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Official Gazette

Friday, September 20, 2019

Religious activities involving foreign elements under law on belief and religion

Updated: 08:26’ - 11/05/2019
Nguyen Thi Dinh, LL.M
Deputy Director of the Department of Legislation and Inspection
Government Committee for Religious Affairs


Thanks to the country’s deeper global integration policy, more and more foreigners, including a considerable part of religious followers, have come to Vietnam to live, work or study. Apart from unrecognized religions, there are some religions in which foreigners believe and practice such as Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam and Protestantism, which are all recognized by the Vietnamese State. Many religious organizations, and dignitaries, religious officers, clergypersons and believers in religious organizations in Vietnam have, to different extents, relationships with overseas religious organizations and persons. This article analyzes some provisions of the Law on Belief and Religion and relevant documents regarding religious activities involving foreign elements.

A conference introducing the Law on Belief and Religion and its guiding text is held in Hanoi on May 11, 2018__Photo: Nguyen Dan/VNA

On November 18, 2016, the National Assembly passed the Law on Belief and Religion (the Law), replacing the 2004 Ordinance on Belief and Religion (the Ordinance). Later, on December 30, 2017, the Government issued Decree No. 162/2017/ND-CP detailing a number of articles of the Law on Belief and Religion and prescribing measures for its implementation (Decree 162). Both the Law and Decree 162 became effective from the beginning of 2018. The two legal documents have prescribed in detail religious activities involving foreign elements, facilitating religious practice of foreigners lawfully residing in Vietnam and domestic and foreign religious organizations and persons.

Although religious activities involving foreign elements have not been explained in the Law, based on its provisions on joining foreign religious organizations, collective religious practice of foreigners lawfully residing in Vietnam, and religious activities and religion-related international relation activities of foreign organizations and individuals in Vietnam, it can be understood that religious activities involving foreign elements are those in which at least one participating party is a foreign organization or individual, or the organization, change or stoppage of religious activities is carried out overseas.

The Law contains new provisions on religious activities involving foreign elements that are evaluated by domestic and foreign organizations and individuals as salient and progressive as compared with the Ordinance. Evolving from the Ordinance’s appropriate provisions, the Law has many amendments as listed below.

Collective religious practice of foreigners lawfully residing in Vietnam

The Ordinance provided the right to collective religious practice of foreigners lawfully residing in Vietnam with which they are given favorable conditions for their religious activities at religious establishments like Vietnamese religious believers. Foreigners who need to gather for religious practice at lawful religious establishments in Vietnam will send a dossier of request to the provincial-level People’s Committee. The provincial-level People’s Committee will issue a written reply within 25 working days after receiving a complete and valid dossier; in case of refusal, it will clearly state the reason. The Ordinance also obligated foreigners to comply with the law on belief and religion and other relevant laws.

In fact, many religious establishments in Vietnam are not large enough while dignitaries and clergypersons do not know foreigners’ mother tongue to help the latter perform religious ceremonies. Besides, many religions foreigners follow have neither appeared nor been recognized in Vietnam. There remain differences in rites, tenets and faiths in the same religion Vietnamese and foreigners follow. Such things have restricted foreigners’ right to collective religious practice as well as freedom of belief and religion. That’s why they have expressed their desire for the Vietnamese State’s permission for them to borrow or rent places other than religious establishments for their religious practice.

Concerning this issue, Article 47 of the Law says that foreigners lawfully residing in Vietnam who wish to perform collective religious practice at a religious establishment or another lawful place may send a dossier of request to the provincial-level People’s Committee of the place where the religious establishment is located or of the expected place of collective religious practice. Within 30 days after receiving a complete and valid dossier, the provincial-level People’s Committee will issue a written reply; in case of refusal, it will clearly state the reason.

Compared with the Ordinance, the right of foreigners who wish to perform collective religious practice has been extended under the Law. They can gather at religious establishments in Vietnam or other lawful places for religious practice. The Law defines in Article 2.15 a lawful place as a land area, house or construction work under the lawful use rights of an organization or individual as prescribed by law. Such provision has helped settle shortcomings of the Ordinance.

Religious activities and religion-related international relation activities of foreign organizations and individuals in Vietnam

The Law provides that religious organizations may invite foreign organizations or individuals to Vietnam to carry out religious activities and religion-related international relation activities, while the inviters set out in the Ordinance include believers, clergypersons and dignitaries. In addition, the Law defines that foreign organizations or individuals invited to Vietnam may carry out “religious activities”. In order to avoid impersonation of foreign religious dignitaries, the Law requires a dossier of request to additionally comprise a “document proving the religious title of the invited person”.

Under the Law, provincial-level People’s Committees have the  competence to approve the invitation extended to a foreign organization or individual to Vietnam to carry out religious activities within a province while the central state management agency in charge of belief and religion is competent to approve the invitation to a foreign organization or individual to Vietnam to carry out religious activities in more than one province or to carry out religion-related international relation activities.

Inviting foreign dignitaries and clergypersons to preach

The Ordinance lacks a provision that allows organizations with religious activity registration certificates to invite foreign dignitaries or clergypersons to preach to their organizations, thus failing to encourage them to exchange and learn from foreign partners.

To deal with this, the Law allows an organization with a religious activity registration certificate to invite foreign dignitaries or clergypersons to preach provided that it must comply with Clauses 2 and 3, Article 48 of the Law, while the invited foreign dignitaries and clergypersons have to abide by Clause 6 of this Article.

At the same time, the Law provides that groups of foreigners engaged in collective religious practice may directly invite foreign dignitaries or clergypersons to preach if they so wish, while the Ordinance stipulated that such invitations must be made via religious organizations. To make an invitation, such groups of foreigners must send a dossier of request prescribed in Article 48.2 of the Law to the central-level state management agency in charge of belief and religion. In the course of preaching to such groups of foreigners, foreign dignitaries and clergypersons must abide by Article 48.6 of the Law.

Religious activities and religious training activities

Regarding foreigners studying at religious training institutions in Vietnam, the Law states that a foreigner, regardless of whether he is based in Vietnam or abroad, may send a dossier of request for registration of study at a religious training institution in Vietnam. However, after admitted to such institution, he must be the one who lawfully resides in Vietnam, complies with Vietnam’s law, voluntarily registers for study at the institution and has his dossier sent by the institution to the central state management agency in charge of belief and religion. Within 45 days after receiving a complete and valid dossier, this agency will issue a written reply; in case of refusal, it will clearly state the reason.

With respect to participation in overseas religious activities and religious training activities, the Ordinance provided that before taking part in overseas religious activities or religious training courses, a religious organization or person will send a dossier of request to the central state management agency in charge of religion. Meanwhile, the Law states that a religious organization will have to send a dossier of request before sending its dignitaries, religious officers, clergypersons and believers to participate in overseas religious activities or religious training activities. Such provision aims to ensure the unified and organized management of religious organizations.

Ordainment, appointment and election involving foreign elements

The Law prescribes cases of ordainment, appointment and election involving foreign elements where a Vietnamese religious institution ordains foreigners who lawfully reside in Vietnam or elects them; and a foreign religious institution ordains Vietnamese citizens residing in Vietnam or appoints or elects them.

The ordainment or election of foreigners who lawfully reside in Vietnam by Vietnamese religious institutions is a new provision suitable to practical religious activities and in line with the international integration trend and international practice. This provision has enabled foreigners who lawfully reside in Vietnam to be nominated for ordainment or election if they satisfy the law-prescribed conditions. First, they must have full civil act capacity; second, they are not subject to an administrative handling measure in the field of belief and religion; third, they have no criminal records or are not subject to a criminal charge under the criminal procedure law; fourth, they have been trained at a Vietnam-based religious institution; and finally, they must comply with Vietnam’s law.

The Law also stipulates conditions on appointed or elected religious officers in Article 32.2; responsibilities of religious organizations whose persons are ordained, appointed or elected or which ordain or elect foreigners; and responsibilities of religious organizations to make registration for the case in which a Vietnamese citizen who is ordained, appointed or elected overseas returns to Vietnam to act as a dignitary or  religious officer. The order and procedures for ordainment, appointment and election involving foreign elements are prescribed in Decree 162.

International relation activities of religious organizations, joining foreign religious organizations

The Law empowers religious organizations, dependent religious organizations, dignitaries, religious officers, clergypersons and believers to carry out international relation activities according to the charters of their religious organizations and Vietnam’s law. When carrying out such activities, they must strictly observe the laws of Vietnam and related countries.

The Law has new provisions on joining foreign religious organizations to suit the reality as the Ordinance did not mention this issue. It specifies that before joining a foreign religious organization, a religious organization will send a dossier of request prescribed in Article 53.2 to the central state management agency in charge of belief and religion. This agency will issue a written reply within 60 days after receiving a complete and valid dossier, or state the reason for refusal.

When terminating its membership to a foreign religious organization, a religious organization will send a written notice to the central state management agency in charge of belief and religion within 20 days after the date of termination.- (VLLF)
 

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