Religious Freedom Advocates Upset as State Department Omits Nigeria, Vietnam
Institute on Religion and Democracy
December 14, 2021
In his first official trip to Africa in mid-November, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced those nations to be designated Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) or placed on a Special Watch List (SWL). Nigeria and Vietnam each have significant documentation of religious freedom violations, but neither will appear on the lists this year, to the chagrin of religious freedom advocates.
“Vietnam has been recommended annually as a CPC by USCIRF [the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom] since 2002. So I am disappointed but not surprised by the State Department decision,” U.S.-based Vietnamese Human Rights Activist Dr. Q.H. Tran reacted to the delisting of Vietnam. “CPC is a valuable tool to deter egregious violations of religious freedom. That is the reason why the Vietnam Human Rights Act is more important now than ever.”
Activists were upset by the timing of the release, hours before the Secretary landed in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
Earlier in the month USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) issued a fact sheet naming countries (including Nigeria) recommended for CPC status – as well as countries that the independent commission recommends to be placed on the SWL list.
The State Department defines a CPC as a nation engaged in serious violations of IRFA (International Religious Freedom Act of 1998) defined offenses. The law was amended in 2016 and named for one of the most ardent defenders of religious freedom to sit in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA).
Nations placed on the Special Watch List are those considered to not meet the criteria to be considered as a CPC as defined by IRFA. However, these nations are found to be engaging in or tolerating serious violations of religious freedom. The list of violations as defined by IRFA include: torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty or the security of persons.
The State Department and USCIRF are not in agreement regarding which countries were designated as a CPC or were placed on the Special Watch List: USCIRF recommended additional countries to be designated as a CPC or placed on the SWL. Nigeria is not the only country that was delisted – or even approved by the Secretary to be listed in any capacity at all.
Vietnam was also delisted by the State Department. USCIRF recommended that the country be listed as a CPC. Blinken decided not to place the Southeast Asian country on the list. Backstory to this decision is the Vietnam visit earlier this summerby Vice President Kamala Harris. Potentially the delisting was made as a sign of faith by the Administration to Vietnam for economic reforms, but that is not clear.
There is evidence that the State Department may have ignored some of the information provided to them by groups that monitor religious freedom around the world. Concerns regarding violations of Religious Freedom in Vietnam have been well documented. In its annual report documenting the persecution of Christians around the World, watchdog group Open Doors USA rated Vietnam 19th on the list of the top 50 persecutors of Christians for the year 2020.
One concern documented has been the use of COVID-19 as a reason to crackdown against churches. Two pastors, the Rev. Vo Xuan Loan and her husband the Rev. Phoung Van Tan of the Revival Ekkelesia Mission Church were questioned by police according to media reports in October 2021 after accusations were made that their church was responsible for an outbreak of COVID in the Ho Chi Minh City area.
Not just Evangelicals suffer in Vietnam: those who practice Catholicism fare no better. Aid to the Church in Need, a group that monitors persecution targeting Catholics, has documented incidents targeting Catholics. The most recent update documents the situation in the Northwestern province of Dien Bien where some Catholic communities are unrecognized by the Hanoi Government.
Even though the situation on the ground does not garner the same level of media attention as other crisis spots, the question of what can be done to improve the plight of Vietnamese Christians has to be asked. There is a proposed solution to address these concerns: the Vietnam Human Rights Act (H.R. 3001) awaits action in the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. The legislation will also be discussed in the Foreign Affairs Committee. Already there are efforts underway by religious freedom advocates to notify House members of their support for this legislation.
If the legislation is passed by Congress and signed into law by the President, it could serve as a powerful message: even if the State Department doesn’t determine that there is enough evidence supporting a CPC or SWL designation, Congress will provide proof that there are ample areas of concern regarding the overall human rights situation in Vietnam.