Vietnamese authorities announced plans to deliver thousands of religious books to the country’s prisons, but former inmates and activists told RFA that prisoners are still likely to be prohibited from freely practicing their faith behind bars.
Several government ministries collaborated to approve a list of 17 books, including the Bible, and distribute 4,400 copies to 54 prisons. The books include religious and theology texts, books on the history of religions, and analyses of Vietnamese laws regarding religion, state media reported.
Maj. Gen. Thuong Van Nghiem, deputy director of the Ministry of Public Security’s Department of Homeland Security, said that the plan demonstrates Vietnam’s commitment to ensuring religious freedom, and conveys a message about the country’s efforts to support civil, political and human rights.
But distributing the books is just a public relations move, Tran Minh Nhat, a Catholic who was jailed from 2011 to 2015 on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government,” told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“The important thing is what books they are, who the author is, who published them, where they are placed and how they are managed,” said Nhat.
“In most cases, their inclusion of scriptures or religious publications is mainly for embellishment purposes. The government or the Ministry of Public Security review and provide religious publications mainly to deceive public opinion and cover the public’s eyes, not to meet the needs of those who are serving jail sentences. It’s just for the sake of doing it,” he said.
Nhat spent time at six different prisoners during his five-year sentence. In each, prisoners were prohibited from having their own Bibles, Buddhist scriptures or any kind of religious publication, even items that had been licensed by the government. Prisoners of any faith are prohibited from praying in groups, he said.
“The practice of religious rites is prohibited. This is not only applied to Catholics but also Buddhists and Protestants. Because of such a ban, many people do not ask for the right to practice their religion,” said Nhat.
“There can be exceptions though, for example, when I myself went on a hunger strike for almost a month, then they finally gave me a Bible to read.”
The Vietnamese government has never cared about religious, political or ethnic rights, Siu Wiu, who spent 13 years in prison for “disturbing security” by performing Protestant rituals in public, told RFA.
“As far as I know, the Communists never tell the truth. They say one thing but do another. I’m living proof, there’s no such thing,” he said.
During his years in prison, Wiu was only able to pray alone and quietly, as the prisoners were not allowed to pray publicly.
Punishments for practicing his religion were severe.
“One time my wife visited me and smuggled a Bible in an instant noodle packet for me. When prison staff spotted the Bible, they chained me up for seven days,” said Siu.
“Prior to that, I was disciplined and shackled for two weeks and then put in solitary confinement for six months because one time, when I called home, I asked the people in the village to pray for me on Sundays,” he said.
Allowing religious texts in prison should raise awareness about the Communist Party’s guidelines and governmental policies and laws on beliefs and religions as well as the values and influences of religion on social life, Maj. Gen. Nguyen Viet Hung, deputy director of the Police Department of Prisons, Correction Centers, and Juvenile Reformatory Management, told RFA.
RFA confirmed that 17 approved texts include the Bible, Ho Chi Minh’s “Viewpoints on Mobilizing Religious Followers,” and “Study on Religions and Beliefs” by Do Lan Hien, who is the director of the Institute of Religion and Belief at the Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics.
RFA did not have access to the latter two books to verify their content.
The latest report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, released on Feb. 7, 2021, marked the 15th consecutive year that Vietnam was included by the U.S. on its list of “countries of particular concern” on religious freedom because of its repression on independent religious groups not recognized by the government.
Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.