Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – September 2019

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•    Focus:

  1. A Protestant in the Tay Nguyen highlands was sentenced to seven years in prison for undermining national unity (supplement to the August 2019 report)
  2. Hoa Hao Buddhists continue to dispute the complete removal of An Hoa Tu temple’s tile roof.
  3. The government’s Committee For Religious Affairs organizes a conference in An Giang for briefings on the third quarter of 2019
  4. 58 dignitaries and officials were elected to the Vietnamese Fatherland Front Committee, bringing the total to 385 members

•    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. A Protestant in the Tay Nguyen highlands was sentenced to seven years in prison for undermining national unity (supplement to the August 2019 report):
On August 9th, 2019, the People’s Court of Gia Lai Province sentenced Rah Lan Hip, age 38, a Protestant member of the Jrai ethnic minority and resident of Chu Prong district, to seven years in prison for undermining national unity, under Article 116 of the 2015 Penal Code (amended in 2017), during a mobile trial.

Information from the People’s Court of Gia Lai Province website states that from June 2018 to March 2019, Rah became acquainted with two Dega Protestants in the United States over social media. Afterward, Rah provided these two individuals with information regarding a fellow Jrai who had just completed his/her jail sentence and another who was still serving his/her sentence, as well as a list of 1304 Dega Protestants in Chu Prong district. The two individuals transferred Rah 18.000.000 VND (~775 USD) to organize four meetings for Protestants in the vein of Dega Protestants in the United States.

The People’s Court of Gia Lai Province did not provide any other information to prove that Rah committed the crime for which he was indicted: “Rah Lan Hip’s criminal actions listed above are dangerous to society and negatively influence local political security; create division, hatred, and discrimination between the Kinh majority and ethnic minorities; and infringe upon the community of ethnic groups in Vietnam”.

Rah’s verdict reveals that the authorities still maintain a tight grip on religious activities in the Tay Nguyen highlands. Civil activities of Protestants in the area are regularly accused of having political, anti-government ends.

The charge of “undermining national unity” (Article 116 of the Penal Code) has been widely used in many years past to imprison those who try to exercise freedom of religion in the Tay Nguyen highlands. The government often frames purely civil religious activities as actions which incite division between religious practitioners and the government.

In addition, the 2015 Penal Code (amended in 2017) has four laws aimed at prosecuting people involved in illegal border crossings, which has resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of many Protestants of ethnic minority origin. The minimum jail sentence for fleeing abroad is one year, if he or she commits the offense of “organizing or brokering the passage of others to flee abroad or illegally stay abroad” (Article 349). For particularly serious cases involving the crime of “fleeing abroad or illegally staying abroad in order to oppose the people’s administration” (Article 121), the maximum penalty is up to 20 years in prison.

2. Hoa Hao Buddhists continue to dispute the complete removal of An Hoa Tu temple’s tile roof.
After more than two months of disagreement over the restoration of An Hoa Tu temple, the followers of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism (PHHB) and the Hoa Hao Buddhism Central Management Board (HHBCMB) – which has supervisory rights over An Hoa Tu temple and is the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the government– have still not agreed on restoration plans.

According to information from PHHB, at the beginning of September 2019, provincial-level police intervened in the matter. A number of provincial- and district-level police officers met with followers of PHHB and told them that the People’s Committee of An Giang Province only gave the management board permission to replace the entire tile roof, rather than demolish the whole structure and build a new one. The officers also advised them not to incite followers and kept watch over PHHB officials that same day, as there was a meeting of the Hoa Hao Buddhism Central Management Board regarding the restoration of An Hoa Tu temple.

The followers of PHHB even accuse Mr. Nguyen Huy Diem, second-in-command of the HHBCMB and a long-time member of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), of not being an actual follower of the religion but merely a stand-in for the government to control the organization.

The information above reveals that the An Giang provincial authorities still maintain a high level of interference over the internal affairs of religious organizations, including electing party members to serve on the boards of religious organizations.

•    Events involving the state:

3. The government’s Committee for Religious Affairs organizes a conference in An Giang for briefings on the third quarter of 2019
Every quarter of the year, the government’s Committee For Religious Affairs organizes briefings in three regions: the southern provinces, the central coastal provinces, the Tay Nguyen highlands, and the northern provinces. These meetings normally include representatives of the Committee for Religious Affairs and the religious committees of the cities and provinces, occasionally with the participation of the Ministry of Public Security’s Internal Security Office and the People’s Army.

In the September 25th, 2019 southern provincial briefing for the third quarter of 2019 in An Giang, a representative of the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs summarized the issues of the third quarter and laid out tasks for the provincial religious committees in the next. According to reports on the People’s Committee of An Giang Province website, the conference pressed the religious committees to implement the Law on Faith and Religion and supplemental Decree 162/2017/NĐ-CP (which provides further details on the law, as well as methods of implementation). The decree gives all levels of the government permission to interfere deeply in the internal activities of a religion. The conference also clarified a number of issues in Directive #180-CT/TW of the party’s Central Executive Committee (regarding promoting religious resources in national development), a directive that was not publicly announced by the VCP.

4. 58 dignitaries and officials were elected to the Vietnamese Fatherland Front Committee (VFF), bringing the total to 385 members
Over three days, from September 18th- 20th, 2019, the National Congress of the VFF elected 58 dignitaries and officials from all religions that participate in the Central Committee of the VFF, in an event attended by state and VCP representatives. The National Congress is the highest leading body of the VFF and is directed by the Presidium.

The congress re-elected Tran Thanh Man to serve as chairman of the Central Committee of the VFF. Man is 57 years old and previously held high-level positions in the Can Tho municipal government. In 2017, Man was elected chairman of the Central Committee to replace Nguyen Thien Nhan after Nhan was appointed Secretary of the Municipal Committee of Ho Chi Minh City.

The conference re-emphasized the role of the Fatherland Front in making sure all parts of society are in lockstep with the VCP in building socialism.

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