Vietnam’s National Assembly finally ratified (on 18 Nov.) its Law on Belief and Religion amid extensive criticism from parliamentarians, human rights and religious groups, who deem it to be below international standards for human rights.

The Vietnamese government says that the law, the first of its kind in the socialist republic, will optimise the administration of religious affairs, reported UCA News. But rights groups and lawmakers fear this to be a move to restrict religious freedoms rather than protect them.

The law has been widely criticised throughout the lengthy drafting process, with some 50 civil society organisations, including Amnesty International and Christian Solidary Worldwide, joining their voices with ASEAN Parliamentarians to denounce the nine-chapter-long draft law earlier this year.

In an open letter to the Vietnamese government prior to the ratification of the law, the group of organisations and lawmakers rejected a clause stating that religious groups must be registered and approved by the government in order to practise. The letter condemned this as “excessive state interference in religious organisations’ internal affairs”.

The letter also criticised the law for “vague” wording which, if interpreted flexibly, could potentially be used to ensnare religious groups or individuals. A separate statement issued by Human Rights Watch highlighted particular examples of elusive phrasing, found in clauses prohibiting the use of religion to undermine “national security”, “national unity” and “public order”.

According to the national radio station, Voice of Vietnam, “religious dignitaries told the National Assembly that the approval of the law was a turning point in Vietnam’s religious policy, which encourages religious followers to promote the values of religions and patriotism and combat hostile forces’ intention to sabotage socialism”.

The law has been in the pipeline for over a year, and went through numerous amendments before being ratified in November. Opponents to the law acknowledge that some improvements have been made since the first draft was published on the National Assembly website last year. But a statement published by the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) the day after its ratification described it as still “deeply flawed”. The final details of the law, which will come into effect in January 2018, were not released to the public at the time of its ratification by 84.58 per cent of the Assembly’s vote.

However, VCHR’s Executive Secretary Vo Tran Nhat, who analysed the later drafts of the law, told World Watch Monitor in April that, in his view, the new law is designed to “repress and control”.

Thomas Muller, an analyst for Open Doors, which works with minority Christians under pressure around the world, says the imminent legislation could leave Christian groups vulnerable. Already ranked twentieth on Open Doors’ 2016 World Watch List of restrictive countries for Christians, Muller predicts that in Vietnam it will become increasingly difficult for Christians to register their churches and operate freely.

“Whereas there are a few sections in which the new law can be considered to be an improvement for Christians, the regulations on registration in particular will definitely cause churches great difficulties,” he said. “The broad notion of the term ‘foreign’ may well lead to arbitrary interpretations and actions by the state. It is particularly interesting to see that ASEAN lawmakers have also criticised the new law. Since it is highly unusual that ASEAN publically criticises another member country, this will certainly give the authorities in Vietnam something to think about.”

A US State Department report on religious freedom, published in August, noted “significant improvement” in the state of religious freedom in Southeast Asia. Certainly in Vietnam repressive restrictions have slackened off since 1975, when war between North and South Vietnam ended. But in a climate where legislation, policing and surveillance of religious activities have, to a greater or lesser extent, been the norm in government practice for decades, the new law looks unlikely to make the practice of religion any easier.