The constitution states that all people have freedom of belief and religion. Current law, however, provides for significant government control over religious practices and includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. The 2016 Law on Belief and Religion, scheduled to come into effect in January 2018, maintains these restrictions. The new law maintains a multistage registration and recognition process for religious groups; however, it shortens the time for recognition at the national or provincial level from 23 to five years. It also specifies the right of recognized religious organizations to have legal personality. There were two reports of deaths of members of religious groups in police custody; authorities said the deaths were suicides, but families said involved police use of force. Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration were reportedly able to practice their beliefs with less interference, although some recognized groups reported more difficulty gathering together. Religious leaders, particularly those representing groups without recognition or certificates of registration, reported various forms of government harassment, including physical assaults, arrests, prosecutions, monitoring, travel restrictions, property seizure or destruction, and denials of registration and/or other permissions. There were reports of severe harassment in the Central and Northwest Highlands and for Catholics in the north-central region of the country, especially in Nghe An and Ha Tinh Provinces. Religious followers reported local or provincial authorities committed the majority of harassment incidents. Members of religious groups said some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close government management of their leadership structures, training programs, assemblies, and other activities.
In September a group of armed individuals reportedly disrupted a Mass at a Catholic church in Dong Nai Province. On several occasions throughout the year, several hundred members of reportedly progovernment groups demonstrated against Catholics in Nghe An Province.
During his visit to the country in January, the outgoing Secretary of State raised religious freedom in meetings with senior government officials. The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the independent United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups. They sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups, and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of groups without recognition or registration. The Ambassador and Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City advocated for religious freedom in visits across the country, including to the Central Highlands. The Ambassador and officials met regularly and maintained recurring contact with religious leaders across the country. The outgoing Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Vietnam in January. The Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor visited in May to participate in the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. During their respective visits, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Acting Assistant Secretary advocated for improvements to freedom of religion in law and practice, and met with a range of recognized and unrecognized religious groups. Embassy and senior U.S. officials submitted to government leaders recommendations on language for the associated implementing decrees for the Law on Belief and Religion during the drafting process aimed at bringing the text more in line with the country’s constitution and international commitments to protect religious freedom.