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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 November 2006, 18:28 GMT
Bush's church visit rewards Vietnam
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Hanoi

Bush and Laura Bush outside Cua Bac church
Mr Bush hoped to push the message of religious freedom
When US President George W Bush attended a church in Vietnam on Sunday, his visit was a political statement as well as an act of faith.

Just days before he arrived for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit, the US took Vietnam off a list of nations it believes severely violate religious freedom.

In announcing the decision, the US state department said there had been "significant improvements toward advancing religious freedom" in Vietnam in recent years.

Mr Bush's trip to Hanoi's Cua Bac church was designed to highlight those improvements, and make sure the trend continues.

"A whole society is a society that welcomes basic freedom - and there is no more basic freedom than the freedom to worship as you see fit," he told reporters after the service.

"My hope is that people all across the world will be able to express religious freedom."

Priests jailed

Christians in Hanoi clearly feel that progress has been made.

"My parents had some difficulties in the past," said 22-year-old Do Duy Nghin, one of Vietnam's six million Catholics.

"People they knew were banned from going to church at one point, and some priests were even jailed.

"But now I feel free and comfortable to worship the way I want."

It appears that the days when the Communist authorities attached a stigma to religion are now over.

Worshippers in St Anthony's Church in Hanoi
Vietnam has the second largest Catholic community in SE Asia
People walk freely in and out of churches and Buddhist temples - some of which have been newly built in the last few years - and believers openly wear pendants and carry other symbols of their faith.

But critics say the authorities continue to restrict the activities of any religious organisations deemed to be at odds with state policy.

According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, "severe restrictions on religious freedom and abuses continue," with "forced renunciations of faith" taking place in some areas.

In a statement expressing her disagreement with Washington's decision to remove Vietnam from its blacklist, commission chairwoman Felice Gaer said the government remained "highly suspicious" of certain groups from the rural highlands.

These groups include the ethnic minority Protestants from Montagnard and Hmong communities, as well as the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV).

According to the campaign organisation Human Rights Watch, several senior UBCV monks are confined to their monasteries by the authorities.

Many hundreds of house churches - underground groups which have not been officially registered by the government - also exist throughout Vietnam, and continue to complain of harassment by officials.

Increased tolerance

By contrast, Mr Bush was able to mingle freely with both Protestant and Catholic believers under the backdrop of a large wooden cross.

The Vietnamese government views its removal from the US blacklist - which includes such countries as North Korea, Iran and Sudan - as a cause for celebration. But it also sees the move as nothing less than it deserves.

"This decision reflects accurately the reality in Vietnam," said Ngo Yen Thi, director of the Committee for Religious Affairs.

Explaining the move, the US state department said Vietnam had released many religious prisoners in recent years, and that harassment of worshipers had diminished.

"Though important work remains to be done, Vietnam can no longer be identified as a severe violator of religious freedom," the department said.

Signs on the ground in the major cities are definitely looking positive.

But for freedom of religion to really come to Vietnam, it has to include all religions everywhere in the country - and so far, despite the optimism in Hanoi, this is not yet the case.

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