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Religion Bulletin – February 2020

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The Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam is published on the first Monday of each month. If you would like to contribute information to the report, please send it to tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org

Government interferes in religions’ internal affairs

In our February report, we attempt to provide an understanding of how the Vietnamese government is interfering in the internal affairs of religious organizations in [The Government’s Reach] section. In February 2018, the government sentenced six Hoa Hao Buddhist followers; rediscover the case in [On This Day] section. The remaining section covers the passing of the Venerable Thich Quang Do and the lesser-known self-immolations that occurred in Vietnam after 1975.

The Government’s Reach

How the Vietnamese government has interfered in the internal affairs of religious organizations 

Since 1975, the Vietnamese government has maintained broad and deep interference in the internal affairs of religious groups. Religious groups recognized by the state have no choice but to accept such interference from the government. Those religious organizations that choose to resist face a high possibility that the government will retaliate in multiple ways.  

Catholic priest impeded from holding mass 

At the beginning of January 2020, Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc wrote on his Facebook that from August 2019, he has been denied permission to hold mass during prayer sessions in Binh Duong, Dong Nai, and Saigon. Father Thuc stated that local police came to the churches, threatening him and forbidding him from holding mass. 

“In August 2019, I was to attend a pastor’s mass in Dong Nai. The night before mass, he called me and told me that police had spoken to his superiors and said that if Father Thuc held mass, then the entire ceremony would be cancelled. So the superiors told me not to come,”, Father Thuc said of the government’s harassment.

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Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc. Source: Nguyen Dinh Thuc’s Facebook.

Police preventing Father Thuc from holding mass is understood as retribution, the kind that religious activists regularly encounter when they displease the government. 

Father Nguyen DInh Thuc, age 42, head of Song Ngoc parish, Vinh diocese, Nghe An province, has been repeatedly harassed by the government the past few years, particularly in 2016 when he spoke up against Formosa polluting the central Vietnamese coast. 

His activities calling for greater human rights have caused him an increasing amount of trouble. According to The 88 Project, he was banned from leaving the country twice in 2017 and 2019 for national security reasons. Currently, the government has begun engaging in a variety of methods to limit Father Thuc’s religious activities. 

Police interfere in disagreement over An Hoa Tu temple’s renovation

In September 2019, An Giang provincial police put on house arrest a group of dignitaries of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church (unrecognized by the government) to prevent them from attending a meeting of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church – the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the state—regarding the repair of An Hoa Tu Temple. 

The disagreement between these two churches began in July 2019, when the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church announced that they would be replacing the roof of An Hoa Tu temple, one of the religion’s main temples and a site of pilgrimage for all Hoa Hao Buddhists. The roof renovation met with opposition from the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church from the very start. 

Instead of letting the two churches solve the problem themselves, local authorities decided to intervene.

In September 2019, An Giang provincial police warned the management committee of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church “not to incite followers” regarding the renovation. Police assured the management committee that the An Giang provincial people’s committee had only permitted the replacement of the roof, not the demolition of the entire temple.

After this warning, six members of the Pure Hao Hao Buddhist Church were blocked by a group of individuals on the way to An Hoa Tu temple and beaten, on the day that the roof tiles were to be replaced. (See details: Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam – October 2019). To this day, local authorities brush off the attack, which left several injured.

The government interferes with a Cao Dai temple’s right of ownership 

According to human rights group BPSOS, in 2017, an independent Cao Dai temple in Phu Thanh A commune, Tam Nong suburban district, Dong Thap province was confiscated by the authorities and given to a representative of Sect 1997, one among a number of Cao Dai organizations recognized by the state (1997). 

During the affair, Mr. Duong Ngoc Re was asked by Phu Thanh A communal authorities and the Tam Nong district police to meet on March 20th, 2017, in order to force him to hand over the temple to Sect 1997. When he refused, the authorities took possession of the temple that same day. The very next day, Sect 1997 had one of its representatives read out the paperwork in the presence of local authorities, who then approved the transfer.

According to BPSOS, in the last two decades, 285 of approximately 300 Cao Dai temples have been appropriated by Sect 1997 with government support.

A history of the Vietnamese government’s interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations 

After 1975, the Vietnamese Communist Party aimed to push the country towards socialism. As such, religions in the south were not allowed to operate freely as they had before. In the north, religious activities had been severely curtailed by the government since 1954. 

According to southern Buddhist monks, after taking control of the south on April 30th, 1975, the Southern Provisional Revolutionary Government limited all religious activities, many places of worship were confiscated and turned into administrative offices, Buddhist statues were destroyed, religious offices in charge of social affairs were all closed, many practitioners were arrested and imprisoned without trial. 

Overt government interference in the internal affairs of religions officially began on November 11, 1977 with the pulmugation of Resolution #297-CP regarding “One policy for religion”. In the resolution, opening classes, convening internal meetings, appointments or transfers of dignitaries, and even followers assisting in religious activities—all had to be approved by the government. 

During this time, besides strictly controlling religious activities, the government also began to find ways to eliminate churches and associations of traditional Vietnamese religions and establish their own that were loyal to the state. 

For example, with Buddhism, the government instigated divisions within the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (established in 1964). According to the Venerable Thich Quang Do, at the beginning of 1980, the government invited a number of church leaders to meet to discuss the unification of the religion, when it should have been an internal affair. In 1981, the government then recognized the Buddhist Church of Vietnam with a number of members from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. After the Buddhist Church of Vietnam was established, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam has suffered discrimination and suppression to this very day.

According to BPSOS, after attempts to eliminate the Cao Dai religion failed, the state established Sect 1997 in 1997. The Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh went from being a well-oiled machine organizing religious activities over a wide area to simply a branch with circumscribed reach and subject to strict government control.   

With Hoa Hao Buddhism, the government only recognized it as a religion in 1999 after the Government Committee For Religious Affairs accepted a component of the Committee Representing Hoa Hao Buddhism. Other branches of Hoa Hao Buddhism that existed before 1975 were not recognized and became illegal. 

In 1999, the state replaced Resolution #297-CP with Resolution #26/1999/ND-CP, but maintained its broad powers to interfere as before. However, the latest resolution further restricted religious freedom because it increased the number of jurisdictions religions were subject to. For example, carrying out the ordination of a monk in Buddhism or similarly, a priest in Catholicism would require the consent of the prime minister himself. 

On the outside, religious activities in Vietnam appear stable because they have been thoroughly subsumed by the state and the political objectives of the Communist Party. Religious sects and associations that choose to remain independent suffer the government’s interminable abuse and suppression.

Four spheres of state interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations, through legal regulations 

In 2016, Vietnam passed the Law on Faith and Religion, to go into effect in 2018. The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion contained many improvements compared to prior regulations. However, the spirit of this law remains the same: tight control of religious freedom by maintaining state interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations:

Interference in the internal organization of religious groups

The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that if a religious organization wants to amend its charter (Article 24), or split, merge, unify with other religious organizations (Clause 3, Article 29), then it must seek approval from the government. Regarding personnel, the state reserves the right to approve or disapprove of nominations for positions in religious organizations (Clause 5, Article 34).

Under the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion, the government uses Resolution 162/2017/ND-CP to more strictly control religious organizations. This resolution stipulates that Vietnamese citizens must seek government approval if they seek to organize activities linked to overseas religions. The resolution also requires local, religious gathering places to seek government approval of any changes in representatives.

Interference in religious groups’ training programs 

According to the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion, all religious organizations must have their training classes approved by the government (Clause 3, Article 38). Classes teaching Vietnamese history or Vietnamese law on the basis of religious training must follow the guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education and Training, the Ministry of Justice, and all related bodies (Article 40).

Interference in freedom of association

The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion has many stipulations that limit freedom of association, even within religious organizations. Meetings that involve multiple religions or foreign elements require approval from the central government (Article 44).

Religious organizations that want to organize festivals or congresses must seek approval from the central or local authorities (Clause 3, Article 45). Religious organizations that invite foreign speakers (Article 48) or desire to join international religious organizations must seek the approval of the state (Article 53);

Interference in religious groups’ management of property and finances 

In regards to religious grounds such as temples and churches, the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that the commune’s people’s committee, in conjunction with the Fatherland Front, must organize an election and recognize a representative and a management committee for that property (Clause 3, Article 11). Accounts containing funds collected from religious activities, such as mass, must be reported to the state, with clear statements on how the funds will be used. 

Resolution 162/2017/NĐ-CP also states that prior to carrying out collection activities and donation drives, religious organizations must report the details, methods, objectives, and duration of such events to the government.

Outside of regulations related to religion, the Vietnamese government is also able to use many other provisions to suppress religious freedom, such as those related to public assembly, disturbing security and order, and publishing, as well as those found in the Cybersecurity Law … all are used to suppress religious organizations not recognized by the state. 

Religion 360°

Venerable Thich Quang Do passed away 

On February 20th, 2020, Venerable Thich Quang Do, Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam passed away at Tu Hieu Temple (Ho Chi Minh City) at the age of 91. 

He was among activists that the Vietnamese government kept under house arrest the longest. In 1982, after the government established the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, authorities confined him to a temple in Thai Binh for 10 consecutive years. In 1995, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison after he voluntarily return to Ho Chi Minh City to help flood rescue efforts in the Mekong Delta. After he got out of prison in 1998, he served five years house arrest in Ho Chi Minh City. In 2003, just as he had completed his house arrest, authorities prevented him from leaving Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City, until mid-2018 when he was forced to leave. 

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Thich Quang Do during his trial in Ho Chi Minh City, August 1995, with the Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, Thich Nhat Ban, Thich Tri Luc, and two retired scholars Dong Ngoc, Nhat Thuong. Source: Vietnamese Buddhist.

From 1975 until he passed away, Venerable Thich Quang Do never had the freedom to operate, as he explained to Al-Jazeera in 2007: “We’re prisoners in our own homeland, where our government decides who has the right to speak and who has to keep their mouth shut.”

Since the establishment of the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam has faced fierce repression from the government: 

“They [the government] have not ended their discrimination and repression of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Church activities the last 30 years have been very difficult (to organize). Preaching and teaching are not permitted, opening schools is not permitted, […] If they have an opportunity to get rid of [the church], then they’ll use it. For many decades, [I’ve been stuck] in this one room […] Every two months, I have a hospital visit. That’s it. No one comes in or out, and I can’t go anywhere. And even to the hospital, [police] follow”, Venerable Thich Quang Do told Radio Free Asia at the end of 2012. 

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A picture of Venerable Thich Quang Do in his room at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery on September 3rd, 2018. Source: Buddhism International Office of Information.

Venerable Thich Quang Do became the fifth Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in 2011. He had worked for the church since it was established in 1964. From 1975 onwards, he and a number of southern monks continued to guide the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam through the government’s persistent discrimination and repression. 

On This Day

Six Hoa Hao Buddhists sentenced to prison

The independent followers of Hoa Hao Buddhism in the Mekong Delta have been among the most repressed religious communities in Vietnam. In February 2018, six Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to prison for “disturbing public order” and “obstructing officials”.

Six individuals, among them four members of the same family, were sentenced to prison on February 9th, 2008. The An Phu District People’s Court sentenced Mr. Bui Van Trung, age 56, to six years; Ms. Le Thi Hen, age 58, to two years in-absentia, Ms. Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, age 38, to three years; Mr. Bui Van Tham, age 33, to six years; Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, age 38, to four years; and Ms. Le Hong Hanh, age 41, to three years. 

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The six Hoa Hao Buddhists sentenced to prison, from left to right, top to bottom: Mr. Bui Van Trung, Mr. Bui Van Tham, Ms. Le Thi Hen, Ms. Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, Ms. Le Hong Hanh, and Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam.

According to BBC Vietnamese, the case occurred the night of April 19th, 2017, when Bui Van Trung’s family invited people over to his house to mark the anniversary of a passing. The day before, plainclothes police had set up a checkpoint to block people from attending the event at Mr. Trung’s house. 

According to the indictment from the People’s Investigation Bureau of An Phu suburban district, An Giang province, at approximately 6:30 PM on April 19th, 2017, three people were on motorbike on the way to Mr. Trung’s house, when they were stopped by traffic police to check paperwork. Stating that they had not broken any traffic laws, the three refused to provide any. At that time, Mr. Nam, Ms. Hanh, Mr. Trung, and his family approached and refused to let police confiscate the motorbike because the three stopped individuals refused to present their paperwork. The event quickly escalated into a protest. Those on Mr. Trung’s side accused the authorities of entrapping the people coming to his house to attend the anniversary. As a result, they raised their voices and created signs protesting the religious repression occurring. 

On June 26th, 2017, police arrested Mr. Trung and his son Tham. The day after, Mr. Nam was also taken in. Ms. Hanh was arrested on November 13th, 2017. During the interrogation process, Mr. Trung and others denied “disturbing public order”.

For many years, the An Giang provincial authorities had kept tight watch over Mr. Trung’s family because they frequently organized independent religious activities. In 2012, Mr. Trung was sentenced to 4 years in prison for “disturbing public order” and “obstructing officials”.

The government frequently uses the crimes of “disturbing public order” and “obstructing officials” to punish religious, democracy, and human rights activists.

Did You Know?

Many self-immolations took place after 1975

Did you know: after 1975, many religious organizations in the south went through a very dark period. Southerners at the time saw hundreds of temples confiscated, settings for social activities re-purposed, and many religious activities forbidden. Perhaps most painful were the less-publicized self-immolations, conducted to demand the state respect religious freedom.

The first self-immolation occurred in Can Tho on November 2nd, 1975. Abbot Thich Hue Hien and 11 Buddhist nuns of the Duoc Su Zen Monastery immolated themselves in the temple, about 30 kilometers from Can Tho. Only when the immolations were covered by international media a year later did authorities begin their own investigation.

However, after the investigation, the government told Amnesty International that Abbot Thich Hue Hien had conspired to kill the nuns because he was afraid of being exposed for a sex scandal.

Venerable Thich Quang Do and a number of monks from the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam disputed the results of the government’s investigation, deepening the conflict between the government and the church. In April 1977, many of the church’s monks were arrested and tortured. Venerable Thich Thien Minh was one of those arrested, ultimately dying in prison in October 1978. 

In an interview with Venerable Thich Thien Quang after he escaped the country to Indonesia in 1979, he stated that in the last two years, there were approximately 18 southern nuns who self-immolated to push for religious freedom. Self-immolations continued into the 1990s.

On May 21st, 1993, an unknown man immolated himself at Thien Mu Temple (Hue). The authorities stated that the individual was not a Buddhist and that the immolation was due to a personal problem. 

However, the authorities did not explain why the individual traveled nearly 1000 miles to self-immolate at Thien Mu Temple. Several days after the immolation, the authorities interrogated Thich Tri Tuu, the head of Thien Mu Temple, which lead to a large protest in Hue. 

Another self-immolation occurred May of 1994 in Vinh Long. Thich Hue Thau, a member of the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, immolated himself on May 28th, 1994. Thich Hue Thau’s older brother, Le Trung Truc, told Christian Science Monitor: “My younger brother could not live without independence (in religious activities), so he decided to end it”. 

Mr. Truc said that Thich Hue Thau self-immolated after authorities prevented him from practicing at any of the temples in the province because he was a member of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. He also stated that his younger brother had mobilized a group of Buddhists to walk all the way to Hanoi to protest the numerous high taxes on farmers. However, the group was blocked before it was able to leave Vinh Long province. Immediately after, the authorities asked Thau to close his own temple. A few days after that, he self-immolated behind his temple during the night.

Translated by Will Nguyen

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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