I. Religious freedom in Viet Nam in 2004

1. General policy: On June 18th, 2004, at the 19th session of the 11th National Assembly, the Standing Committee of the Vietnamese National Assembly adopted the Ordinance on Belief and Religion, which came into effect on Nov. 15, 2004. The Ordinance and its implementing instructions have been circulated. A Decree providing explanation and instructions for the implementation of Ordinance has been drafted and is now in the process of seeking approval from the Prime Minister.

Religious complaints have been addressed in timely and effective manner. As reported by provinces and cities in 2004, 34 provinces and cities received 302 cases, in which there were 152 cases of land claims, 42 cases of religious properties, 37 cases of religious service, 28 cases concerning clerics and religious servants, 9 cases concerning local administrations. Among the above cases, 84 cases have been solved, 121 are being solved and 97 cases have been forwarded to appropriate levels for solutions.

2. Implementation: In Viet Nam, the worship of ancestors - the most popular form of belief - is practiced virtually by the entire population. Besides, there are about 20 million followers of the 6 main religions in Viet Nam, including Buddhists, Catholics, Cao Dais, Hoa Haos, Protestants and Muslims. Altogether, up to 80 per cent of the Vietnamese population practices one belief/religion or another. The past four years saw a steady rise in the number of new churches and followers. See Table 1.

Buddhism: In 2004, the Buddhist Church of Viet Nam has completed the organization of the functional sub-committees of the Executive Council. At the lower levels, municipal or provincial Executive Councils have been set up or consolidated. New Representative Committees have been formed as a result of the formation of new urban or rural districts. Executive Councils or Representative Committees have been formed in Quang Ninh, Ha Tinh, Cao Bang, Thai Nguyen and Yen Bai provinces. Steps also have been taken to improve the operations of the functional bodies of the central Executive Council and municipal/provincial Executive Councils in Buddhist teachings, and to provide adequate trainings to nuns and monks.

The Buddhist Church of Viet Nam has also focused its activities on charitable and humanitarian activities, participating in social and cultural campaigns.

                                      Table: Recent Data

Figure for 2003 excluded 120,000 to-be-recognized denominations; Figure for 1997 included the indigenous Bani sect.
** Figure for 1997 included 1,873 to-be-recognized priests.
*** Figure for 2003 included 399 monologue worshipping places; figure for 1997 included unregistered Evangelical and Bani worshipping places.

                                              1997               2001                     2003*
Number of followers                  15.609.417      28.358.345            20.000.000
Buddhists                                7.620.803       9.038.064              10.000.000
Catholics                                 5.028.480       5.324.492               5.572.252
Evangelicals                            412.344          421.248                  500.000
Cao Dais                                 1.147.527       2.276.978               2.400.000
Hoa Haos                                1.306.969       1.232.572               1.600.000
Muslims                                  93.294            64.991                    65.000

                                               1997              2001                       2003

Number of dignitaries**              49.829            56.125                    62.468
Buddhists                                 27.884           33.066                    38.365
Catholics                                  14.942           14.889                    15.058
Evangelicals                             157                394                         492
Cao Dais                                  5.608             7.320                      7.350
Hoa Haos                                 61                  534                        534
Muslims                                   734                699                        699

                                                1997               2001                     2003
Worshipping places***
Buddhist                                   14.017             14.043                  14.401
Catholic                                    5.456               6.003                    6.164
Evangelical                               n/a                   266                      274
Cao Dais                                  1.037               1.284                    1.315
Hoa Haos                                 196                  522                       123
Muslims                                   89                    77                         77

The Church also increased building of pagodas and worshipping places. Buddhist Tue Tinh temples – a new Buddhist sect broadly accepted and frequently visited by Buddhist followers – have maintained their regular activities and extended to district levels. Monks and followers of the sect raised dozens of billions of Vietnamese dongs to assist victims of natural disasters and the poor.

In the recent People’s Committee elections at the three central, provincial and district level, monks and followers of the Buddhist Church were nominated to run for various posts. According to statistical data from 44/64 provinces/cities, 779 monks and nuns were elected to the three levels of People’s Committees, including 39 at provincial level, 186 at district level and 554 at village/ward level.

In late 2004, Buddhist followers welcomed a lecturing tour by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, who returned home for the first time after 36 years.

Protestantism: The Vietnamese Protestant Organization (Northern Chapter) has been further consolidated, with the 32nd Convention of the Vietnamese Protestant Federation, electing the executive committee, adopting religious, principles, laws, regulations and disciplines, ending a period of crisis.

The Vietnamese Protestant Organization (Southern Chapter) (VPOS) continues to strengthen its Representative Committee and representatives in provinces and cities, recruiting candidates for the second class for the Bible Theology Institute.

The VPOS also worked with the Protestant Representative Committees in the Central Highlands provinces in organizing local organization conferences, applying for the recognition of local churches, selecting groups that meet requirements, and applying for land parcels for the construction of churches.

In the Central Highland, the activities of Protestant churches have returned to normalcy. At present, 36 church groups have been recognized and conduct normal activities.

Catholicism: The Catholic Church of Viet Nam has made 2004 as the “Year of Holy Preaching,” in which its churches held many activities that have attracted tens of thousands of believers. The Viet Nam Conference of Bishops and the Bishop of Hue held the seminar called “To lead a religious life with Vietnamese characters.” The Bishops called on believers to actively devote to preaching religion in their congregations and participating in humanitarian and charitable activities, as well as called on missionaries to strengthen their activities for the establishment and enhancement of boards of missionaries at all levels for the promotion of religious activities and preaching, especially in remote areas.

The relations between the Viet Nam Conference of Bishops and the Vatican continue to develop. In 2004, the Vatican consecrated two Bishops for Thanh Hoa and Xuan Loc (Dong Nai) religious sectors.

The situations in other religious groups, such as Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and Islam are also positive.

II. Situation of socio-economic development in the Central Highland

The Central Highland region consists of 5 provinces: Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Lam Dong, Dak Lak and Dak Nong, representing 14% of the natural area and 4.2% of the population of the country. The Central Highland is home to 40 ethnic groups, of which minority groups account for 30% and has a relatively low living standard compared to the national standard.

1. Development policy for the Central Highland

In the early 1990’s, the Ministry of Planning and Investment submitted the 1996-2010 Master Plan of socio-economic development in the Central Highland. The Prime Minister issued on October 30th 2001 the Decision No. 168, establishing the 5-year (2001-2005) development plan. This was followed in 2002 by the Decision No. 132 on land issues among minority groups, and the Decision No. 154 on providing preferential loans for housing construction for minority groups.

In addition to the programs specifically targeted at the Central Highland, other National Programs such as No. 134 and No. 135, also cover this region as a priority. From 1999 to 2004, Program 135 invested in the Central Highland an amount of VND 727 billion (VND 146 billion in Dak Lak and Dak Nong, 225 billion in Gia Lai, 165 billion in Kon Tum and 146 billion in Lam Dong). In 2004 alone, the Central Highland’s provinces received VND 167 billion from this Program. In total, during this 5-year period, each commune received on average above VND 2.5 billion.

The development strategies and policies have yielded gradual but steady socio-economic progress. The economic growth rate of the Central Highland provinces in 2004 reached from 9-12%, higher than the national average growth rate. The infrastructure system has rapidly developed. Almost all the villages of the Central Highland have car-accessible roads to the Village Centre. The inner-district, inter-district and inter-village traffic systems have been expanded, thus gradually reducing access difficulties. Above 90% of the villages has electricity, 100% of villages have a post office and telephone coverage, 100% of districts have their own radio-television station.

With regard to education, the Central Highland provinces have implemented a number of policies, including encouraging teachers to work in the remote areas, reducing or exempting tuition fee, providing textbooks, notebooks to children of minority groups. In 2004 alone, 219 students of minority groups were enrolled in universities. The University of Central Highland has also been expanded with many new departments.

Provinces Students of minority groups enrolled in Universities in 2004
Gia Lai 35
Kon Tum 53
Dak Lak 74
Dak Nong 35
Lam Dong 22

With regard to healthcare, 100% of villages in the Central Highland have health officers who are in charge of primary healthcare. Poor people and people from minority groups in the Central Highland receive free medical checkups and medicines. Clinics have been restored and furnished with necessary health equipments and medicines. In 2003 alone, the province of Dak Lak invested over VND 6 billion, the province of Gia Lai invested over VND 4 billion in medicines for the poor groups of the population.

The hunger eradication and poverty alleviation programs in the Central Highland have also yielded positive results. The poverty rate of the Central Highland provinces up to December 2004 was reduced to 13.69% according to the Vietnamese standard (Lam Dong 8.69%, Gia Lai 14%, Kon Tum 15%, Dak Nong 15,45%).

The preservation of cultural values and traditions of ethnic groups in the Central Highlands has also been a priority. Every year, the Cultural & Sport Festival has attracted the participation of a large number of people from minority groups. In addition, the Government has provided for free 18 different newspapers and magazines to poor villages and border posts of the Central Highland, thus facilitating the population’s access to information on law, best practices and cultural activities.

However, it is noted that the socio-economic situation in the Central Highland continues to face difficulties. According to the General Statistical Office, 4 out of 5 provinces of the Central Highland (Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Gia Lai, Don Tum) have been found in the list of 12 provinces with highest poverty rate of the country. These provinces have been also ranked by the UNDP in the group of 12 bottom provinces in terms of the Millennium Development Goal Index. The income gap in the region also remains wide.

2. Religious situation in the Central Highlands

The Central Highland is endowed with diverse ethnic groups with a variety of religions, the major of which are Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Caodaiism and other indigenous religions. Protestantism has been introduced to the Central Highland in recent decades by missionaries focused on the area's minority inhabitants with low level of income and education. In recent years, the same ethnic groups have been targeted by separatist groups. Of the separatist groups, the Montagnard Foundation Inc. (MFI) stands out with Ksor Kok as leader. Founded in 1992 in North Carolina, this group includes former members of the FULRO, an armed force with a terrorism and secession agenda. The MFI members, using the appeal of the so-called "Dega Autonomous State" and taking advantage of Protestant religious gatherings, provoked separatist activities and disorder in the Central Highland in January 2001 and April 2004. These activities have caused disruptions in the life in the Central Highland and led to regrettable mistrust of Protestantism among the followers of other religions, local people and authorities. What happened was not of a neither religious nor ethnic nature, but rather a developmental problem of a remote, backward area with diverse beliefs/religions and development gaps among different ethnic groups and the exploitation of these developmental problems by separatist groups for the purposes of instigating secession and terrorism.

In 2004, the religious life of the Central Highland in general and of the Protestants in particular has improved. Before the Viet Nam Evangelical Church (South) was officially recognized in 2001, Protestants had practiced their faith in a free and normal way. Up to now, 36 Protestant churches have been officially recognized in the Central Highland. Of the 88 priests of the Vietnam Evangelical Church promoted since 2001, 12 are from the Central Highland.

Central Highland Local authorities have granted public land for the construction of the churches. So far, 4 branches have received public land for their church construction: 2 branches from Gia Lai (Tra Da-Great Lake branch and Plei Betel branch); 2 branches from Dak Lak (Buon Me Thuot branch and Buon Alea branch). In addition, in 2004 alone, 3 churches in Province of Lam Dong (Bao Loc Church, Ta Nung Church and 2-Nguyen Van Troi Church) received financial support for major repairs.