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January 24, 2003

Vietnam tightens grip on religion

By Clare Arthurs

Hanoi (BBC News) - Vietnam's ruling Communist Party has resolved to increase state control over religious affairs in an effort to reduce ethnic unrest and dissent.

Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan says it is the first time the party central committee has passed a resolution on religious activities.

It called on religious followers to foil attempts to undermine the regime by what the party calls "hostile forces".

During a nine-day meeting the committee also discussed land issues and ethnic minorities.

Officially, Vietnamese people are allowed religious freedoms.

But the government only allows six official religious organisations, which it monitors closely.

Vietnam's rulers are regularly criticised by human rights observers for religious repression.

The plenum of the central committee opened with a call from the party's General Secretary, Nong Duc Manh, for new policies to strengthen political and social stability.

It closed with his reminder that the party bans activities which threaten that order and a reference to two of the government's most sensitive security problems, ethnic and religious unrest.

The new party resolution promotes a campaign against dissent.

It will appeal to the patriotism of religious people, encouraging them to counter attempts to use religious and ethnic issues against the party.

The new resolution appears to cement control of religion from within.

It provides for a programme to specifically increase the state management of religious affairs and to guide the six approved religions in line with party policy.

To do this it has ordered the build-up of a core group of party members who are also religious followers, for each religion.

The plenum has ordered a review of party policy in order to set up a programme for managing religious affairs over the long term.

Central highlands

Vietnam is generally considered to be politically stable.

But human rights groups and diplomatic sources say that they continue to hear reports of unrest, particularly from the troubled central highlands.

This region, home to many Protestants, has been sealed by police since an uprising by indigenous people two years ago over religious freedom and access to land.

Several Buddhist dissidents are also kept under house arrest or in jail.

It appears that the party has resolved to further stem opposition voices which are believed to harm the country's development by increasing the state's tight control over religious affairs.

The resolution will be closely monitored by international donors to Vietnam who have raised concern about the country's human rights record.

Some countries, such as the United States, European Union members and Australia have begun a low key rights dialogue with Hanoi.

But the Communist rulers draw a firm line between exchanging views and what they consider interference.

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