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Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – October 2019

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• Focus:

  1. Tay Nguyen highlands – the government continues to uphold oppressive policies against religious groups that refuse state control.
  2. In the southern region – Six Hoa Hao Buddhists were assaulted by security forces on their way to prevent the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple.
  3. In the southern region – Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Hoang Nam goes on a hunger strike at Xuan Loc Prison Camp.
  4. In the central coastal provinces – the government prepares to take over the educational premises of Tuy Hoa Protestant Church (in Phu Yen) at the end of November 2019.
  5. The state grants recognition to the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church.

• Changes in laws regarding religion:

There have been no changes and no new state regulations related to the administration of religion.

• Events involving religious organizations:

1. Tay Nguyen highlands – the government continues to uphold oppressive policies against religious groups that refuse state control.

Dega Protestantism and the Ha Mon religion continue to be the primary targets of elimination by security forces in the Tay Nguyen highlands.

The government believes both religions are being controlled by FULRO – an armed organization that fought for the autonomy of minorities in the Tay Nguyen highlands but which weakened and disbanded in the 90s – to oppose the state. The government believes that Dega Protestantism was established by former members of FULRO to incite people to demand autonomy in the Tay Nguyen highlands and assert the Ha Mon religion is the heresy that incites and entices many individuals among ethnic minorities.

The reality is the government solely controls the discourse surrounding these two religions. Journalists do not have the freedom to investigate the activities of religions in the Tay Nguyen highlands, and the region has become the most strictly controlled in terms of religious activities.

According to the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs (which belongs to the Ministry of the Interior and directly administers tasks to do with religious security), the Ha Mon religion began developing in 1999 in the two provinces of Kon Tum and Gia Lai, with approximately 3,500 followers. The followers of the Ha Mon religion conduct their religious activities in small groups in private residences, similar to Catholic protocol, rather than in a government-sanctioned church. The activities of the Ha Mon religion were seen by the authorities as disruptive of order and security and needed to be halted. In 2013, the founder of the Ha Mon religion, Ms. Y Gyin of the Bana ethnic group, was sentenced to three years in prison along with seven others who were sentenced to a maximum of 11 years in prison, for undermining national unity (Article 87 of the 1999 Penal Code).

According to the Gia Lai Newspaper, the police of Phu Thien district in Gia Lai province asserted that FULRO was secretly operating in 81 hamlets and villages in the district and needed to be wiped out. District police believe that activities which involve crowds, like weddings, funerals, and birthdays, need to be strictly monitored, as these events serve as covers for unauthorized religious activities that oppose the state.

After the large-scale protests in the 2000s (and up to 2012) related to religion and land, the government’s oppressive activities have spread to religious groups. The government refuses to accept any religious activities that lay outside of its control. Religious groups, principally Protestants and Catholics, have suffered severe government oppression as they demand their right to freedom of religion.

According to our sources, in the last two months or so, approximately three families fled across the border from the Tay Nguyen highlands to Bangkok because of religious oppression. Currently, there are more than 500 individuals of ethnic minorities who are refugees in Bangkok, Thailand and another group of more than 20 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The common forms of government harassment towards religious groups in the Tay Nguyen highlands include:

  • Halting any activities involving groups of people, even if they are not religious in nature
  • Preventing individuals from leaving their home hamlet or village
  • Monitoring the daily activities of all individuals
  • Placing individuals under house arrest on days in which there are religious activities
  • Regularly coming to homes to interrogate individuals or interrogating those who recently returned from other areas
  • Illegally arresting and holding people in custody
  • Torture, beatings
  • Refusing to carry out administrative procedures for a number of families
  • Hunting down and imprisoning those who flee across the border for religious reasons
  • Punishing individuals by giving them jail sentences

2. Six Hoa Hao Buddhists were assaulted by security forces on their way to prevent the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple

At approximately 2 AM on October 7th, 2019, on the day that the roof of An Hoa Tu temple was going to be re-tiled, six Hoa Hao Buddhists (Vo Van Thanh Liem, Le Thanh Thuan, Nguyen Thanh Tung, Cao Thi Thu Ba, To Van Manh, and Le Thanh Truc) were ambushed as they were on the way to An Hoa Tu temple to prevent the roof re-tiling. As the six arrived at the Thuan Giang ferry landing, approximately a kilometer away from An Hoa Tu temple, they encountered a group of individuals who were there waiting for them. This group proceeded to beat the six Buddhists in order to prevent their arrival at the temple.

Mr. Vo Thanh Liem, age 79, spoke to RFA regarding the assault: “Today [October 7th, 2019] they took the roof tiles off the church, but the church itself remained untouched. Yesterday, they stacked [the tiles] outside the gate, same today. As we arrived at the Thuan Giang ferry landing, about 40-50 individuals blocked us, beating Mr. To Van Manh, Mr. Le Thanh Thuc, and Ms. Nguyen Thi My Trieu; my niece Vo Thi Thu Ba had her phone smashed. Realizing that they were going to beat me as well, I poured gasoline on myself and threatened to end things on my own terms, after which they left. They used long sticks, beating people so hard, the sticks smashed to smithereens.”

Other Hoa Hao Buddhists also saw that a crowd of security forces was watching over the stacks [of tiles] around An Hoa Tu temple as the roof tiles were being replaced. On October 9th, 2019, Hoa Hao Buddhist Le Tan Tai was held down and assaulted by security forces, who took his phone after believing that he was planning to record the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple. Tai said he was further slapped in the face by a female plainclothes police officer. Leaders of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism were also kept under house arrest during the days of the An Hoa Tu temple roof re-tiling.

The conflict surrounding the renovation of An Hoa Tu temple demonstrates the government’s overreaching interference in the internal affairs of a religion. Religious groups that do not accept government control are not only vulnerable and unable to freely operate but are also assaulted for expressing their opinions. Religious groups that accept state control are protected by security forces, are provided budgets, are allowed to carry out religious activities, and become a force to help the state manage religion as a whole. This disparity in treatment tends to exacerbate rivalries between the different branches of a religion.

3. Hoa Hao Buddhists dispute the re-tiling at An Hoa Tu temple

After disagreement regarding the roof re-tiling of the An Hoa Tu temple, the followers of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism (PHHB) continue to oppose the Hoa Hao Buddhism Central Management Board – which has supervisory rights over An Hoa Tu temple and is the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the government – regarding the replacement of bricks that are still intact at the home temple.

The followers of PHHB assert that the recent activities regarding the renovation of An Hoa Tu temple are a gradual attempt to completely change the original state of the home temple. They state that this will alter the home temple’s historical markers.

4. Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Hoang Nam goes on hunger strike at Xuan Loc Prison Camp in Dong Nai province

According to RFA, the wife of Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, a Hoa Hao Buddhist and a prisoner serving his sentence at Xuan Loc Prison Camp, reported that Nam went on a hunger strike for six days, from October 11th – 17th, 2019 to protest his transfer from the area for political prisoners to a cell for drug-related criminals.

Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, a 37-year-old Hoa Hao Buddhist, chose to practice his religion independent of the state. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 2018 for disturbing public order, along with four other Hoa Hao Buddhists, one of whom was sentenced to one year of prison for obstructing officials. According to Human Rights Watch, these verdicts were intended to punish those Hoa Hao Buddhists who demanded religious freedom and refused state control.

Current conditions in prisons are deplorable, though on the whole, political prisoners are able to enjoy better conditions than normal criminals. However, they can be punished by being transferred to cells with less desirable conditions.

The following prison conditions need to be improved:

Using the same water source for eating, drinking, showering, and washing clothes

Meals that are low-quality, unclean, or lack essential nutrients

Prisoners being unable to maintain daily bodily hygiene

Prison cells which are hot, lacking in sunlight, or overcrowded

Prisoners not receiving sleeping nets and suffering mosquito bites

Unreliable health care

The price of food and commodities that prisoners can buy at the canteen being 2 to 3x the market price

Prisoners being overworked

5. The government prepares to take over the educational premises of Tuy Hoa Protestant Church (in Phu Yen) at the end of November 2019.

According to the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church of Phu Yen province, the provincial government issued a notice that it was reclaiming a piece of church land in November 2019. The land, which contained the educational premises of a church at 65 Nguyen Hue, Tuy Hoa city, Phu Yen province, was earmarked for the construction of a pre-school.

The piece of land is under 1000 square meters and includes classrooms and school grounds; it has since belonged to the church before 1975. The church agreed to let the local government borrow the grounds in 1978 to open an elementary school and a pre-school. From then on, the government refused to return the land, creating a deed and merging the piece of land with the school in 2014. At the beginning of 2019, the municipal government issued a decision to construct Hoang Yen Public Pre-school on the piece of church land, without any negotiations on compensation.

The church reverend, the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church, and parishioners all opposed the city’s decision. According to RFA, the church opposed the decision by unfurling protest signs. Afterward, provincial police called the reverend down to the station many times to confiscate his banners and threatened to expel him from the province.

Currently, the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church remains concerned about the fate of their piece of land, fearing that it will be reclaimed unconditionally and lost permanently at the end of November 2019.

6. The state grants recognition to the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church.

Ten years after being permitted to operate, the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church was recognized by the state as a religious organization on October 24th, 2019, in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church was established in the south in 1972. However, after 1975, the church stopped operating after suffering government oppression; followers were forced to practice in their own homes. In 1989, the church was reinstated and operated under close government supervision. It was not until October 2009 that the government agreed to legalize the church by issuing it a permit to operate.

7. Conference held for the 2019 third quarter briefings re: the state administration of faith and religion in the cities and provinces of the central coast and the Tay Nguyen highlands

On October 9th, 2019, the government’s Committee For Religious Affairs along with the People’s Committee of Khanh Hoa Province organized a conference for the 2019 third quarter briefings regarding the state administration of faith and religion in the cities and provinces of the central coast and the Tay Nguyen highlands. The conference brought together the home affairs offices of 17 provinces and cities.

Although it was a conference related to the administration of religion, the Internal Security Office and the Military Region 5 Command also attended.

According to Khanh Hoa radio and television, the administration of religion in the final months of 2019 will focus on: continuing the roll-out of the Politburo’s Directive #18 regarding religious tasks in new situations; stepping up the check of land-use certificates for religious premises, and discovering and handling new religious phenomena that adversely affect local order and security in a timely manner.

The Politburo’s Directive #18 regarding religious tasks in new situations is a directive that still has not been announced to the public. This conference reveals that the government still views unauthorized religious activities as contrary to the law, attempting to tie them to such concepts as “heresy”, “spiritual deviation”, “superstition”, and “disruption of security and order”.

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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