Heiner Bielefeldt, who's just ended a 10-day visit to Vietnam, says while its constitution protects religious freedom, in practice, it regulates and sometimes, restricts religious freedom.
Reporter: Kanaha Sabapathy
Speakers: Heiner Bielefeldt, UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief
BIELEFELDT: On the one hand, a certain opening up, so you see religious practice, you see religious buildings, you see people also attending worship in ways that have not been possible some decades ago. Also I would acknowledge readiness within the government, in particular, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to cooperate more closely with international human rights mechanisms that also promotes freedom of religion or belief.
At the same time, this practice remains very much under the control of the government in order to make sure that religious organisations, largely remain within the confines designed to them.
SABAPATHY: At least 45 percent of Vietnam's 90 million people are believers, 16 percent are Buddhists, 8 percent are Christians and Cao Dais, a religion combining elements of many faiths account for some 4 percent.
Then there are sub groups within the Buddhist and Christians, and others who practise traditional beliefs such as animism and veneration of ancestors and national heroes.
Only groups that seek and receive registration from the government can practise their beliefs openly. So groups like the unrecognised Hoa Hao Buddhists, and some Protestant groups in the North and Northwest highlands are deemed illegal.
In his meeting with government officials Mr Bielefeldt did raise the issue of religious communities being given the right to operate outside officially established channels for religious practices. But the response was dismissive, he says.
BIELEFELDT: The answer was no, they all have to register, which then gives the impression that it's actually the state that grants freedom, rather than respects freedom. And sometimes the assessment was a little bit more positive by government agencies. When they are, they can function, but in a very basic way. In any case, it's very unclear and is extremely limited and that's exactly we heard also from from these people and their situation is difficult, they feel pressure to join maybe to the established branches of their religions. So maintaining independence, a viable community line in non-registered communities is extremely complicated.
SABAPATHY: Persons who belong to unofficial religious groups are not permitted to speak publicly about their beliefs.
In fact Mr Bielefeldt's planned visit to meet with some individuals in An Giang, Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces was interrupted because they were put under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, and harassed by the police.
BIELEFELDT: Experiences of harassment, police summons, house arrest, intimidation. We know that some people have been imprisoned also for claiming their religious rights in ways outside of the official challenges. So I mean that's a reality, we have come across.
SABAPATHY: While acknowledging the increasing efforts of the government to improve freedom of belief through legal instruments, serious violation continues says Mr Beilefeldt.
One such issue is the confiscation of parish lands by the government, where two activists who opposed such acts are now languishing in jail under dubious charges.
BIELEFELDT: I mean for religious communities to operate, of course, they need land, they need property and they need also clear ownership. Not having clear ownership of land issues renders them vulnerable also to pressure. I mean this was a issue of major concern, not only for non-registered communities, but also for the more established communities. Government has the position that all land belongs to the people, meaning, of course, government exercises control. So not having clear ownership of land really is quite a strong aspect of freedom of religious issues.