Full religious freedom has arrived, says Hanoi

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2006, 12:00am

Vietnam, seeking to be removed from the US list of the world's worst violators of religious rights, has sent out a strong pro-freedom message at its Communist Party congress.

A top religious affairs official told a press conference yesterday: 'Socialism does not contravene spirituality', and claimed full freedom of religious practice had arrived in the country.

'The spiritual needs of the people need the special attention of the party and the state,' said Ngo Yen Thi, head of the government's commission on religious affairs.

Vietnam has often been criticised for intolerance of religious practice, despite its large Buddhist and Catholic groups, since the communists took control in 1975.

Religious leaders have been jailed, followers harassed and sects banned, though Vietnam has consistently denied allegations of religious persecution, saying it was only upholding the law.

In 2004, the US State Department designated Vietnam a 'country of particular concern' on religious freedoms, potentially hampering its bid to join the world economy.

Mr Thi said Vietnam would continue to urge the US to drop its designation, as it aims to join the World Trade Organisation this year.

He also signalled a willingness to pursue closer ties with the Vatican. The two states have no diplomatic relations and have often clashed over control of the Catholic church in Vietnam, which has about 6 million followers. He added religion-related tensions in the Central Highlands and northwestern regions had eased as authorities had worked with local church groups to 'register their activities'.

Reports of persecution this month in the northern province of Lao Cai - in which a local official was said to have seized the land of local Christians for refusing to recant their faith - were 'false' and stemmed from a local dispute within the church, Mr Thi said.