- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The United States announced yesterday it has reached an agreement with Vietnam on religious freedom.

Officials said communist Vietnam, whose prime minister will make a historic visit to Washington next month, has released a number of religious prisoners and allowed churches that had been closed to reopen.

The United States last year classified Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” for violating religious freedoms. The administration had been urged in March to impose a travel ban on Vietnamese government officials accused of committing religious persecution.

But John Hanford, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said the new agreement “addresses a number of important religious freedom concerns” and that more talks would be held when Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick visits Hanoi today.

“In recent weeks, Vietnam has banned the practice of forced renunciations or coerced renunciations of faith. They’ve released a number of prominent prisoners of concern, and they’ve begun to register and to permit the reopening of churches that had previously been closed,” Mr. Hanford told a press briefing.

“Most importantly, Vietnam has also enacted significant legislative reforms that hold the promise of major improvements in religious freedom in the near future.”

The commitments made by Vietnam “result from our work over the past several years to advance religious freedom in that country,” Mr. Hanford said.

“While these commitments offer a strong foundation, other important steps remain to be taken, and the United States will continue to monitor developments in Vietnam closely,” he added.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Phan Van Khai announced earlier yesterday he would visit the United States at the end of June, the first such trip by a top leader of the communist country since the end of the war in 1975.

Mr. Phan signed an order in February calling on Vietnamese officials to “ensure that each citizen’s freedom of religious and belief practice is observed [and] outlaw attempts to force people to follow a religion or to deny their religion.”

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