International Religious Freedom Report for 2015

Remarks by Antony J. Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State

Press Briefing Room
Washington, DC
August 10, 2016

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Morning, everyone. It is my pleasure today to join you to present the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2015. I especially want to thank Ambassador Saperstein and his entire team for their hard work to produce this report, and their focus on international religious freedom every single day of the year. Their commitment underscores a fact that no one should ever have to doubt: Support for religious liberty guides the United States and our foreign policy every single day.

This core principle is written into the founding DNA of the United States, renewing and strengthening our nation with every generation. It’s the first freedom enshrined before all others in our bill of rights. And it’s become a centerpiece of global human rights conventions and law.

Our abiding commitment is affirmed by the priority we’ve given to defending and championing international religious freedom everywhere, but especially where it is under threat. We’ve grown the Religious Freedom Office steadily over the last several years. We’ve created a new Religion and Global Affairs Office under the outstanding leadership of Shaun Casey. Put that together and that makes 50 full-time State Department personnel focused entirely on religious freedom and the role of religion in foreign affairs, working closely with 199 Foreign Service officers in our embassies and consulates across the globe to produce the report that we’re putting out today.

As Secretary Kerry has said, the purpose of this annual report is not to lecture; it is to inform, to encourage, and ultimately, to persuade. Bigotry and intolerance can be found in every part of the world, including the United States. But every country has an obligation to respect religious liberty and freedom of conscience; we encourage every country to do so. This report, which is based on a wealth of objective research, is one of many ways we give life to that advocacy.

Our message is simple: Societies tend to be stronger, wealthier, safer, and more stable when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled. When a government denies religious liberty, it turns citizens who have done nothing wrong into criminals, igniting tension that breeds contempt, hopelessness, alienation. Far from a vulnerability or weakness, religious pluralism shows respect for the beliefs of every citizen and gives each a tangible reason to contribute to the success of the entire society. That’s why no nation can fulfil its potential if its people are denied the right to freely choose and openly practice their faith.

Now, it used to be that our annual reports focused almost exclusively on the actions of states. But we’ve also seen certain non-state actors – including terrorist organizations like Daesh, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram – posing a major threat to religious freedom. There is, after all, no more egregious form of discrimination than separating out the followers of one religion from another – whether in a village, on a bus, in a classroom – with the intent of murdering or enslaving the members of a particular group.

This past March, Secretary Kerry made clear his judgment that Daesh is responsible for genocide against religious communities in areas under its control. Daesh kills Yezidis because they are Yezidi, Christians because they are Christian, Shia Muslim because they are Shia. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, other minorities. They’ve not only killed, they’ve sought to erase the memory of those they’ve killed, destroying centuries-old religious cultural sites.

Naming these crimes is important, but our goal is to stop them. That’s why President Obama has mobilized a coalition of more than 65 partners from every corner of the world to combat and ultimately defeat Daesh. Together we’re systematically cutting off Daesh’s financing, destroying its sanctuaries, stemming the flow of foreign fighters, combating its narrative on social media, liberating communities, allowing citizens to return home, and gutting the twisted foundation on which Daesh’s global ambitions rest. We eliminated tens of thousands of fighters, hundreds of senior leaders. We’ve destroyed thousands of pieces of equipment and weapons. We’ve deprived Daesh of 20 percent of the territory it once controlled in Syria and 50 percent in Iraq.

Now, we know that the fight to defeat Daesh on the ground is far from over. But as the noose closes around it, we’ve also seen Daesh try to adapt by encouraging indiscriminate attacks in as many places as possible – a market in Baghdad, a nightclub in Orlando, a promenade in Nice, a cafe in Dhaka, a square in central Istanbul. One of the best ways to deny these murderers their victory is by ensuring that those they have sought to destroy not only survive, but thrive. As the fight for the liberation of Mosul in Nineveh province draws near, we must work to ensure a future in which all Iraqis – be they Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Christian, or other – feel represented and protected by the nation that they call home.

Two weeks ago here at the State Department, we convened over 30 delegations and challenged the international community to do more to ensure ancient religious and ethnic communities can remain in their ancestral homelands, confident in their security and economic opportunity. Every government has an obligation to protect its citizens, and in responding to the threat posed by terrorism, this can be – and we all know it – an immensely challenging task. It requires sharing intelligence, identifying suspicious behavior, taking legitimate security precautions, countering efforts to radicalize young people. And since some violent extremist groups point to religious texts to encourage and justify horrendous crimes, we must partner with religious, civil society, and political leaders committed to defeat efforts to radicalize their communities and radicalize our youth.

But security concerns are not a defensible reason to suppress peaceful religious activities, deny fair treatment to religious groups, apply collective punishments, or deny freedoms that are essential to religious practice, including those of association, assembly, and expression. We stress this point not solely to defend the principle of religious freedom, but also because terrorists are quick to exploit evidence of discrimination in trying to rationalize their actions and attract new members. Whatever the intent, repression tends to fuel terrorism, not stop it, which means that the denial of religious liberty is not only wrong but profoundly misguided and self-defeating.

As a tool for learning and improvement, this report also holds up countries in which progress to religious freedom is being made, and let me just cite one example: Vietnam. Onerous registration and reporting requirements still limit the ability of both registered and unregistered religious communities to freely practice their faith. But that said, the government is currently drafting a new omnibus law on religion and belief scheduled to be considered by the national assembly this fall. The government has made some efforts to provide transparency to the drafting process; it’s relaxed some registration and approval requirements in the draft itself. I want to encourage our partners in Vietnam to continue to move in a direction that will ease restrictions on its religious communities.

At its heart, this report seeks to demonstrate all that is at stake. We believe so strongly in international religious freedom for all because it’s something we value very deeply for ourselves as Americans.

Fifty or a hundred years ago, if you asked an expert what constitutes the wealth of a nation, you’d probably hear that it’s the expanse of the nation’s landmass, the size of its population, the strength of its military, the abundance of its natural resources. And all those things still matter; they make a difference, and the United States happens to be blessed with many of them. But what we know now in the 21st century is that the true wealth of a nation can be found in the human resources of a country and their ability to freely build, invent, excel, and express themselves. Countries that fully unleash this potential, that invest in the health, prosperity, security, and diversity of their societies, will thrive in the 21st century no matter the abundance that they have or don’t have in traditional measures of wealth and strength. And religious freedom is a core component of maximizing that potential for people to express themselves freely to maximize their own potential.

I want to thank Ambassador Saperstein and everyone who contributed to this year’s report. It’s an extraordinary testament to their energy, their passion, their dedication. And now I’m pleased to yield the floor to Ambassador Saperstein for his remarks, and he will have the pleasure of answering any questions that you may have. Thank you very much.

Global Overview – Executive Summary

March 19 began as an ordinary day for 27-year old Farkhunda Malikzada. Farkhunda lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, a city that had already endured decades of warfare and still existed under the constant threat of terrorist attacks by the Taliban. Despite this, Farkhunda lived a happy and optimistic life, according to her family. She worked as a teacher’s assistant while studying Islamic law. She lived with a loving family and dreamed of being married and having children, and perhaps becoming a judge.

On March 19, Farkhunda’s dreams came to a tragic end when she was falsely accused of burning the Quran, an accusation that resulted in her brutal and senseless death. As she made her way home from work that day, Farkhunda stopped at the Shah-e Du Shamshira Shrine in downtown Kabul. She said her prayers and then got into a discussion with the caretaker of the shrine, Zainuddin, about the selling of charms at the shrine, which Farkhunda considered to be un-Islamic. The discussion escalated into an argument, and the caretaker then accused her of being a tool of the Americans, and of having committed blasphemy by burning a Quran.

A crowd quickly gathered to hear the incendiary accusations. Quran burning is a grave religious offense in many Islamic countries, where it is viewed as a form of blasphemy.

Farkhunda denied the accusations and tried to defend herself from the increasingly agitated mob. Before long, a member of the crowd urged the mob to take “justice” into its own hands and kill her. Some of the police nearby tried to intervene as the crowd began to beat Farkhunda and pull at her clothing. The police officers gave up, however, and watched as the crowd tormented and killed its victim. She was beaten with sticks and boards, kicked, run over by a car and dragged, thrown into a dry riverbed, stoned, and finally set on fire as bystanders recorded the crime and police watched every act of barbarity. Farkhunda died in torment and pain sometime during the attack, according to medical examiners, but the crowd continued to abuse her lifeless body.

While Farkhunda’s killing illustrates the horrors that can result from false accusations of blasphemy in deeply conservative Islamic societies, what happened subsequently demonstrates that change is possible. President Ghani immediately condemned the attack and ordered an investigation. The domestic outrage after the attack was immediate, led by civil society and women’s groups. Afghan women carried Farkhunda’s body to her grave-site in a culturally unprecedented funeral procession that doubled as a widely publicized protest against her killing. Government officials and members of parliament participated in the funeral, and the head of the Ministry of Interior’s criminal investigation department told the crowd that Farkhunda was innocent. A few Afghan government and religious leaders who had initially endorsed the killing were marginalized and in at least one case fired.

Reflecting public pressure, the investigation was swift, and numerous individuals were brought to trial and convicted for their involvement in Farkhunda’s death, including police officers. Appeals in some of these cases continue, and civil society has been vocal in pressing authorities to do more to secure justice. The fact that individuals have been held accountable for this horrific crime represents a significant step forward for Afghanistan’s justice system, and sends an important message to those who might see allegations of blasphemy as a means to act with impunity against others. A prominent public memorial erected on the site of Farkhunda’s death has been the site of vigils and a widely publicized commemoration of the one-year anniversary of her killing.

In many other Islamic societies, societal passions associated with blasphemy – deadly enough in and of themselves – are abetted by a legal code that harshly penalizes blasphemy and apostasy. Such laws conflict with and undermine universally recognized human rights. All residents of countries where laws or social norms encourage the death penalty for blasphemy are vulnerable to attacks such as the one on Farkhunda. This is particularly true for those who have less power and are more vulnerable in those societies, like women, religious minorities, and the poor. False accusations, often lodged in pursuit of personal vendettas or for the personal gain of the accuser, are not uncommon. Mob violence as a result of such accusations is disturbingly common. In addition to the danger of mob violence engendered by blasphemy accusations, courts in many countries continued to hand down harsh sentences for blasphemy and apostasy, which were used to severely curtail the religious freedom of their residents.

In Mauritania, Mohammad Cheikh Ould Mohammad (better known as “MKheytir”) published an online article the government alleged criticized the Prophet Mohammad, and implicitly blamed the country’s religious establishment for the plight of the country’s forgeron (blacksmith) caste, which historically has suffered discrimination. In December 2014, a court convicted him of apostasy, a charge which was subsequently downgraded in April 2016 after the blogger “repented”, and sentenced him to death. He remains in prison pending a decision from the Supreme Court, expected in May 2016, on a possible pardon. Protesters called for the death of a prominent human rights activist who defended MKheytir, Aminetou Mint El Moctar. Authorities issued an arrest warrant for the leader of the protestors threatening el Moctar’s life, Yahdih Ould Dahi, but have not arrested him.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which prescribe harsh punishments for crimes such as the desecration of the Quran or insulting the Prophet Mohammad, have often been used as justification for mob justice. Since 1990, more than 62 people have been killed by mob violence (according to Centre for Research and Security Studies in Pakistan). In 2013, there were 39 registered cases of blasphemy against a total of 359 people, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), more than 40 people remain on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan, many of whom are members of religious minorities. Numerous individuals involved in well-publicized blasphemy cases from previous years — including Sawan Masih, Shafqat Emmanuel, Shagufta Kausar, and Liaquat Ali — remained in jail awaiting appeal.

In Sudan on November 2 and 3, authorities detained 27 Muslims on charges of disturbing public order and apostasy. Those arrested are adherents of a school of Islam that maintains that the Quran is the sole source of religious authority, and that rejects the sanctity of the hadiths — contrary to the government’s official view of Islam. The arrests happened during a seminar in which two individuals of the group were leading a group discussion regarding their views of Islamic teachings. Police charged members of the group under Sudan’s newly-broadened apostasy provision. Court proceedings for those arrested have since been suspended, and they have been released, but charges have not been dismissed.

In Saudi Arabia, media and local sources reported that the General Court in Abha sentenced Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh to death for apostasy in November, overturning a previous sentence of four years’ imprisonment and 800 lashes (the death sentence was subsequently overturned in February 2016 and a sentence of eight years’ imprisonment and 800 lashes imposed). Officials from the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice initially arrested Fayadh in August 2013, after reports that he had made disparaging remarks about Islam. In a separate incident in January, authorities publicly lashed Raif Badawi 50 times in accordance with a sentence based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the Internet.

Other Key Developments in 2015

Non-state actors such as Da’esh and Boko Haram continued to rank amongst the most egregious abusers of religious freedom in the world.

Da’esh continued to pursue a brutal strategy of what Secretary Kerry judged to constitute genocide against Yezidis, Christians, Shia, and other vulnerable groups in the territory it controlled, and was responsible for barbarous acts, including killings, torture, enslavement and trafficking, rape and other sexual abuse against religious and ethnic minorities and Sunnis in areas under its control. In areas not under Da’esh control, the group continued suicide bombings and vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks against Shia Muslims. In July, for example, the media reported a Da’esh suicide bomber attacked a crowded marketplace in Diyala, Iraq and killed 115 people. The victims were mostly Shia, who had gathered in the market for the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to Da’esh in an audiotaped message in March 2015, continued to launch indiscriminate, violent attacks targeting both Christians and Muslims who spoke out against or opposed their violent ideology. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for scores of attacks on churches and mosques, often killing worshippers during religious services or immediately afterward.

The Syrian government and its Shia militia allies killed, arrested, and physically abused Sunnis and members of religious minority groups, intentionally destroying their property, according to numerous reports. As the insurgency increasingly became identified with the Sunni majority, according to experts, the government targeted towns and neighborhoods in various parts of the country for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment on the basis of the religious affiliation of residents. The government reportedly targeted places of worship, resulting in damage and destruction of numerous churches and mosques. Non-state actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States, such as Da’esh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), and the Al-Nusra Front, targeted Shia, Alawites, Christians and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis. There were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, cultural rivalries, and sectarian rhetoric.

The result in the Levant, South Asia and northern Nigeria was continued mass migration of vulnerable communities out of areas controlled and threatened by violent extremism with a concordant loss in cultural richness and diversity.

Around the world, governments continued to tighten their regulatory grip on religious groups, and particularly on minority religious groups and religions which are viewed as not traditional to that specific country. Researchers Roger Finke and Dane Mataic of Penn State University found that the number of countries that require some sort of registration has increased significantly over the last two decades, to nearly 90 percent of all countries. Finke and Mataic assess that, while some of these countries regulate religion in what appears to be a non-discriminatory way, many of the measures used to regulate religion, or to decide what is a valid and recognized religion and what is not, are clearly discriminatory. They also found that: the percentage of countries that required submission of religious doctrine for approval prior to registration increased from 13 to 18 percent during their period of research; that the percentage of countries that required a minimum number of religious community members increased from 17 to 32 percent, and that the percentage of countries that sometimes denied registration increased from 22 to 27 percent. Finke and Mataic found a strong link between increasing registration requirements and an overall deterioration in the status of religious freedom in many countries. They also found that members of minority religions, or religions that are new to a country, are disproportionately discriminated against by this increasing regulation of the religious space.

For example, in Angola, the law requires religious groups to register to receive legal recognition from the state. In order to apply for legal recognition, a religious group must collect 100,000 member signatures from 12 of the 18 provinces and submit them to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. The Baha’i faith and the Global Messianic Church were the only two non-Christian organizations legally registered; no Islamic groups were recognized. The state, which recognizes 83 religious groups, has not registered a new religious group since 2004, when it established the current registration requirements.

Another example is Azerbaijan, where the registration process is also restrictive, and religious groups considered non-traditional to Azerbaijan were often reluctant to attempt to register. Religious groups whose registration applications remained pending included some Islamic groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses outside of Baku, and Baptists, among others. Several of these communities were registered prior to a 2009 law requiring all previously-registered religious communities to reregister. These groups reported that the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRA) either rejected or did not adjudicate reregistration applications.

In Iran, the government executed at least 20 individuals on charges of moharebeh, translatable as “enmity towards god,” among them a number of Sunni Kurds. A number of other prisoners, including several Sunni preachers, remained in custody awaiting a government decision to implement their death sentences. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center database of prisoners, at least 380 religious practitioners remained imprisoned at the end of the year for their membership in, or activities on behalf of, a minority religious group, including approximately 250 Sunnis, 82 Baha’is, 26 Christian converts, 16 non-Sunni Sufis, 10 Yarsanis, three Sunni converts, and two Zoroastrians. According to representatives of the Baha’i community, the government continued to prohibit the Baha’is from officially assembling or maintaining administrative institutions, actively closed such institutions, harassed Baha’is, and disregarded their property rights. Christians, particularly evangelicals and converts, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to reports from exiled Christians.

In Saudi Arabia, the Supreme Court upheld death sentences for at least four Shi’a, including Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The three other Shi’a men — Ali al-Nimr (Nimr al-Nimr’s nephew), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher — were convicted of crimes committed when they were legal minors. All three alleged that authorities had used confessions obtained under duress in their convictions. The Saudi government also sought prison terms and death sentences for dozens of individuals involved in 2011-2012 protests demanding greater rights for Shi’a in the Kingdom; some of the charges include violence against security forces.

Since 2013, provincial authorities in Zhejiang, China ordered the demolition of several state-sanctioned Protestant and Catholic churches and the removal of over 1,500 crosses as part of a government campaign targeting so-called “illegal” structures. Lawyers and religious leaders protesting the campaign face detention and arrest. In August 2015, Chinese authorities seized human rights lawyer Zhang Kai just prior to a scheduled meeting with the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Zhang Kai had been providing legal counsel to church communities affected by a government-led campaign to demolish “illegal” churches and crosses. He was finally released in March 2016, but the U.S. government remains concerned about his well-being.

The exercise of religious freedom continued to be nearly non-existent in North Korea. In 2015, the United States co-sponsored annual resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council that condemn the country’s “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations.” The resolutions further expressed their grave concern over the DPRK’s denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, and association, and urged the government to take immediate steps to ensure these rights.

The June 2015 report released by the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in Eritrea found that authorities prohibited religious gatherings; confiscated religious materials; arrested, ill-treated, tortured, and coerced religious adherents to recant their faith; and disappeared or killed many religious followers over the course of its reporting period between 1991 and 2015.

In 2014, Brunei implemented Phase 1 of a Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which expanded existing restrictions on minor religious offenses such as eating during Ramadan, cross-dressing, and close proximity between unmarried people of different genders. Phase 2 and Phase 3 are scheduled for implementation in 2017 and 2018. Phase 2 includes corporal punishments such as amputation for theft, and Phase 3 includes stoning to death for apostasy.

In Burma, between May and August, the previous military-led government adopted a package of four laws related explicitly to “protection of race and religion” that, if enforced, will infringe on the exercise of religious freedom and other human rights. These laws, which appear to target members of the country’s Muslim minority, were championed by prominent Buddhist leaders. The new government has not taken any steps to reverse these laws.

The Vietnamese Committee for Religious Affairs released a draft of the “Law on Religion and Belief” for public comment in April 2015. Despite representations by Vietnamese officials that the new law would begin to bring the country into compliance with its international obligations, the draft law appeared to make only minimal changes to the deeply problematic current regulations on religion. Several representatives of religious communities have asserted that a “bad” draft law would be worse than keeping the current, less formal patchwork of regulations. Others have argued the draft law, while imperfect, will legally “lock in” certain limited rights, such as the right of religious groups to rent property, hold events, or ordain clergy. Subsequent drafts have made some encouraging improvements, but many concerning issues remain unaddressed.

In the Central African Republic, a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver in Bangui was beheaded by unknown attackers and his body dumped in front of a mosque. According to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central Africa Republic (MINUSCA), at least 41 civilians died in Bangui during the ensuing interreligious violence, while more than 40,000 people were displaced. In response to the violence, the mostly Christian anti-Balaka forces surrounded the Muslim PK5 community with blockades, trapping the residents inside. The blockades were broken during Pope Francis’ visit more than a month later.

Despite a policy of “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism, the Hungarian government and Szekesfehervar city government provided funding for the Balint Homan Foundation to erect a statue to Balint Homan, a notorious World War II-era anti-Semite, which they later withdrew after an international outcry.

The Sunni-led government in Bahrain continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians for defaming another religion, inciting hatred against another religious group, engaging in political speech in sermons, and allegedly supporting terrorism. In April, the Court of Cassation upheld the dissolution of the Islamic Ulema Council (IUC), the main assembly of Shia clerics in the country, saying the IUC had used religion as a cover for political activity.

In Ukraine, Russian-occupation authorities in Crimea continue to take action against members of minority religious groups, including Tatars through raids, detentions, and prosecutions through “anti-extremism” laws.

The government of Russia continued to grant privileges to the Russian Orthodox Church that it did not accord to others, while limiting the activities of Muslims and other minority religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Scientologists. Additionally, Russian authorities used anti-extremism laws throughout Russia to revoke the registrations of minority religious groups and impose restrictions on their religious practices, and their ability to purchase land and build places of worship. Currently, the Prosecutor General’s Office is threatening to liquidate the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia for alleged “extremist activity,” which would effectively shut down all of its 406 local religious associations and over 2,500 congregations. It could also result in confiscation of their assets.

In Europe, some governments expressed concern over entry of migrants and asylum seekers on religious grounds. In Hungary, for example, the prime minister repeatedly emphasized the importance of defending the “Christian values of Europe,” and some Slovak Republic officials portrayed Muslims as potential threats to Slovak security, culture and society and threatened to select only Christian refugees for resettlement.

Positive Developments

Despite ongoing challenges in Vietnam, most leaders of religious groups agree that religious freedom is gradually expanding in Vietnam. The government is gradually expanding national-level recognition of religious organizations (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is one recent example), and, in provinces with cooperative local authorities, expanding local church registrations. Unregistered organizations reported fewer problems conducting their operations, particularly in major cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

In late 2015, the European Commission appointed two new coordinators – one for combatting anti-Semitism and one for combatting anti-Muslim hatred. Our Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and Special Representative to Muslim Communities are already working with their respective EU Coordinator counterparts and other European officials to collaborate in fighting trends of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the region. In response to the terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen that targeted Jews as well as journalists, members of the Muslim community organized a peace ring around the synagogue in Oslo in February in a show of solidarity with the Jewish community. Such displays of respect and solidarity occurred in other cities as well.

When al-Shabaab militants attacked a bus in Kenya in December 2015, reportedly with the intention to kill Christians, a group of Kenyan Muslims shielded the Christian passengers and told the attackers they were prepared to die together. The Muslims refused to be separated from their fellow Christian travelers and told the militants to kill them all or leave them alone.

During the Pope’s visit to the Central African Republic in November 2015, there was a peaceful march of Christians and Muslims in the Fatima neighborhood. The Pope was escorted by Muslim youth from the Central Mosque to the stadium in Bangui where he said Mass to 30,000 citizens. Religious leaders said that the Pope’s visit helped restore a significant degree of trust between religious communities. They also said that the Pope’s visit led to the dismantling of some of the physical barricades that had previously divided Muslim and Christian neighborhoods.

In Canada, the Federal Court of Appeal found it unlawful for the federal government to mandate that persons must remove religiously based clothing that covered their faces while reciting their citizenship oath. In November, the newly-elected government decided not to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

In the United Arab Emirates, the Roman Catholic Church in Abu Dhabi opened a second church in the large industrial neighborhood of Musaffah, where many migrant laborers live and work, and where several new churches were built in recent years. The government also allotted land to build the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi.

Report on Vietnam

Executive Summary

The constitution states that all people have the right to freedom of belief and religion. Regulations governing religion permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. Government authorities continued to limit the activities of unregistered religious groups, particularly those the government believed to be engaged in political activity, while members of registered groups were able to practice their beliefs with less interference, according to reports. The government continued to restrict the activities of all religious groups in education and health and required authorization for many other activities. Some members of unregistered groups reported various forms of governmental harassment, including, but not limited to, physical assault, short term detention, prosecutions, monitoring, restrictions on travel, and denials of registration and/or other permissions. Government treatment of religious groups varied widely from region to region and among the central, provincial, and local levels. Religious followers reported local or provincial authorities, rather than central authorities, committed the majority of harassment incidents. Some local and provincial authorities systematically and openly used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close governmental management of their leadership structures, training programs, assemblies, and other activities. There were numerous reports of physical assaults, detention, and property destruction in rural provinces, particularly in the Central and Northwest Highlands.

There were some reports of tensions within the H’mong ethnic group concerning religious observance.

The U.S. President and Secretary of State, in meetings with senior government officials, called for continued improvements in religious freedom. The U.S. embassy and consulate general urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups; sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups; and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of unregistered groups. U.S. officials maintained regular contact with religious leaders across the country. The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom discussed religious freedom concerns with government officials during the annual U.S. Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in May and met a broad range of registered and unregistered religious groups. The Assistant Secretary traveled to Vietnam in August, where he advocated for improvements to freedom of religion in law and practice.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 94.3 million (July 2015 estimate). According to the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), approximately 95 percent of the population professes religious beliefs. More than half of the population identifies as Buddhist. Within that community, Mahayana Buddhism is the dominant affiliation by ethnic majority Kinh (Viet), while approximately 1.2 percent of the population, almost all from the ethnic minority Khmer group, practices Theravada Buddhism. Roman Catholics constitute 7 percent of the total population; Cao Dai, 2.5 to 4 percent; Hoa Hao, 1.5 to 3 percent; and Protestants, 1 to 2 percent.

Smaller religious groups that together comprise less than 0.2 percent of the population include 50,000 ethnic Cham, who mostly practice a devotional form of Hinduism in the south central coastal area; approximately 100,000 Muslims scattered throughout the country (approximately 40 percent are Sunnis; the remaining 60 percent practice Bani Islam); an estimated 8,000 members of the Bahai Faith; and approximately 1,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints (Mormons). Religious groups originating within the country (Buu Son Ky Huong, Tu An Hieu Nghia, To Tien Chinh Giao) and religious groups relatively new to the country (such as Brahmanism) comprise a total of 1.3 million adherents. A small, mostly foreign Jewish population exists in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Other citizens claim no religious affiliation, or practice animism or the veneration of ancestors, tutelary and protective saints, national heroes, or local, respected persons. Many individuals blend traditional practices with religious teachings, particularly Buddhism and Christianity.

Ethnic minorities constitute approximately 14 percent of the population. Based on adherents’ estimates, two thirds of Protestants are members of ethnic minorities, including groups in the Northwest Highlands (H’mong, Dzao, Thai, and others) and in the Central Highlands (Ede, Jarai, Sedang, and M’nong, which include groups also referred to as Montagnards, among others). The Khmer Krom ethnic group overwhelmingly practices Theravada Buddhism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that all people have the right to freedom of belief and religion, including the freedom to follow no religion. The constitution acknowledges the right to freedom of religion or belief of those whose rights are limited, including inmates or any foreigners and stateless persons. The constitution states all religions are equal before the law and the state must respect and protect freedom of belief and religion.

The constitution prohibits citizens from “taking advantage of a belief or religion in order to violate the law.” In addition, the penal code establishes penalties for practices that undermine the state’s national unity policy.

The 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief and the revised Implementation Decree (Decree 92), issued in 2012, serve as the primary documents governing religious practice. Both the ordinance and Decree 92 reiterate citizens’ rights to freedom of belief and religion while also stipulating that individuals may not use the right of belief and religious freedom to undermine peace, national independence, and unification; incite violence or propagate wars; conduct propagation in contravention of the state’s laws and policies; divide people, nationalities, or religions; cause public disorder, infringe upon the life, health, dignity, honor and/or property of others, or impede the exercise of civic rights and performance of civic obligations; or conduct superstitious activities or otherwise violate the law.

The CRA is responsible for implementing the 2004 ordinance and administrative modifications outlined in Decree 92 and maintains offices at the central, provincial, and in some areas, local level. Under the decree, all religious groups must submit proposed religious activities for government pre approval. The national level CRA is charged with disseminating information to authorities and assuring uniform compliance with the legal framework on religion at the provincial, district, commune, and village levels.

The ordinance explicitly bans forced renunciations of faith.

Decree 92 prescribes a multi stage process to receive national recognition. To operate openly, an unrecognized religious organization must first register (and in practice, obtain approval for) its places of worship, its clerics, and its activities in each local administrative area in which it operates by filing information about its structure, leadership, and activities. Local registration confers the ability to operate in that administrative locality. The next step is national registration, which requires the group to document 20 years of stable religious operation in the country and is granted by the national government through the CRA. National registration requires a license from the CRA. After maintaining national registration for three years, a religious group becomes eligible to apply for legal recognition after electing its leaders through a national convention. The CRA must approve the proposed leadership, structure, and activities. Benefits of recognition include permission to open, operate, and refurbish places of worship; permission to train religious leaders; and permission to publish materials. Each activity also remains further subject to local and national approvals.

At every stage of the registration and recognition application process, the law specifies time limits for an official response, which can be up to 45 days, depending on the scope of the request. Although the law requires government authorities to explain formally any denial in writing, the denial may be for any reason, given the significant discretion the law gives to those authorities. There is no mechanism for appeal.

Under the ordinance the government has regulatory oversight of religious groups, which must be officially registered or recognized as formal religious organizations. The ordinance stipulates that local government authorities must approve the leadership, activities, and the establishment of seminaries or religious classes. Decree 92 requires religious organizations to register their religious leaders and officials with the CRA at the central or provincial level. The decree specifies curriculum guidelines for religious training institutions, and extends the minimum time an organization must be registered before it may qualify for national recognition to 23 years.

Religious organizations must inform appropriate provincial and central level authorities of their major celebrations, such as Christmas services, as well as the investiture and transfer of clerics. This is an informational requirement only; the law does not require pre approval of those services and clerical appointments. Local governments have the authority to require additional forms of permission. While the ordinance encourages religious groups to conduct charitable activities in healthcare and education, the law prohibits religious groups from operating health or educational institutions, although kindergartens and preschools are allowed.

Decree 92 and the Law on Land stipulate that recognized religious organizations are permitted to acquire a land use certificate as legal entities, but they must receive a grant of the land by the respective provincial people’s committee, which also has the authority to approve or disapprove the construction of new facilities. If a religious organization has not yet obtained full legal status, members of the congregation may acquire a land use title individually, but not as a recognized religious establishment. The renovation or upgrade of religious facilities also requires notification to authorities, although it does not necessarily require a permit, depending on the extent of the renovation. The decree stipulates authorities must respond to a construction permit application within 20 days, although the law does not provide for accountability of authorities if they do not comply with the deadline.

The 2005 prime minister’s Directive on Some Tasks Regarding Protestantism calls on authorities to facilitate the requests of recognized Protestant denominations to construct churches and to train and appoint pastors. The directive instructs authorities to help unrecognized denominations register their congregations so they can worship openly and move toward fulfilling the criteria for full recognition. The directive instructs authorities in the Central and Northwest Highlands to help groups of Protestants register their religious activities and practice in homes or “suitable locations,” even if they do not meet the criteria to establish an official congregation. The directive also instructs local officials to allow unregistered “house churches” to operate as long as they are “committed to follow regulations” and are not affiliated with separatist political movements.

The law requires prior approval by government authorities of the publication of all religious texts. The law states only the Religious Publishing House, or another government approved publishing house, may publish religious books. It permits the Bible to be printed in Vietnamese and a number of other languages, including Chinese, Ede, Jarai, Banar, M’nong, H’mong, C’ho, and English. Other published texts include, but are not limited to, works pertaining to ancestry worship, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Cao Dai. Any bookstore may legally sell religious texts and other religious materials.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools.

Religious affiliation is indicated on citizens’ national identification cards and household registration documents. An individual or household may decline to state affiliation. The law allows an individual to change his or her religious affiliation on national identification cards through a set of cumbersome procedures.

Decree 92 includes requirements for noncitizens specializing in religious activities within the country, including those involved in religious training, ordination, and leadership. Religious groups must obtain approval from the CRA at the national level for a religious leader who is not a citizen,

Government Practices

The constitutional right to religious belief and practice continued to be subject to uneven interpretation and inconsistent protection, especially involving ethnic minorities in some provinces of the Central and Northwest Highlands. Government authorities, particularly at the local level, continued to limit the activities of unregistered religious groups, and members of these and other groups reported physical assaults, excessive use of force, detentions, monitoring, hindering of movement, denials of registrations and other permissions, and other harassment. Victims often reported they suspected the perpetrators of assaults and surveillance were plainclothes police officers (referred to as “plainclothes individuals” below). Nevertheless, in some areas, local authorities tacitly approved activities of unregistered groups, including certain social welfare activities.

The government stated it continued to monitor the activities of certain religious groups because of their political activism and invoked national security and solidarity provisions in the constitution and penal code to override laws and regulations providing for religious freedom. This included impeding some religious gatherings and blocking attempts by religious groups to proselytize to certain ethnic groups in border regions deemed to be sensitive, including the Central Highlands, Northwest Highlands, and certain Mekong Delta provinces.

According to reports, local authorities established steering committees to implement national directives to suppress the growth of the Duong Van Minh religious group. Group members stated several followers were wanted by the police. In August police and Ministry of Public Security officials from Ha Giang province were reported to detain Duong Van Minh follower Ma Van Pa and interrogated him after he met with U.S. officials.

Mennonite pastors in Binh Duong Province, Gia Lai Province, and Ho Chi Minh City reported police, local authorities, and plainclothes individuals intimidated, harassed, and physically attacked church leaders and congregants throughout the year. Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang reported police raided his home during a new year’s celebration worship service in January, escorted him and his congregants to the police station, and subsequently assaulted them. In March Quang reported that approximately 20 plainclothes individuals struck him and three others with metal tubes when they attempted to visit a house church. Quang reported he was forced to step down from pastoral duties due to continued harassment from the authorities. Pastor Nguyen Manh Hung reported that Ho Chi Minh City police came to his residence in June, July, and September, each time damaging property and, during the September visit, threatening his family.

On July 26, plainclothes individuals reportedly assaulted and threatened Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) leadership during their visit to a house church in Loc Ninh Commune, Dong Hoi City, Quang Binh Province. Reports state provincial authorities sought to disband the house church and local police witnessed the assault but did not intervene. Prior to the visit, ECVN leaders had received permission to visit from the local CRA.

In March and April a pastor of the United World Mission Church reported that plainclothes individuals in Da Nang City attempted to intimidate followers from attending service with threats and assault. The pastor said the church attempted unsuccessfully to register with city authorities several times in recent years.

Local and central authorities continued to call on the H’mong people in the Northwest Highlands, including Tuyen Quang, Cao Bang, Bac Can, and Thai Nguyen Provinces, to disavow the Duong Van Minh religious group, whose followers advocate for a simplified version of traditional H’mong funeral ceremonies, and to dismantle all nha don, public buildings used for funeral rites. On February 6, uniformed police and plainclothes individuals were reported to have destroyed a small nha don at Khuoi Vin village in Cao Bang Province and burned all the funeral items inside. Reports state seven villagers were assaulted while trying to prevent or film officials’ actions. Members of the Duong Van Minh group stated this was the fifth time local authorities had destroyed a nha don in this particular village.

In October a monk affiliated with the unsanctioned Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam reported local authorities and police in Ba Ria Vung Tau Province dismantled a pagoda his congregation was constructing. The monk stated that when followers protested, local police used tear gas grenades and struck one person with their batons, leading to his hospitalization.

In February ethnic H’mong members of Protestant churches in Dien Bien Dong District, Dien Bien Province reported that local authorities forced congregants to renounce their faith. They stated local authorities, accompanied by non Protestant family members, shredded Bibles, seized and destroyed followers’ property, and physically assaulted followers. Local authorities reportedly expelled some Christians from their villages. By year’s end, there had been no official investigation of the local authorities’ actions.

In total the government has granted recognition to 38 religious organizations, 36 of which hold full recognition. These 38 religious organizations were affiliated with 14 distinct religious traditions as defined by the government. The 14 religious traditions are: Buddhism, Islam, Bahai, Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Buu Son Ky Huong, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Phat Duong Nam Tong Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao Tam Tong Mieu, and Khmer Brahmanism. Distinct denominations within these religious traditions must seek their own registration and/or recognition.

Both registered and unregistered religious groups stated that government agencies sometimes did not respond to registration applications or approval requests for religious activities within the stipulated time period, or at all. Some groups reported they successfully appealed local decisions to higher level authorities through informal channels.

Several hundred ECVN congregations continued to await action on their applications to register local meeting places, beyond the time periods outlined by Decree 92. Government officials reportedly rarely adhered to the stipulated response times, if they responded at all, and often did not specify reasons for refusals. Authorities attributed the delays and denials to the failure of applicants to complete forms correctly or to provide complete information. Local authorities also cited general security concerns, such as political destabilization or potential conflict between followers of established ethnic or traditional religious beliefs and newly introduced Christian beliefs. Some Protestant house churches stated local authorities used registration requirements to harass followers and exert pressure on the religious groups to cease religious activities.

Leaders from the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) reported local authorities in some Central Highlands provinces required smaller congregations, some with as many as 100 followers, to combine together into larger groups of up to 1,500 individuals in order to gain official registration. The church leaders called such requests unreasonable, saying many of the congregations were composed of a variety of ethnic minority groups with different languages and incongruent worship practices. Mountainous terrain and lack of infrastructure in the rural highlands prevented other SECV churches from sustaining the required minimum number of followers necessary to qualify for local registration.

Some registered and unregistered Protestant groups reported that local authorities pressured newer congregations to affiliate with existing congregations or other, more established denominations. In at least one reported case, authorities offered a congregation a greater level of recognition if its leadership acted more cooperatively with the government.

According to many Catholic bishops, parishes in remote areas with majority ethnic minority populations faced difficulty registering, uneven and inconsistent enforcement of national laws, and a lack of accountability on the part of provincial authorities. In the Central Highland’s Kon Tum Province, a Catholic priest stated that in January local authorities planned to demolish an unregistered house church. The priest said that authorities were deterred after more than 1,000 followers rallied in protest on the day the church was scheduled to be taken down. In March the Catholic leadership publicized an internal document from the Kon Tum provincial leadership directing local authorities to close 22 unregistered house churches. In September the Catholic leadership stated that Kon Tum authorities halted the plans and entered into dialogue with the church regarding construction of new worship facilities.

Some Buddhist, Protestant, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao groups did not affiliate with any government recognized or government registered religious organizations, nor did they seek their own registration or recognition. Unregistered Buddhist, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Christian religious groups regularly reported some provincial authorities used local registration laws to pressure, intimidate, threaten, extort, harass, and assault their members.

A significant number of registered religious groups reported their ability to meet openly for worship had improved in recent years. For example, two major Protestant groups reported they had greater freedom to organize religious activities, including seminary classes. The government, however, continued to require religious groups to register their activities in advance and used this requirement to restrict and discourage participation in certain unregistered religious groups, including unsanctioned Buddhist, Protestant, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao groups.

In March leadership of the unsanctioned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) affiliated An Cu pagoda in Da Nang said plainclothes individuals prevented followers from attending a full moon ceremony by covering the roads to the pagoda with nails.

Religious believers, particularly members of organizations that had not applied for or been granted legal registration, continued to report intimidation by local security officials about attending religious services. In a number of instances, local officials forced church gatherings to disperse, advised or required groups to limit important celebrations in scope or content, closed unregistered house churches, or pressured individuals to renounce their religious beliefs and cease religious activities.

Members of the Interfaith Council reported police in Thua Thien Hue Province prevented 10 council members from attending a March event honoring the former Republic of Vietnam at Phuoc Thanh pagoda. The council, which included representatives of unsanctioned Buddhist, Protestant, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai groups, stated that police threatened the delegation, pressured the owner of a local guest house to expel them, and confiscated the license and identification papers of their drivers. On the day the celebration had been scheduled, approximately 40 50 people, including police, reportedly surrounded the pagoda.

In April press reports and independent Cao Dai followers reported local authorities in Phu Yen Province razed an independent Cao Dai temple despite protests from local followers. In May the independent Cao Dai Nhon Sanh group reported local authorities and government sanctioned Cao Dai followers prevented them from organizing a conference at a Cao Dai holy site in Tay Ninh Province, physically barring them from entering and throwing paint on them. The independent Cao Dai group did not obtain official permission to organize their conference. In September authorities at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport reportedly confiscated Cao Dai Master Hua Phi’s passport and prevented him from travelling abroad for a religious freedom conference.

Falun Gong practitioners reported in August and October that Ho Chi Minh City authorities and plainclothes police prevented them from practicing in a local park, at times using threats, playing loud music, or physically assaulting followers.

Authorities continued to deny prisoners and detainees the right to worship, although the constitution guarantees in principle the right of prisoners to practice their beliefs. Family members said prison guards prevented Protestant Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh from praying and reading the Bible. Some prisoners, however, were allowed to read the Bible and practice their beliefs while incarcerated.

Ho Chi Minh City authorities continued to negotiate with leadership of the UBCV affiliated and unsanctioned Lien Tri Pagoda as well as a nearby Catholic church and convent to vacate their land to facilitate an urban development project. Leaders of the pagoda and church said authorities were using the redevelopment as a pretext to force them to move and to raze the buildings. Both sides reported that local authorities offered compensation and alternative sites, although the religious institutions said the compensation was inadequate and the sites offered were in remote areas. Pagoda Abbot Thich Khong Tanh continued to release public statements critical of government restrictions on religious organizations.

Although the law prohibits nongovernment publishing of religious materials, in practice some private, unlicensed publishing houses unofficially printed and distributed religious texts without active government interference.

In September volunteers with the Catholic group Books for Parishes stated that the police harassed them by issuing traffic tickets and repeatedly inspecting their belongings while they were establishing free libraries in Con Cuong District, Nghe An Province.

The government continued to restrict the number of students who could enroll in Catholic and Protestant seminaries to numbers the churches’ leadership said were inadequate to meet demand. Catholic and Protestant leadership stated, however, the number of students permitted to enroll had increased compared to prior years.

Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Bahai, and Buddhist groups were allowed to provide religious education to adherents in their own facilities. Students continued to participate in training sessions on fundamental Buddhist philosophy organized at pagodas nationwide during summer holidays.

In August the government approved the establishment of the Vietnamese Catholic Institute, which church leaders expected would be the first faith based, degree granting educational institution in Vietnam.

Montagnards in the Central Highlands stated the government continued to monitor, interrogate, and discriminate against them, in part due to suspicions they were affiliated with Protestant organizations tied to separatist political organizations. In March, April, and May state owned media published a series of articles discouraging citizens from affiliating with Degar Protestantism, a Montagnard Protestant group. Some Montagnards also reported throughout the year that local authorities seized their land and withheld social services in part due to their religious beliefs. In some cases, Montagnards stated that ongoing social and religious persecution drove them to flee to Cambodia. Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Human rights activists reported plainclothes police kept Hoa Hao follower and rights activist Nguyen Bac Truyen and his family under close surveillance throughout the year. In August Truyen said that police prevented him from leaving his home to meet with foreign officials. Other activists reported local police in An Giang Province kept Hoa Hao activists Mai Thi Dung and Vo Van Buu under close surveillance following Dung’s release from prison in April.

Two Buddhist clergy, both members of the recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, reported local authorities harassed them and members of their pagodas in Bac Giang Province and Hanoi. They reported the harassment included intimidation of monks and nuns, expulsion by force of clergy from their buildings, plainclothes individuals breaking into religious buildings, the destruction of pagoda property, and theft of cash donations from villagers.

Activists reported police continued to harass family members of imprisoned Protestant pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, including by barring them from receiving visitors, displacing them from their home, placing them under heavy surveillance, and confiscating and destroying their personal belongings. Restrictions on the family’s movement at times prevented Pastor Chinh’s four children from attending school.

As in previous years, UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do reported authorities permitted him to leave the Thanh Minh Monastery, where he resides, only for quarterly medical check ups. Other UBCV leaders stated the government continued to monitor their activities and restrict their movements, although they were able to meet with some foreign diplomats, visit other UBCV members, and maintain contact with associates overseas. In August UBCV follower Le Cong Cau said that airport security in Thua Thien Hue Province prevented him from traveling to Ho Chi Minh City to meet with the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

In October independent Hoa Hao followers stated that authorities in Dong Thap Province prevented them from visiting Hoa Hao activist Duong Thi Tron after her release from prison. Followers said that the police instructed Tron’s family not to organize a gathering in the days leading up to her release.

In July Catholic clergy reported unidentified individuals wearing masks threw stones, bricks, and shrimp paste at the residence of Catholic priest Father Phan Van Loi in Hue, actions they stated were in retaliation for his human rights and religious freedom advocacy. Plainclothes individuals reportedly harassed him in March during his meeting with a Buddhist leader. Although Catholic clergy reported the incident to local authorities, the police did not initiate an investigation.

Church members reported Ho Chi Minh City authorities continued to hold the passport of Pastor Pham Dinh Nhan, the head of the unregistered United Gospel Outreach Church, which was first confiscated in 2013. They said authorities permitted his personal travel abroad but confiscated the passport after each trip.

Leaders of some unregistered Protestant denominations continued to report that local authorities in the Central Highlands discriminated against their followers, threatening to exclude them from state run social welfare programs if adherents did not denounce their faith.

Protestant and Catholic groups reported ongoing restrictions or prohibitions of religious groups operating medical and educational facilities such as hospitals and parochial schools. Catholic representatives said the government refused to return hospitals, clinics, and schools seized from the Catholic Church in past decades.

In some cases local authorities permitted religious organizations to operate social services. For example, in Hanoi, city officials allowed Protestant house churches to operate drug rehabilitation centers.

Most representatives of registered religious groups reported adherence to a religious group generally did not seriously disadvantage individuals in nongovernmental civil, economic, and secular life, although some religious leaders said unofficial policies of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and the government hampered advancement of religious adherents within those organizations. The official resumes of the top four CPV leaders stated they followed no religion.

Practitioners of various religions served in local and provincial government positions and were represented in the National Assembly. Many registered religious organizations, such as the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, as well as other clergy and religious followers, were members of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for government affiliated organizations under the guidance of the CPV. High ranking government officials sent greetings and visited churches during Christmas and Easter and attended Vesak activities commemorating the birth of the Buddha.

Local authorities sometimes prevented individuals from changing religious affiliation on national identification cards, according to reports from religious groups. The government announced in December it would begin issuing a new type of identity card which would no longer specify religious affiliation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Members of the Duong Van Minh religious group, who are primarily ethnic H’mong, reported some tensions with other H’mong who practice different traditional burial rites.

There were reports non Christian family members participated in harassment of Christians. In February ethnic H’mong members of Protestant churches in Dien Bien Dong District, Dien Bien Province stated that local authorities, accompanied by non Protestant family members, shredded Bibles, seized and destroyed followers’ property, and physically assaulted followers.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The President and Secretary of State, in meetings with senior government officials, called for continued improvements in religious freedom. Other visiting senior U.S. officials raised religious freedom concerns during their meetings with government officials and civil society representatives. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom discussed religious freedom concerns with government officials at the U.S. Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in May, and traveled to the Northwest Highlands to discuss religious freedom with local officials and a wide range of registered and unregistered groups, including groups with ethnic minority members. On a separate visit in August, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor advocated for improvements to freedom of religion in law and practice. Senior U.S. officials submitted to government leaders recommendations for revisions to the draft Law on Religion and Belief to bring the text in line with the country’s constitution and international commitments to protect religious freedom.

The Ambassador and embassy officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the UBCV, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Cao Dai and Hoa Hao groups; sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups; and urged an end to restrictions on unregistered groups. The Ambassador and embassy officials raised specific cases of government harassment against Catholics, the UBCV, independent Hoa Hao groups, the Duong Van Minh religious group, and Protestant churches with the CRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Public Security. Embassy officials called for the increased registration of church congregations around the country and for improvement in registration policies to make them more uniform and transparent. U.S. government officials also urged the government to peacefully resolve outstanding land rights disputes with religious organizations.

The Embassy in Hanoi and the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City regularly raised concerns about religious freedom with a wide range of government officials and CPV leaders, including the president, prime minister, and senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the CRA, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and other offices in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and the provinces.

The Ambassador and consulate general officials traveled throughout the country, including to the Northwest and Central Highlands, to monitor religious freedom, meet with religious leaders, and stress to government officials that progress on religious freedom and human rights was critical to an improved bilateral relationship. Representatives of the embassy and the consulate general had frequent contact with many leaders of religious communities.