Updated: 07/31/2014 20:44 | By Agence France-Presse

UN envoy says Vietnam still 'violating' religious freedom

Vietnam was accused of "serious violations" of religious freedom by a UN expert on Thursday, despite the communist country making some progress on easing tight state control of matters of faith.

UN envoy says Vietnam still 'violating' religious freedom

United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion Heiner Bielefeldt speaks during a press conference in Hanoi on July 31, 2014 - by Hoang Dinh Nam

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, said his 10-day visit had been "unfortunately interrupted" by police and security agents.

Bielefeldt said he was "closely monitored" by police and security agents and not able to speak freely to people, in breach of the conditions of his visit.

While stressing that he had not made a comprehensive assessment of individual cases, he said "there are serious violations of freedom of religious belief taking place in this country".

Witnesses had told him of "concrete violations... including repeated summons by police, harassment, house arrest, imprisonment, destruction of houses of worship, vandalism, beatings". 

But he also noted positive developments, adding that the "space for practice (of religions) has been cautiously widened".

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh told reporters the Vietnamese government "did everything in its capacity... to meet demands of the delegation during his visit to Vietnam". 

All religious activity remains under state control but the government says it respects the freedom of belief and religion.

Religious practices were tightly-controlled for decades by the communist regime but restrictions were gradually lifted after the 'doi moi' economic reforms opened up the country in the 1990s.

According to the Vietnam's national committee for religious affairs, nearly a third of the population considers themselves as religious, equivalent to some 24 million out of a population of some 90 million.

Vietnam officially has 13 religions, including Buddhism, Islam and Catholicism.

Land rights are a major bone of contention as officials began seizing property from churches decades ago when the communists took power in what was then North Vietnam.

Bielefeldt said he had heard of land disputes throughout his trip and said it appeared hard for complainants to access justice. 

Phil Robertson, Deputy Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch said Vietnam has sought to "hide alternative narratives from the special rapporteur by actively obstructing religious freedom advocates from meeting with him".

"Hanoi is exposing in a back-handed way just how bad their record is in violating freedom of religion and belief," he added.

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