President Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam visits the White House on Thursday, and this is a providential occasion for President Obama to speak up for religious liberty.
Religion is a complicated topic in the communist nation, where the official state religion is atheism, the evangelistic belief in nothing. Nonetheless, 45 percent of the population are believers: 16 percent are Buddhist, and 8 percent are Christian, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In Vietnam, faith is not for the faint of heart. Buddhists and Christians have been oppressed by governments, communist and non-communist alike, throughout Vietnam's long and tortured history.
Since the country was unified in 1975 at the point of communist bayonets at the end of the long Vietnam War, Christians have suffered most, though there are some small signs of improvement. In May, the State Department noted that while "restrictions on religious freedom remain in Vietnam, the government took a step forward by allowing large-scale worship services with more than 100,000 participants."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is less optimistic, warning that the government continues to deploy special religious police to suppress Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai communities through "discrimination, violence and forced renunciations of their faith." Defenders of religious freedom are often imprisoned.
The commission cites two high-profile cases. Le Quoc Quan, a human rights activist, lawyer and blogger who protested the Vietnamese government's use of land belonging to Catholics, has been imprisoned since Dec. 27 on dubious charges of tax evasion. He hasn't yet had the opportunity to defend himself at trial. The commission is further concerned over the plight of Cu Huy Ha Vu, who is serving a seven-year prison term for opposing the government's taking of land from a Catholic parish in Da Nang as well as his advocacy of human rights.
Vietnam hasn't ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but Hanoi says it embraces some of the freedoms outlined in the document. But talk is cheap. The Vietnamese government must demonstrate its commitment to religious freedom by making a clean break from its past if it wants to rejoin the rest of the respectable world. To begin, Vietnam must release religious prisoners and return land confiscated from religious communities.
There's a financial motivation to do the right thing. Vietnam is currently negotiating a free-trade agreement with the European Union, and it wants the United States to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional free-trade treaty that would affect the $25 billion in goods bought from and sold to Vietnam each year.
The price of such benefits must be an internal political reform that goes beyond mere talk. Mr. Obama relishes his reputation for eloquence and persuasion. This is his opportunity to encourage Mr. Sang and his country to embrace the universal right to faith.
The Washington Times