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Vietnam Condemns US Report On Religious Freedom

September 16, 2004 7:11 a.m.

HANOI (AP)--Vietnam Thursday slammed a U.S. report on religious freedom that listed it for the first time as one of the world's most intolerant countries - a designation that could bring economic sanctions.

The U.S. State Department's annual report on religious freedom said Vietnam was placed in the "countries of particular concern" category for "particularly severe violations of religious freedom."

The listing "is a wrongful decision based on erroneous information and inaccurate reflection of Vietnam's situation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said in a statement.

Vietnam joins previous countries on the worst-offender list - Myanmar, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan - as well as newcomers Saudi Arabia and Eritrea.

The "countries of particular concern" category carries the possibility of sanctions, which could range from private rebuke to economic restrictions. The report is used as a guideline for the U.S. secretary of state in making recommendations to the president.

Senior U.S. officials have said the government intends to use continued diplomacy to improve conditions instead of employing sanctions.

In the report, Vietnam was accused of trying to force ethnic minority Protestants to recant their faith, and of continuing to detain leaders of banned religious groups such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

Repression involving Roman Catholics and followers of local religions Hoa Hao and Cao Dai was also documented.

Vietnam denied the allegations, saying "there is no such thing as 'religious prisoners' or 'forced renunciations of faith.'"

It also accused the U.S. of undermining bilateral relations.

The report noted mass demonstrations in Vietnam's Central Highlands, where thousands of mainly Protestant hill tribe people took to the streets earlier this year to protest restrictions on religion and land.

Vietnam's government says rocks thrown by protesters killed two people. International human rights groups say at least 10 died in clashes with security forces.

Vietnam recognizes only six government-sanctioned religions, but several banned groups operate without its approval. The country has been under intense pressure from international human rights groups, the European Union and the U.S. to improve religious freedom.

"There are no known cases in recent years in which the courts acted to interpret laws to protect a person's right to religious freedom," the U.S. report said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to restrict U.S. aid to Vietnam if it fails to improve what lawmakers said was a deplorable human rights record. The bill still requires U.S. Senate approval to become law.

Under the measure, U.S. non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam would be capped at current levels - around $40 million - unless the situation improves.

-Edited by Sharon Vong