David Saperstein, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, just returned from Vietnam where he joined a US State Department delegation examining the state of religious freedom in the Southeast Asian country. Saperstein discussed what he found out, what changes the country is making and how religious refuges from Vietnam are being treated. The ambassador at large is a principal adviser to President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, and he serves as the United States’ chief diplomat on issues of religious freedom worldwide. Saperstein also heads the Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. For 40 years, Saperstein served as director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, overseeing national social justice programming for the largest segment of American Jewry. A rabbi and an attorney, for 35 years Saperstein taught seminars on the First Amendment, Church-State Law and Jewish Law at Georgetown University Law Center.
RFA: You traveled to Thailand to meet with some of the Vietnamese refugees there. What did you find out?
Saperstein: All of the asylum seekers who come to Bangkok, including Vietnamese asylum seekers, live in a kind of limbo until they have their interview with the U.N. High Commission on Refugees and qualify for refugee status. Before that time, if they come to the attention of authorities, they can be detained in a detention camp kind of setting.
That is a serious challenge that all of the Vietnamese and other asylum seekers face there. They are in relative physical safety during the time they are there, and the UNHCR is working to close the gap of time it takes to have those interviews. Once they are in the UNHCR system they are in a protected status just like any other refugees across the globe.
RFA: What did the Vietnamese refugees tell you about their problems in Vietnam and what they are seeking?
Saperstein: In Bangkok, the big challenge for them is getting formally registered as refugees. Moving through that process takes some time, and there are challenges they face. Then there are some who are not in camps but are living in urban areas. It’s always a little challenging to find everyone in the urban areas to make sure that they are having their interviews and are process.
We heard stories of persecution of people who were harassed for their religious practices. They were in unregistered churches and were harassed by authorities, or they were pastors who were harassed by authorities. It was not just religious persecution. There were some who felt they were persecuted for their political beliefs or protests as well.
RFA: You met with religious leaders in Vietnam. What did you learn from them?
Saperstein: In the big cities and many other areas of the country, there was widespread agreement that there has been consistent, incremental improvement in their condition. That more churches and houses of worship are getting registered and unregistered churches are able to function with a greater deal of freedom and security then they have been before.
RFA: So does that mean Vietnam has turned the corner of religious freedom?
Saperstein: In the main, there was a feeling that things are moving in the right direction. Having said that, everyone said the continued existence of the burdensome system of registration, the onerous system of having to notify the authorities of every single activity that people want to do; not only the programmatic life of the church, or the pagoda, or the mosque, but … everything needing approval of the government, truly interferes with their autonomy and their ability to live their religious lives as they wished.
RFA: Is that more true in the cities or the countryside?
Saperstein: There were stories of more overt harassment and interference by the authorities, particularly for the unregistered churches. These were more common in the ethnic minority communities. More of them proportionally were unable to get their churches registered, and more of those people face harassment and interference from the local authorities. It’s a mixed picture.
RFA: Did you have trouble meeting with the people you wanted to meet?
They allowed us to move to a couple of different places in the highlands and to meet with a wide range of representatives of different religious and ethnic communities. We were encouraged by that.
RFA: The wife of Mennonite pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh told us that she had trouble meeting with you, and that when the meeting finally happened, there was a police presence. Is that something of which you were aware?
Saperstein: We were very aware of what was going on. She called us and reported to us that the police had approached her and were blocking her from getting to the hotel. Then she reported us that they escorted her back home. As soon as we heard about it, we called authorities there and asked them to check out whether or not this was true, so we could have unimpeded access to her. When we talked to her, there were some who she identified as police who were in the proximity, but our staff moved them away.
RFA: You met with Deputy Minister of Public Security To Lam. Can you tell us what you discussed?
Saperstein: Our meetings with the government officials were pretty consistent. With Vice Chair To Lam, we focused on issues of prisoners of conscience and the harassment of people including pastor Chinh’s wife. With all of the officials, we raised the general appreciation for the kinds of improvements we talked about and our encouragement that these continue...We focused on the law… Focusing on the law allows us to address the structural issues of religious freedom. There are some encouraging signs in the way the different drafts of the new law have been opening up religious freedom. This is part of the on-going bilateral relationship we have with Vietnam. Step-by-step we are encouraging them to go further than that.
RFA: Are you aware of the news that one pastor in the Central Highlands was summoned by the police after he talked to you?
Saperstein: We just heard about it. Our embassy is trying to check out exactly what the facts are, and anytime there’s interference with anyone in the religious communities, we discuss it with the Vietnamese authorities.
RFA: What’s next?
Saperstein: There are a series of high-level meetings that we will be following mine. The president of the United States will be there, and we’re trying to set the ground work because these issues are of crucial importance to the president.