated in Vietnamese dong); expected date of use of financial aids; methods of managing and use of financial aids; and the receiving account information. The notification shall be accompanied by a written commitment by the foreign organization/individual on the origin of the financial aid on which taxes have been paid and in compliance with regulations of the host country before financial aids are provided.”

The paperwork, detail, and disclosure required by this expanded regulation will almost certainly lead to the use of creative workarounds in which Vietnamese excel. These new procedures, a complete antithesis of the way churches have been operating until now, are intended for fully legalized religious organizations. Those having received preliminary registration may “request government assistance” to receive foreign aid. One dreads to think how that would go.

Until now, virtually all of the many religious decrees, ordinances, and laws have been only sporadically and unevenly enforced and sometimes ignored. So, the situation has not always been as dire as the written regulations would lead one to believe.

However, with each new written regulation comes a threat that the rules could be enforced. And with each new measure, as with Decree 95, the intent of the authorities to minutely control religion is reinforced. Diligent government efforts to implement the LRB through Decree 95 will create an additional heavy burden and a brake on religious activity and momentum, a big stick in the spokes of religion.

Vietnamese Leaders React

Early feedback on Decree 95 from Vietnamese church leaders, scholars, and advocates differs markedly.

One optimistic leader who directs a national non-denominational ministry confidently says that despite Decree 95 and much previous legislation, “In Vietnam, everything is open, everything is negotiable.” It is true that astute church leaders have overcome many obstacles by establishing good relations with government officials, beginning at the local level. They cite numerous examples of overcoming bureaucratic roadblocks and even official hostility.

A religious liberty scholar/researcher in Vietnam is not so sanguine. He sees a marked increase in the severity of penalties for religion rule infractions and deep intrusion into internal religion management. He says if authorities truly follow through on this intent to control as delineated in Decree 95, the negative consequences for churches will be many and serious.

He believes that it serves as a warning for the 11 evangelical, legally recognized denominations. It serves as a threat for not-yet-legally-recognized groups. And for cults disliked by the authorities or any church body that shows a whiff of interest in advocating for human rights/religious freedom, it will be the executioner.

This third category calls to mind the recent proclamation of the Ministry of Home Affairs to “absolutely eradicate” the Church of the Mother of God. Orthodox Christians classify this Korean-origin group as a dangerous cult. But what is false doctrine to some should not exclude a group from the religious liberty umbrella.

Another veteran religious liberty researcher/advocate puts it this way.

“The law-making people needed work, so they were assigned to come up with more ideas of how to administer religious activities. Communist law-making, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, exists to serve the power of the ruling party, both to address their fear of political instability and to feed corruption. Completely absent is any idea at all of working for the public good. It is all about controlling peoples’ minds and ways of living.”

If the usual pattern is followed, Christian pastors, priests, and religious leaders will wait and see how Decree 95 will be implemented and then formulate a non-confrontational response while they try to create workarounds. 

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Photo Courtesy: Morning Star News/ Bgabel, Creative Commons
Originally published by Morning Star News. Used with permission.