Religion is a complicated topic in Communist Vietnam where the official state religion is atheism: the evangelistic belief in nothing.

Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, has just ended a 10-day visit to the South-East Asian nation.

He says Vietnam's constitution protects religious freedom, but in practice the government regulates and in some cases restricts religious freedom.

"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," Mr Bielefeldt said.

"Also, I would acknowledge readiness within the government, in particular the Minister of Foreign Affairs to cooperate more closely with the international human rights mechanisms that also promotes freedom of religion or beliefs.

"At the same time, religious practice remains very much under the control of the government."

At least 45 per cent of Vietnam's 90 million citizens are believers, 16 per cent are Buddhist, 8 per cent are Christians, and Cao Dais, a syncretic religion combining elements of many faiths, account for some 4 per cent.

Then there are sub groups within the Buddhists and Christians and others who practice traditional beliefs such as animism and veneration of ancestors and national heroes.

Only groups that seek and receive registration from the government can practice 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 raised the issue of religious communities being given the right to operate outside officially established channels for religious practices.

He says the response has been dismissive.

"The answer was 'no, they all have to register' which then gives the impression that it's actually the state that grants freedoms, rather then respects freedom.

"It's very unclear, and extremely limited and that's exactly what we also heard from these people. Their situation is difficult."

Persons who belong to unofficial religious groups are not permitted to speak publicly about their beliefs.

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, intimidated and harassed by the police.

By Kanaha Sabapathy - ABC / Australian Network News - July 31, 2014

U.N. religion expert concerned over 'interrupted' Vietnam visit

HANOI - A U.N. expert expressed worry on Thursday over "serious violations" of religious freedom in Vietnam following a fact-finding mission he said was interrupted by surveillance, harassment and intimidation.

Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said parts of his trip were hampered by interference by unidentified agents, with people he met followed or questioned and others warned or blocked from seeing him.

Religion remains under state supervision in mainly Buddhist Vietnam, which has long been accused of suppressing freedom of worship by groups and individuals with faiths not registered or recognised by the communist country's rulers.

Negative and dismissive

The United States wants to capitalise on Vietnam's emerging market potential and court a new ally in Southeast Asia to counter the growing but contentious influence of its communist neighbour, China. Ties between China and Vietnam have recently deteriorated over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

Bielefeldt said he was disappointed by Vietnamese officials' views on unregistered faiths and beliefs, which he described as a "very negative and very dismissive attitude".

He said he had heard allegations during the visit of harassment, house arrest, violence, pressure to renounce faiths and destruction or vandalism of places of worship. Though unable to verify them, he said he could determine abuses took place "beyond reasonable doubt".

The violations "only underscore the importance of U.S. efforts to promote human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam," Schwartz said in an email to Reuters.

"It is important that the Vietnamese government understand that these issues will have an impact on the evolving relationship with the United States, as they should."

Bielefeldt was, however, encouraged by government officials' willingness to amend legislation and improve implementation of religion policies, which he described as "extremely limited and extremely unclear", meaning there was scope for abuses by the state as offences were not clearly defined.

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said Bielefeldt's reports of interference were a "misunderstanding".

"According to resolution number 5/2 of the Human Rights Council, the host country is responsible for security and absolute safety for the special rapporteur," Binh told a news conference.

Eric P. Schwartz, a top member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, recommended during a congressional hearing in March that Vietnam be put back on the U.S. blacklist. He said interference during the U.N. expert's visit was not in Vietnam's broader strategic interests.

Bielefeldt said he had seen positive developments in terms of coexistence of faiths and "cautiously widened" space to practice religions, but that was marred by breaches of agreements to guarantee unsupervised access without threats or punishment to those he met.

"I received credible information that some individuals whom I wanted to meet with had been either under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, harassed or prevented from travelling by police," he told a news conference.

"I was closely monitored of my whereabouts ... while the privacy and confidentiality of some meetings could have been compromised."

The United States has called on Vietnam to allow greater religious freedom among a series of demands for it to improve its human rights record as Washington tries to build a case for deeper trade and military ties with its former enemy.

Vietnam was removed in 2006 from a U.S. blacklist of countries "of particular concern" over curbs on faiths and beliefs, but a U.S. religious freedom watchdog recently renewed its call for it to be put back on.

By Martin Petty - Reuters - July 31, 2014