A controversial law on religion passed in Vietnam has triggered renewed fears of state repression in the name of national unity.

Vietnam ignored the wishes of the international community in ratifying the Law on Belief and Religion, which many fear will be used by police and authorities to persecute people of faith. The National Assembly passed it late last month with 85 per cent of the vote, despite unprecedented objections, including some from within the country’s ruling Communist Party.

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Among the law’s fiercest critics is the Interfaith Council of Vietnam, whose 27 council members – from Christian, Buddhist, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao communities – say religious groups are under no obligation to obey it.

“As spiritual leaders struggling for religions’ independence and the people’s human and civil rights, we completely reject the [law] that the communist government is using the National Assembly to approve and impose,” the group said. “Accepting [it] means continuing to support the dictatorial regime.”

The Government Committee for Religious Affairs says the law will increase its management scope and help thwart hardline groups, such as sects and cults and others who use religion to threaten national unity.

It insists that under the law – drafted by the Vietnamese Fatherland Front – everybody has the right to practise religion and attend religious festivals and the “state respects and protects everyone’s right to freedom of belief and religion, and ensures that all religions are equal before the law”.

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However, more than 50 political, human rights and religious groups – including the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, New York-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Amnesty International – have joined the chorus of opposition.

Human Rights Watch claims the law allows authorities to single out and persecute religious groups they dislike. It says phrases in the legislation like “national great unity”, “national security” and “social morale” are deliberately vague and can be used arbitrarily to crack down on political activists. Article 32 of the law says religious appointments must “have the spirit of national unity and harmony”, and article 22 says religious education must include “Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law” as core subjects.

The separation of powers between church and state is anathema for the communists who took control of North Vietnam in 1954 and annexed the south 21 years later. Church properties were confiscated by the one-party state and the atheist communists have struggled to cope with religion ever since.

Hanoi recognises 39 religious organisations within 14 religions, covering 24 million followers, but has not shied away from using arbitrary accusations to imprison or persecute followers, particularly of unregistered groups.

Clergy often complain that church services are interrupted by police who force their way into mass and conduct spot-checks of parishioners’ personal papers.

Father Nguyen Van Ly, a leading advocate of the Interfaith Council, was released from prison in May after serving eight years. In another case, the persecution of Christian activist Tran Thi Hong captured the attention of UN human rights officials who urged the government to stop harassing her after she was “repeatedly arrested and tortured”. Her husband, director of the Vietnam-US Lutheran Alliance Church, was jailed in 2011.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW Asia division, said Hanoi was efficient at restricting religious practices through legislation, registration of unofficial religious groups, harassment and surveillance.

In the countryside, unsanctioned religions fare worse. Montagnards and followers of the De Ga and Ha Mon forms of Christianity have faced persecution and fled into neighbouring Cambodia. Branches of the Cao Dai church, the Hoa Hao Buddhist church, independent Protestant and Catholic churches in the central highlands, Khmer Krom Buddhist temples and the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam had also felt the full force of communist law, said Robertson.

The new law also contains a clause prohibiting abuses of freedom of religion that damage “the national great unity, harm state defence, national security, public order and social morale”.

“The bottom line is the Vietnamese government generally sees religion as something to be manipulated and restricted, not respected – and so they are constantly waging a battle across the country to keep religion under state control,” Robertson said.

Even members of the Communist Party have broken internal ranks. Khuc Thi Duyen, deputy chairwoman of the National Assembly, warned the regulations were “inappropriate and might be unfair to religious institutions”, and criticised as “inappropriate” a regulation that religious institutions would be recognised only after being in operation for 10 years.

Vietnam is not the only country in the region struggling with religion. Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia often conflicts with the state while Christianity in the Philippines and Buddhism in Myanmar have also tested relations between clergy and the central authorities.

Keith Loveard, a risk analyst with Concord Consultancy, said Vietnam had large Catholic and Buddhist communities and that made laws governing religion difficult to get right. “The problem is you have to be fair and being fair is a rather difficult thing to do,” he said, adding that authorities had to consider hatred against apostates and the emergence of sects and cults, which were often just money-making machines.

“Do you regulate, ban or demand certain standards or do you try to create a climate of relevant tolerance or crack down on the worst manifestations of these things?

“The end result is a bit of a mess. You’re asking for more trouble than you’re getting. You’re opening up a Pandora’s box of problems. Best thing to do is leave it to religious leaders alone rather than try to legislate.”