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Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – July 2019

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Introduction to the first report

Dear Readers:

Religion and beliefs play an essential part in everyone’s life. There are people who practice their faith by going to a church, a temple, or just praying in their own homes. This colorful picture of religious practice is actively ongoing with many different patterns.

Religious institutions also play a role in the background of a country’s civil society. Before 1975, there were many religious institutions maintaining schools, hospitals, charity organizations, and more in the south of Vietnam. Throughout Vietnam’s history, religious institutions have played a significant role in the life of our people.

However, after the war ended in 1975, and the country was united into one, freedom of religion in Vietnam became lamentable. While the government has begun to recognize the polychromy of religions, at the same time, severe violations of freedom of religion continue to happen in Vietnam.

Because of the issues mentioned above, The Vietnamese and Luat Khoa magazines wish to share with our readers news about the freedom of religion in Vietnam through our monthly newsletter. You are reading the first update on this topic. 

Starting from July 2019, we began doing monthly updates on the situation of religion in Vietnam via a newsletter in Vietnamese published by Luat Khoa and with an English version appearing on The Vietnamese web site.

We sincerely hope to receive your feedback regarding improving our upcoming newsletters via the email address editor@thevietnamese.org

 The focus of the July 2019 Report:

  • Ho Chi Minh City authorities attempted to force the Thu Thiem Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross and Thu Thiem Church to donate their lands for a road-building project along the Saigon River.
  • Two activists from Vietnam who focus on freedom of religion met with US President Donald Trump in mid-July 2019 to share information regarding violations of religious freedom in Vietnam in conjunction with a meeting with victims of religious persecution around the world.
  • Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs alleged that the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report was not objective because it relied on what it termed biased evidence.
  • Many baptized Vietnamese Montagnards living in Thailand seeking asylum were arrested and detained by Thai police this year, including women, on charges of illegal residence.

Changes in the law regarding religious practices

There were no legal changes regarding the issue of religion in Vietnam in July 2019. We will soon share with our readers the statutory regulations and how they affect freedom of religion in Vietnam.

Events that stood out during the month of July

Events by religious institutions

On July 17, 2019, together with many international victims who suffered violations of their freedom of religion, two activists from Vietnam – Luong Xuan Duong from Cao Dai Buddhism and Protestant minister A Ga – met with US President Donald Trump. They presented the US   president with details regarding the current situation of freedom of religion in Vietnam. Both Mr. Duong and Minister A Ga were being sponsored for political asylum in the United States and faced danger while advocating for religious freedom in Vietnam. This meeting took place at the second  US Ministerial Meeting to Advance Religious Freedom, which was attended by more than 100 foreign ministers and victims of religious persecution from around the world.

At the beginning of July 2019, a Luat Khoa journalist visited Vietnam’s Protestant Montagnards who fled their homes in the Central Highlands to seek asylum in Bangkok, Thailand. As of now, there are approximately 500 Montagnards who have sought refuge in Bangkok. After the arrest and detention of 133 Montagnards in August 2018, the community believed that the Thai authorities were still holding their relatives for illegal residence in the country. The Montagnards said that they had to flee from Vietnam because the authorities harassed, abused, and imprisoned them for their Protestant beliefs.

State events

On July 4, 2019, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised its objection to the International Religious Freedom Report that the US Department of State published. This report contains allegations that the current state of religious freedom in Vietnam is just as miserable as in previous years. It also raises the case of six members of Hoa Hao Buddhism being harassed by local authorities, the persecution of Protestants in the Central Highlands, as well as individual members of religious institutions that the local authorities have not allowed to practice their religion. The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the US Department of State received incorrect information and so was unable  to objectively judge freedom of religion in Vietnam. Le Thi Thu Hang, spokesperson for MFA, said that Vietnam would cooperate and that it would enter into a dialogue with the US regarding freedom of religion in the country.

According to Thanh Nien newspaper, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee has decided to join with the People’s Committee of the Second District to sternly advocate the Church of Thu Thiem and the Thu Thiem Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross turn over their lands to be used in a project to build roads along the banks of the Saigon River, which is the site of the Thu Thiem New City project.

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Politics

Ho Chi Minh – From Political Monument To God Of Prayers – Part 2

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The religious teaching documents of the "Way of Ho Chi Minh as the Jade Buddha". Photo: phatgiao.org.vn.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Vo Van Quan and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on February 1, 2021. 


The religion Way of Uncle Ho aims to start a spiritual revolution in order to save the nation from foreign enemies, both past and present. This revolution also aspires to harmonize the balance between the worlds found in this religion’s metaphysical framework. These worlds include the Heavenly realm, the Buddha’s realm, the Earthly realm, and the Yin realm.

“A spiritual heavenly revolution.

Replace the old, change to the new. This religion will bring the people and our country up and we will no longer be slaves of others.

From now on there will be a new order. By the law of God, by the demand of our ancestors.”

According to the teachings of this religion, the Heavenly realm rules over the other three realms. However, the blasphemous behavior, attitude, and way of worship in the Earthly realm destabilizes the harmony of the other worlds.

This religion espouses that, because of Ho Chi Minh’s achievements, the purity of his soul, and his moral conduct on earth, his soul was “elected” to become the leader of the Heavenly Palace upon passing away. Henceforth, he leads the spiritual revolution which claims to promote the right path to reach heaven in the material world.

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Photo: Hochiminh.vn.

In Chapter 4 of “New Religions and State’s Response to Religious Diversification in Contemporary Vietnam,” the author Hoang Van Chung summarizes the eight issues that this revolution wants to address:

1. A mistaken understanding of the origins of the Vietnamese people and the their neglect of ancestor worship;

2. The overuse of joss paper and objects;

3. The incorrect performance of traditional rituals to the Mother Goddess;

4. A mistake in dating the death anniversary of Ho Chi Minh;

5. The invalidity of rituals of spiritual possession;

6. The pervasive worship of foreign spirits and gods, such as the Indian Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Chinese spiritual figures (Guan Yin or Bodhisattva);

7. Disrespect for heroic martyrs; and

8. Making mistakes in medical diagnosis and the treatment of illnesses caused by spiritual entities.

The religious texts of the Peace Society state:

“In the twenty-first century

The first Vietnamese Buddha was born.”

Monism has since become the motto of Ho Chi Minh’s religion. This religion states that the Vietnamese people can only worship the Vietnamese Buddha: “Uncle Ho.” Worship of any other foreign power also goes against their tenets and beliefs.

“Do not worship foreign gods

We worship our own Buddha in our country.”

Most importantly, Vietnam is seen as the leader of the entire revolutionary process that determines the future of mankind; this demonstrates a somewhat extreme form of nationalism.

“Vietnam is the eldest son of the Emperor.

Born first in the Earthly world.”

If people disobey the Jade Buddha’s commands, natural disasters, epidemics, wars, and social disorder will befall human society. This punishment is therefore not limited to  just one nation or to one group of people, but extends to the entire world. 

What is the Way of Uncle Ho’s religious practice?

The Ho Chi Minh religion has its own form of exorcism and this practice, in general, is very popular in the north. However, Madam Xoan believed that those who perform this act, if they come from the Mother Goddess religion or other popular sects, would often lose their cognitive abilities. On the contrary, Madam Xoan claimed she was a disciple of the Jade Buddha, so she could hear and preach the voice of the Jade Buddha without losing her reason.

As for worship, adherents of this religion are guided to worship Ho Chi Minh at home.

These worshipers have an altar that includes a statue or photo of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist Party’s version of the Vietnamese flag, and a bowl of incense. This altar should also be higher than all other altars in the house. Each day believers are required to offer fresh flowers, cakes, or fruits. Prayer is optional, but burning joss paper and other objects is prohibited. Their holidays also follow the official Vietnamese national holiday calendar which somewhat shows the religion takes a political stance.

One of the Ho Chi Minh Shrines in Ben Tre. Photo: The Vietnamese.

With respect to mass religious gatherings, the Peace Society spends most of its time performing activities such as the annual ancestral worship ceremony, which obviously includes Ho Chi Minh and the martyrs. They also provide magic spells and incantations.

It is also quite interesting to note that the Way of Uncle Ho has a very high anti-Chinese sentiment.

According to the leaders of the Peace Society, evil spirits are the wandering souls of the Chinese invaders who died years ago. They still haunt Vietnam, harm the people’s health, and negatively influence the future of the nation.

“Don’t listen to evil spirits. In the past, they were the enemy who deceived us and harmed us.

They admired evil and always wanted to invade our country.”

When the Hai Duong 981 drilling rig entered Vietnamese territorial waters in 2014, Madam Xoan and 400 other followers gathered, prayed, and condemned the behavior of the enemy in the north, the Chinese.

“I pray to Uncle Ho, he will pour out the safe water

[…] So that he could protect our sovereignty over seas and islands

from being  invaded, in heaven and on earth.”


Madam Xoan has repeatedly tried to register this religion with the Vietnamese government, but the answer from officials is usually to wait for a decision from their superiors. She is also believed to have close connections with more than 30 figures in the central government, including scientists working in state agencies, ministry officials, and intellectuals interested in studying and learning about this religion.

According to research estimates, there are believed to be more than 10,000 official followers of the Way of Uncle Ho, and major ceremonies take place with more or less a thousand believers in attendance. This is a significant figure if you consider the fact that other domestic religions are slowly dying.

In addition, although not officially recognized, the followers of Ho Chi Minh’s religions, such as the Jade Buddha, receive approval from the government, along with the ability to exercise their freedom of religion easier than others. 

However, these were the study’s conclusions up to the time of publication (2017). 

In more recent times, the Way of Uncle Ho as the Jade Buddha has also fallen under the close scrutiny of local authorities. For example, the People’s Public Security newspaper published an article that claimed the Way of Uncle Ho had used Ho Chi Minh’s image with “misguided claims,” such as alleging that it “received Uncle Ho’s blessings” and its leaders offered some medicinal leaves to cure all diseases of the people. The authorities of some provinces, such as Vinh Phuc, also warned that this religion was an act of “illegal” religious activities. 

The Vietnamese government is now in a dilemma. Should it maintain the treatment of Uncle Ho as a well-loved political figure and expect all Vietnamese citizens to continue worshiping his life? Or will the authorities rein in the Way of Uncle Ho and other cults and illegal religions involving Ho Chi Minh, and deal with these religious activities as it has often dealt with other different religions in the country? Only time will tell us how the authoritarian government of Vietnam will act on this issue. 

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Politics

Ho Chi Minh – From Political Monument To God Of Prayers – Part 1

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The religious teaching documents of the "Way of Ho Chi Minh as the Jade Buddha". Photo: phatgiao.org.vn.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Vo Van Quan and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on January 31, 2021.


“The nation of Vietnam will stand forever

with Jade Buddha – Chí Minh – Ái Quốc”

(A quote from a 2010 prayer)

The process of globalization in Vietnam has made major religions such as Buddhism and Christianity overshadow the silent development of local belief systems. However, overlooking them would be a mistake.

In a certain sense, these domestic religions most accurately and clearly reflect the dynamics of religious beliefs among the masses, and they can also show some of the implications of development in Vietnam’s societal relationships.

The religion called “Way of Ho Chi Minh as the Jade Buddha” (referred to as the Way of Uncle Ho in this article) is one significant example we can use to learn about how religion is practiced or how it is imbibed by the Vietnamese people. Up till now, there has not been an official study, or even an official government statement, on this strange and peculiar religion.

In the development framework of the research program “Boundaries of Religious Freedom: Regulating Religion in Diverse Societies,” Dr. Hoang Van Chung gives us a clearer and deeper look at the development of Ho Chi Minh’s religion in Chapter 4 of “New Religions and the State’s Response to Religious Diversification in Contemporary Vietnam.”

Dr. Chung is currently the head of the Department for Research on Policy and Law on Religion at the Institute for Religious Studies, under the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences. He obtained his Ph.D. in Sociology from La Trobe University (Australia) in 2014, and was a scholar with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (Singapore).

It is important to note that even though his book was published in 2017, the accompanying data in the study of Ho Chi Minh City was collected from 2011 to 2012. Therefore, there is a gap between the information provided by the author and the present state of this religion.

Một hình ảnh được cho là điện thờ Hồ Chí Minh của tín đồ đạo Hồ Chí Minh. Ảnh: Blog Tìm tòi và Lượm lặt.
Ho Chi Minh statue is worshipped at the Ho Chi Minh Shrine. Photo: Search and Gathering Blog.

How was the “Way of Uncle Ho” formed?

According to a research by Dr. Chung published in 2016, a Madam Xoan founded the Way of Uncle Ho at the Peace Shrine (now called the Peace Temple) on January 1, 2001.

Madam Xoan, 73, experienced a miserable childhood in Nam Dinh Province. She lost her mother at a young age, had to live with her father and stepmother, and began working at the age of just 15. She also attempted suicide many times. At the age of 19, she married a notary public and had four children.

Everything changed when she became seriously ill just before she turned 30. It was reported that Xoan was unconscious and that the pain she felt in one finger was so intense that it had to be completely amputated.

Meanwhile, doctors could not find the reason for her illness nor determine the cause of the disease. One day while she was waiting to be treated in Hanoi, she heard a strange voice telling her that she was not sick but that this was just a test to see if she was qualified to serve a higher purpose. This voice also affirmed that Mrs. Xoan had spiritual inclinations.

She immediately quit her factory job and became a humble merchant buying and selling joss paper. During the next 5 years, Mrs. Xoan continued to be guided by this voice and her financial situation gradually improved. By the time she was able to clearly hear and fully communicate with this voice, she gave up her small business to study the supernatural.

In 1989, Mrs. Xoan heard the voice again commending her for being the first person chosen by the Heavenly Palace to complete her assigned mission.

From politicians to gods

Since the 2000s, the stories of individuals who have achieved great success and have become rich for relying on the help of Ho Chi Minh’s Jade Buddha have been compiled by the Peace Society of Heavenly Mediums (the religious leaders of the religion “Way of Uncle Ho”). These stories were then spread among the followers of this belief system.

For instance, there is also a similar story about an entrepreneur who worked in the construction industry. The story claims that he became very rich because of his obedience to “Uncle Ho.” To show his sincerity, he donated 200 million dong to the Peace Temple. This amount was then used to upgrade and renovate  this place of worship.

Ho Chi Minh’s image has come a long way in the last century, morphing from a simple politician who was close to the people, to a god capable of interfering in and controlling the lives, happiness, and success of everyone who lives on Earth.

What happened?

Tổng Bí thư, Chủ tịch nước Nguyễn Phú Trọng dâng hương cúng bái Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh tại Hà Nội năm 2019. Ảnh: TTXVN.
General Secretary cum State President Nguyen Phu Trong offers incense to worship President Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi in 2019. Photo: VNA.
Đoàn đại biểu của Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam và người dân Cao Bằng dâng hương, dâng hoa tại Đền thờ Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh tại Cao Bằng. Ảnh: pacbo.vn.
The delegation of the VCP and the people of Cao Bang offer incense and flowers at the Ho Chi Minh Temple in Cao Bang. Photo: pacbo.vn.

Clearly, the deification of Ho Chi Minh did not begin with Vietnamese civilians.

Dr. Chung’s research indicated that numerous other studies have linked Ho Chi Minh’s death with the Vietnam Communist Party’s (VCP) own propaganda campaign. The State has intervened in directing or encouraging the remembrances of Ho Chi Minh. This has turned a mere ritual into the worship of the late leader.

Dr. Chung also concluded that many other researchers also pointed out that the VCP had a very clear goal of building a cult of personality around Ho Chi Minh. From promoting Uncle Ho’s supposed divine moral qualities to building up various myths about him, the VCP wants to make this version of Ho Chi Minh the formal history.

However, the most interesting point that Dr. Chung stated was that the VCP only expected to limit this phenomenon about Uncle Ho as a personal cult within the realms of the “ancestor worship” belief model. By doing that, the VCP wanted to connect the history of Vietnam’s national democracy movement and its communist movement, leading it to national success in the future. Once they establish this basis, the VCP, a political conglomerate founded by Uncle Ho, would have solidified more of its legitimacy.

The author emphasizes that the goals of the VCP and the desires of the masses in worshiping Ho Chi Minh are different.

The VCP’s model of worship of Ho Chi Minh is considered less religious and less superstitious. Therefore, Dr. Chung asserts that the religions associated with this political leader, such as the Way of Uncle Ho as the Jade Buddha, were “undesirable consequences” of state policy. The government’s efforts regarding the remaking of Ho Chi Minh’s image, if compared to people’s beliefs, are heterogeneous.

There are a lot of questions for Dr. Chung when he stated this argument.

It is because in Vietnam, we are seeing a common phenomenon that state agencies regularly promote the worship of Uncle Ho. The government placed Ho Chi Minh statues and photographs in many temples in the north of Vietnam, and offered incense to commemorate Ho Chi Minh during big national holidays, and the like. 

If we follow Dr. Chung’s reasoning and assumption that the state did not want, or at least did not foresee, the formation of a religion centered around Ho Chi Minh, I think his argument is a bit unpersuasive.

In the context that the Vietnamese economy had just opened up and the practice of worship had just reformed since the 1990s, the nature of the people’s curiosity and experimentation for new religions and beliefs is obviously evident. Therefore, it is fairly certain to foresee that the people will eagerly want to join a new religion like the Way of Uncle Ho as the Jade Buddha if it is offered.

(To be continued)

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Religion

Religion Bulletin, February 2021: German Parliament To Hold Hearing On Religious Freedom In Vietnam

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A police colonel takes charge of religion as the German Parliament takes note of Vietnam. 

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The German Parliament expects to have a hearing on religious freedom in Vietnam on April 14, 2021. Left: Markus Grubel, German Federal Government Commissioner for Global Freedom of Religion (Source: Janine Schmitz/photothek.net). Right: Police prepare to demolish a funeral home belonging to the Duong Van Minh religion in 2013. (Source: Youtube Thanh Phạm, as cited by BPSOS).

Religion Bulletin, February 2021:

  • [Religion 360*]
    • German Parliament to release report on religious freedom in Vietnam and other countries
    • Family asks for intervention as prisoner of conscience Phan Van Thu’s health deteriorates
    • Dak Lak provincial police prevent members of the Protestant Church of Christ from conducting religious activities
    • An ethnic Thuong Protestant is arrested as he takes his child to school
    • Deputy head of the Internal Security Bureau becomes deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs 
  • [On This Day]
    • 12 proposals Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh made to the Vietnamese government regarding Buddhism and religious freedom
  • [Did You Know?]
    • The Hmong Duong Van Minh religion under the government’s hand

[Religion 360*]

German Parliament will hold a hearing on religious freedom in Vietnam and other countries

In past years, Vietnam has encountered a number of issues with Germany. There may be one more to add to the pile as the German Parliament prepares to release a report on international religious freedom April 14, 2021. The report details the dire situation regarding religious freedom in Vietnam. 

Germany takes this year’s congressional hearing particularly seriously. 

In a press release on the report on international religious freedom in 2020, Dr. Gerd Müller, German development minister, stated: “In countries where no progress is made on this over long periods, we do not simply continue our government-to-government cooperation but, instead, shift our focus to strengthening civil society and supporting the humanitarian work carried out by the churches [in those countries].”

Dr. Müller used Myanmar as an example to demonstrate that Germany keeps its word. He stated that Germany had cut off ties with the Myanmar government, transferring direct aid to Muslim Rohingya refugees who had fled to Bangladesh to escape the Myanmar Army’s ethnic genocide.

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Dr. Gerd Müller, German development minister. Photo: AFP.

For decades, international organizations have stated that the Vietnamese government has not made any noteworthy improvements on religious freedom.

The report on international religious freedom was ratified by the German cabinet on October 28, 2020. In it, Vietnam was accused of engaging in serious and systematic suppression of religious practitioners, including those of the Duong Van Minh religion in the northeast, Protestants in the Central Highlands, and those of the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Catholic religions, who seek independence in their activities.

The report also stated that the Catholic Church in Vietnam had faced difficulties for years due to ambiguous laws and regulations, established to manage the non-profit and charitable activities of religious communities.

The fact that religious practitioners faced heavy punishment was also highlighted by the report’s confirmation that followers continued to endure multiple forms of violence. 

Family asks for intervention as prisoner of conscience Phan Van Thu’s health deteriorates

Prisoner of conscience Phan Van Thu, 73, who received the heaviest sentence in the case of the Bia Son Public Justice Council, is currently suffering health setbacks and is in dire need of medical care.

Thu’s wife, Vo Thi Thanh Thuy, stated that ever since he transferred prisons in 2017, his health has steadily declined. Thu had a history of illness before he was arrested in 2012, including: diabetes, heart failure, high blood pressure, and rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors have confirmed Thu is in need of regular medical treatment at a hospital.

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 Phan Van Thu in 2013. Photo: Free Journalists Club.

In an official form sent to Gia Trung Prison in Binh Dinh Province requesting medical care for her husband, Phan Van Thu’s wife recalled that he had to go to the emergency room while serving his sentence in 2018.

She requested that the prison give him a complete check-up as soon as possible, along with a specific treatment plan.

The case of the Bia Son Public Justice Council went to trial for the first time in February 2013 and is most likely the religious freedom-related case with the highest number of defendants in the history of Vietnamese law. Twenty-two members of this council received heavy sentences, from 10 years to life in prison. Phan Van Thu, who led the organization, received a life sentence.

According to state media, the court convicted the members of acting to overthrow the people’s government. One member asserted, on the contrary, that their activities were strictly religious in nature.

Dak Lak provincial police prevent members of the Protestant Church of Christ from conducting religious activities

What would you do if you wanted to conduct religious activities legally, but the commune authorities refused to accept your registration form? According to the Ethnic Thuong for Justice webpage, on February 20, 2021, members of the Protestant Church of Christ in Dak Lak Province were forbidden by police from conducting religious activities. 

In a one-minute and thirty-second video posted on social media, two police officers are seen filling out a form citing church members’ “unlawful religious activities”.

According to the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion, individuals who seek to organize religious assemblies must register with commune authorities. Religious groups who gather without registering are seen by police as being in violation of the law.  

However, authorities openly discriminate against the Protestant Church of Christ. A member of the church stated that commune authorities refused to issue a permit for their religious gathering. 

An ethnic Thuong Protestant is arrested as he takes his child to school

The webpage Ethnic Thuong for Justice reported that an ethnic Thuong Protestant was suddenly arrested by police as he was taking his child to school on February 26, 2021.

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Y Thinh Nie holding a self-made banner celebrating International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2020. Photo: Ethnic Thuong for Justice.

The arrested individual is reportedly Y Thinh Nie, 42, a resident of Drai Si Highland Village, Ea Tar Commune, Cu Mgar District, in Dak Lak Province. 

Two days prior to his arrest, police had arrived at his residence to invite him to the station for questioning. He refused citing a lack of paperwork. 

The webpage also reported that Nie’s arrest had to do with his taking pictures to mark the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief (August 22, 2020) and International Human Rights Day (December 10, 2020). 

Deputy head of the Internal Security Bureau becomes deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs

On February 3, 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs added a new deputy head. However, all state channels which reported on the assumption of office avoided discussing the cadre’s background. 

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Nguyen Tien Trong, the new deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, (left) receives his appointment. Photo: Ministry of the Interior.

The new deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA) is police colonel Nguyen Tien Trong. Before being appointed to the GCRA, Trong was deputy head of the Ministry of Public Security’s Internal Security Bureau.

The Internal Security Bureau is the bureau responsible for combatting alleged reactionaries, terrorists, and threats to security, including those of a religious nature. 

As with other leaders of the GCRA, there were not many details on Trong’s background. GCRA simply reported that Trong is an ethnic Kinh, non-religious, from Bac Giang, and a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in security reconnaissance. GCRA did not disclose Trong’s previous positions and work units.


[On This Day]

12 proposals Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh made to the Vietnamese government regarding Buddhism and religious freedom

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Thich Nhat Hanh and the followers at Plum Village held a procession along Hoan Kiem Lake in 2005. Photo: PVCEB.

In February 2010, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh – one of a number of monks highly respected by the Vietnamese public – issued 12 proposals to the government on the millennial anniversary of Hanoi.

Among these 12 proposals two were related to freedom of religion.

First, he petitioned the government to grant prisoners amnesty, including those prisoners who were charged just because they were “contributing ideas of improvement to the government; calling for pluralism, multiple political parties, and multiple churches; and calling for freedom of religion and freedom of speech.” 

Second, he asked that Buddhist dignitaries both in- and outside the country to combine forces to “establish a single, private Buddhist church, one that stands completely outside of politics.”

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was forbidden from returning home to Vietnam after an anti-war advocacy tour he conducted in 1966. It was not until 2005 that he was permitted to return. After returning home, his books began to be published in Vietnam, with the exception of those that touched upon freedom of religion or politics. 

On his return home, Hanh has made proposals to the Vietnamese government to enact political and religious reforms that he felt were necessary, but to this day, the authorities continue to use strict policies to control religion. According to human rights organization The 88 Project, the Vietnamese government currently holds approximately 73 individuals as prisoner for their religious activities and for fighting for religious freedom. 


[Did You Know?]

The Hmong’s Duong Van Minh religion under the government’s hand

In March 2014, an ethnic Hmong named Hoang Van Sang was sentenced by the Yen Son District People’s Court, Tuyen Quang Province, to 18 months in prison, in accordance with Article 2258 of the Penal Code, for abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.

Tran Thu Nam, Sang’s defense attorney, uniformly rejected the court’s decision, stating that Sang could not be convicted according to Article 258 based on the activities he conducted with a number of other Hmong. 

According to Nam, Sang and a number of other Hmong practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion had agreed to pool money to build a morgue. Sang took on responsibility for purchasing the construction materials. For merely doing that, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. 

A week after Sang’s trial, another trial involving three ethnic Hmong practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion began in Ham Yen District, Tuyen Quang Province.

According to RFA, that morning, police blocked intersections connecting the court to villages with Duong Van Minh practitioners. But police were unable to block all unpaved paths to the court; approximately 150 ethnic Hmong took a shortcut in the four-hour preceding to protest the trial. 

Similar to Sang, the three defendants were also convicted according to Article 258, with each receiving a different sentence: 24 months, 18 months, and 15 months in prison, respectively.

Six years have passed and ethnic Hmong still resolutely follow the Duong Van Minh religion, despite the government’s heavy-handed oppression of the group.

According to the German Foreign Ministry, in October 2018, practitioners of the Ha Mon religion in 68 residential neighborhoods issued an SOS to the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States. 

A report by the US State Department on religion stated that in 2019, Vietnamese police used electric rods and automatic rifles to attack a group of Duong Van Minh practitioners who were organizing festivities for Tet. The incident occurred in Na Heng Hamlet, Nam Quang Commune, Bao Lam District, Cao Bang Province.  

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 Duong Van Minh, founder of the religion which carries his name. Photo taken in 2015 in Hanoi. Source: JB Nguyen Huu Vinh.

According to the overseas Vietnamese-language press (RFINguoi Viet), the Duong Van Minh religion appeared during the 1980s. Its main objective is to make  Hmong faith customs surrounding funerals and marriages more progressive and hygienic. The religion was founded by Mr. Duong Van Minh, who currently resides in Tuyen Quang Province.

Important in the religion is the construction of small housing structures that are used as “funeral homes.” In these structures are a number of items, including holy crosses and wooden toads and swallows that are used during ceremonies.

These structures have been destroyed by the Vietnamese authorities for being built without a permit and for propagating a “false religion.” The government and state media both assert that the Duong Van Minh religion is a false one, arguing that the religion discourages people from work and study, disrupts traditional customs, and leads people to form groups that disobey the government’s religious and social policies. 

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Police destroy a “funeral home” belonging to the Duong Van Minh religion in 2013. (Source: Youtube Thanh Phạm, as cited by BPSOS).

Practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion, however, have told the overseas media that they work to alter the rituals by which they worship the dead. 

A 2020 radio report by the People’s Ministry of Public Security Communications Bureau stated that there were approximately 8,000 ethnic Hmong practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion, in four provinces (Tuyen Quang, Bac Can, Cao Bang, and Thai Nguyen).

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