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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.

https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/VYbwMvEQSvqDhhzY8K30-BXIRG7-KezK70bsJWTtwbrxBr6idv-uTYb5A08ZilxQ_SJqJQeWGqnH54eoFep1qHFb4_KbtLS_bGO_gwTVa3i-MqXwlFdiHvZQH2iNZvG2C8sgGyXX
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. 

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/aTPSFWm3ddhRt7Bj0AGkxueB6EME9HqrT_PkCOMIGT2Q_pL0yqeAuf2Kttce5aqr0y9bI_l8GVSLZDJF3MYQYXEfIoFs01zKTZndHqmTMhny9SbMK-zL-qUTQRQWcCkM1Q8ezSv4
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

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Religion

LIV Launches Database on Religious Freedom in Vietnam

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Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa magazine

On July 17, 2020, Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV) launched its Database on Religious Freedom in Vietnam.

LIV is a non-profit organization based in California (United States) and is the organization that oversees both Luat Khoa Magazine and The Vietnamese. You can find more information about LIV and the reason the organization is based in the United States (and not Vietnam) here.

With this regularly-updated data, LIV hopes to begin documenting cases related to religious freedom, both past and present. 

It could be an issue related to the land dispute between the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church and Phu Yen provincial authorities. It could be the trial of an ethnic minority member from the Central Highlands who practiced Dega Protestantism or trials for those who promoted Falun Gong. 

It could also be the conflict between Hoa Hao Buddhists in An Giang Province regarding the restoration of the An Hoa Tu Temple or the scuffles between unaffiliated Hoa Hao Buddhists and local police.  

Currently, when you access this data, you will see 19 cases (among them, more than 20 events involving Falun Gong practitioners have been combined into one case), with more than 91 victims or persons directly involved. Other cases are still being updated.

To expand the number of readers, this data content will be presented in English. After consulting the Q&A information below, you can access data regarding freedom of religion here: www.liv.ngo/data

Why did LIV put together this database?

The multi-faceted religions of Vietnam are a national point of pride, and the strength of religion and faith has contributed to the ability of Vietnamese to persevere through difficult periods in history. 

After April 30, 1975, however, many people became victims of the Vietnamese state’s harsh religious policies. 

Although the strict control of religion has gradually decreased over time, the state still maintains a tight spiritual grip on religion. Activities that lay outside government control or that allegedly do not support the government’s efforts to build “national unity” are all seen as illegal. 

As an organization that primarily conducts journalism, LIV has encountered many difficulties in evaluating the situation regarding freedom of religion and faith in Vietnam. Unlike cases involving freedom of speech or other political cases, those involving religion are generally not known or else fall into obscurity. For cases that are known, information is spotty and lacking. We believe that other press and human rights organizations also encounter similar problems. 

Because of this, our initial data is created by compiling information regarding cases related to religious freedom in a systematic way. We hope this data can be a useful source of information for journalists, activists, as well as readers who care about the right to freedom of religion. 

How was the data compiled?

The compiled data is based on information coming from sources such as local and foreign journalists, as well as from human rights organizations. 

Furthermore, where such arrangements can be made, LIV will directly gather information from the people involved.

Database information only includes cases reported by journalists and those people directly involved. We will not provide our own viewpoints regarding these cases.

We hope readers will contribute information about cases that they are familiar with. For directions on how to contact us, please see the section “How Can I Provide Information?”

How do I read information from the data table?

Readers can view the data using the Air Table tool. This is an interactive spreadsheet tool that makes it easy to find information without having to switch tables.

When you open the link www.liv.ngo/data, you will see four tables: 1. Case, 2. People (victims), 3. Case Timeline, and 4. Supporting Documents.

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Photo Courtesy: Luat Khoa magazine

For information about each case, you only need to read Table 1. All information in the other, remaining tables are connected to this first one. 

In Table 1, you’ll see the name of each case in the first column, with the relevant information added across rows.

In the next four columns, you can filter cases according to more detailed information: Related religion, Issues, Location, and Status, by pressing the “Filter” button and entering the information you want filtered. 

For example: if you want to find cases that occurred in An Giang Province, press “Filter”, choose “Location”, and pick the province of “An Giang”.

In the three columns near the end of Table 1, including People, Case Timeline, and Supporting Documents, you can see that the information here is colored. With these three columns, you can click on the phrases in each cell to view more detailed information.

For example, if you want to read more information about individuals related to the case of Rlan Hip, an ethnic Jrai sentenced to seven years in prison for disrupting national unity, you can press on his name in People (victims) in Table 1. Information about the victim, Rlan Hip, will appear as follows:

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Photo Courtesy: Luat Khoa magazine

The People section includes the personal information of relevant individuals, such as birthdate, ethnicity, identifying photographs, gender, and activity timelines.

Case Timeline provides chronological summaries of cases based on information from  sources that we have quoted in the penultimate column of Table 1.

Supporting documents can be videos, photographs, or any materials related to each case.

Similarly, you can also filter data by Table 2. People (victims) to look at information according to gender, ethnicity, religion, and criminal prosecution.

How can I provide information?

We hope you can contribute to this religious freedom database as much as possible. Tell us about cases involving religious freedom that you know about or are directly involved in. 

Readers can send us information through this link: bit.ly/vuviectongiao. We’ll reach out to you as soon as possible to gather more information. You can also provide us information anonymously. Information provided will only be used for this religious freedom database and will not be given to any third party. 

As we compile and present data, it will be difficult to avoid errors, and we hope readers can take a little time to contribute their thoughts. Email us at tongiao@luatkhoa.org or religion@liv.ngo.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – May 2020

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The Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam is published on the second 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

This report will provide information on other legal provisions outside of the Code on Religion that also limit the right to freely practice religion in Vietnam, such as the regulations regarding publication as stated in the section [The Government’s Hand]. As in previous reports, you can read prominent news regarding religious freedom in [Religion 360°], in which a few followers of Falun Gong were fined when they passed out flyers that the government deemed to be illegal. [On This Day] retells the story of Vietnamese Montagnards escaping to Cambodia in 2015. Under [Did You Know?], you can also learn about the dramatic decrease of the number of people who follow Hoa Hao Buddhism and Cao Daism during the past 10 years.

The Government’s Hand

Imagine that you were in a photocopy shop to print some flyers about religion such as advising people to believe in Christ, or even simpler, promoting fasting and meditation under a religion that you trust. 

You have printed the flyers and will pass them out to your relatives, neighbors, friends, and even strangers who sit in the park. A few minutes later, the police come and detain you. They even take you to the police station to interrogate you, and if you voluntarily performed those acts, the police will confiscate all of your flyers and cite you for an administrative violation.

That is what has happened to Falun Gong proselytizers who were arrested and fined when they passed out flyers that the government had not approved. From March to May 2020, there were at least 22 Falun Gong adherents who were arrested because they possessed and passed out flyers promoting their religion (find the detailed story in the [Religion 360°] section). 

This is the method that the Vietnamese government uses to control the publishing of religious materials.

Regulations Regarding Publication under Vietnam Laws Contributed to a Tightening of the Freedom of Religion

Under the Law on Publication 2012, Vietnam does not allow independent publishers to register and operate. Publication can only be done by those who hold permits that were issued to governmental departments, civil society organizations, and associations controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party. 

In practice, publishing houses in Vietnam often obtain permits for book stores and book companies. Even though we can say that publication activities are getting easier in Vietnam, it is not the same situation with sensitive topics such as politics and religion.

The Law on Publication 2012 did try to open up the regulations about providing permits for materials that are “given, gifted, or lent” (Article 4), which were not clarified in the previous code of 2004.

The materials that were being deemed as “given, gifted, or lent ” all had to be permitted to be published. If not, the publisher could be fined for violating Article 27 for publishing and disseminating materials that were not allowed under Decree 159/2013/NĐ-CP.

The Law on Publication 2012 also stipulates that the government forbids “publishing, printing, and disseminating” any materials that are deemed to be “superstitious” (Article 10). At the same time, only governmental departments regulating culture and religion may decide whether a material is superstitious or not. As a result, the label of “superstitious” is being applied to almost all of the new religions and beliefs in Vietnam.

Concurrently, the government also regulated that the Committee for Religious Affairs has the sole authority to “publish Bibles, prayer books and mantras, religious teachings, fiction and religious readings produced by religions that are allowed to be practiced in Vietnam”.

Individuals Do Not Have the Right to Publish Religious Materials

The recent arrests and administrative fines given to Falun Gong proselytizers have been widely published in the state-owned media and serve as a warning to individual citizens that they do not have the right to distribute materials without the state’s consent, especially religious materials.

On the other hand, the Law on Publication 2012 also stipulates that besides governmental departments and organizations belonging to the Communist Party, only businesses and entrepreneurs may apply for permits to distribute published materials (Article 36). Distribution also includes materials that could be “given, gifted, or lent”. This regulation allows the government to administratively fine individuals who distribute materials, including even those that were already permitted.

Therefore, if an individual person wants to print, sell, or just distribute freely a published material, then he or she could be fined administratively or could be prosecuted under the Penal Code. For example, the government could deem such material as information that opposes the regime.

Facing strict government rules and regulations regarding publishing, the new religions are continuously finding different ways to publicize their beliefs while being classified as “cults” by the regime.

Being forbidden to distribute materials, new religious groups have found other ways to disseminate their beliefs, with social media being the most common method.

Phap Mon Dieu Am (in Vietnamese), a new religion founded by Master Ruma, has been rising in popularity over the past few years, and has a YouTube channel with more than 24,000 subscribers and over 9 million views. People who want to follow Master Ruma can fill in an online form and wait for a “messenger” of this sect to meet with them in person and instruct them on how to practice their religion.

[Religion 360°]

At Least 22 Falun Gong Proselytizers Arrested

From March to May 2020, there were at least 22 Falun Gong proselytizers detained and fined administratively in 12 provinces and cities throughout Vietnam.

These people were arrested because they possessed flyers with information about Falun Gong and also content accusing the Chinese government of suppressing this spiritual movement.

There was an increase in the number of arrests after the Committee for Religious Affairs announced to all provinces and cities that “cults and extremist religions” have taken advantage of COVID-19 to promote their beliefs.

However, a few Falun Gong practitioners that we interviewed told us that practicing and promoting Falun Gong were just a voluntary act.

According to news reports in Vietnam, these arrests were made because the people had passed out flyers without government consent, according to the Decree involving news media and publication.

After they were arrested, each person had to pay a fine according to their own conduct and based on the flyers and the other materials that they had used to promote their beliefs. In Ha Tinh Province, a man was fined 25 million dong when he was found to be in possession of several boxes of Falun Gong materials. In Vinh Long Province, a 41-year-old woman was fined 4 million dong after she was found to have passed out four books containing information on Falun Gong at a bank.

The central government of Vietnam has yet to decide on whether to  consider Falun Gong as a religion in the country. However, in a few provinces, the local authorities have already deemed Falun Gong a cult and so not authorized to practice in Vietnam.

There are still no statistics specifying the number of Falun Gong proselytizers in Vietnam, but some of the members believe that their population is rising. 

However, the news media in Vietnam describes the Falun Gong with skepticism, asserting that the Falun Gong movement is illegal and also against science so the media  continues to publish propaganda to discourage people from following it.

The number of Falun Gong adherents arrested in provinces and cities:

Province NameNumber of arrests
1Dien Bien1
2Quang Ninh1
3Thai Binh1
4Nghe An4
5Ha Tinh5
6Quang Ngai2
7Binh Thuan1
8Ho Chi Minh City1
9Binh Phuoc2
10Dong Nai2
11Vinh Long1
12Ba Ria – Vung Tau1
Estimated Total22

The Government Refusal to Issue a Passport to a Catholic Priest

On May 29, 2020, Father Nguyen Van Toan wrote on his Facebook page that he received a notice from the government rejecting his application for a new passport.

Father Toan stated that he accidentally found out that the government refused to provide him with a passport because the Hanoi police accused him of conducting activities against the State.

Father Nguyen Van Toan is a 40-year-old priest of the Redemptorist Church, Thai Ha Parish, Hanoi. He often criticized the government publicly at his masses and he was once arrested when he protested in Hanoi.

The Family of a Prisoner of Conscience Ho Duc Hoa: The Nam Ha Prison Reduced Hoa’s Prayer Time to just Once a Week

The Association to Protect Freedom of Religion said on May 25, 2020, that the family of prisoner of conscience Ho Duc Hoa informed them during a telephone call from prison that the Nam Ha Prison in Ha Nam Province, had reduced his time to read his Bible and pray. He is now only allowed to pray once a week, compared to before when the prison allowed him to pray every day.

Ho Duc Hoa, 46, was tried in the beginning of 2013 with 13 other young activists who were either Catholics or Protestants for subversion against the state. While his co-defendants were sentenced to between two and four years in prison, Ho Duc Hoa was handed a harsh 13-year sentence.

RFA reported in August 2019 that Ho Duc Hoa’s family received a letter from him in which he complained about his deteriorating health,  complaining about a stomach problem, an enlarged intestine, as well as  high blood pressure, hemorrhoids, and also vertebrae problems. Between May and August 2019, Nam Ha Prison denied Ho Duc Hoa’s request to go to a hospital for a medical examination. 

Restrictions on the time to read the Bible or other religious books are often reported by prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. 

[On This Day]

Vietnamese Montagnards Who Fled Vietnam to Cambodia Rejected for Political Asylum

In May 2015, the representative of the Vietnam Border Defence Force in Dak Lak Province confirmed that many Montagnards had fled from the Central Highlands to Cambodia.

Colonel Nguyen Luong Hoa, the political commissar of the Border Defence Force in Dak Lak Province, claimed that Vietnamese Montagnards were being lured to Cambodia to fight against the Vietnamese government.

According to human rights organizations LICADHO and Human Rights Watch, in March 2015, the Cambodian government confirmed that it had recognized 13 Montagnards from Vietnam as political asylum seekers at the end of 2014. However, Cambodia rejected about 100 other Montagnards who also fled from Vietnam,  including 54 people who were forced to return to Vietnam during the early months of 2015.

In January 2015, a representative from a local human rights organization in Cambodia informed AFP that about 13 Montagnards crossed the border from Vietnam. These refugees stated that they ran away from Vietnam to Cambodia because they were fleeing oppression at home.

In May 2015, a group representing Ratanakiri Province of Cambodia, which shares a border with Gia Lai Province of Vietnam, traveled to discuss some issues with the provincial governments of Central Highlands. During this meeting, the two sides also talked about regulating the number of Montagnards fleeing from Vietnam to Cambodia.

The Montagnards are an indigenous people living mainly in the Central Highlands among  20 ethnicities. Beginning in the 2000s, Montagnards continuously crossed borders to flee Vietnam and escaped to Cambodia and Thailand for political asylum.

These Vietnamese refugees stated that they were suffering a lot of oppression from the government with regard to their religious rights, land rights, poverty and racial discrimination. If they raised their voices to object, they would be persecuted. However, the Vietnamese government said that the refugees fled the country because they were lured into an anti-state scheme or because of economic hardship.

The Central Highlands is a dangerous mountainous area and so the government has tried to isolate the people in that region from the rest of the population in the country. Until this day, independent journalists and human rights defenders could hardly contact the people who live in the Central Highlands due to these above-stated reasons.

[Did You Know?]

Cao Daism and Hoa Hao Buddhism Have A Lot Less Followers Nowadays

Both of these religions were established during the time the French colonized the south of Vietnam, and they attracted many followers for decades up until 1975.

Cao Daism Suffered a 76 Percent Decline in Followers During the Last 10 Years

In 1930, the Cao Dai religion had about 500,000 to 1 million followers when the entire population of the south of Vietnam was about 4 to 4.5 million, according to the records collected by Jayne Susan Werner and sent to the Governor-General of French Indochina on December 14, 1934. 

According to the Committee for Religious Affairs, from 1930 to 1975, followers of the Cao Dai religion grew steadily to about 2 million.

However, based on  an article in the Los Angeles Times, probably using information collected prior to 1975, there may be as many as 4 million Cao Dai followers. This number seems to be correct if one looks at all of the Cao Dai temples from the south to the central provinces of Vietnam.

Yet in 2009, the Committee for Religious Affairs estimated that Cao Dai followers in Vietnam numbered only 2.4 million people.   

From the census in 2019, the population of Cao Dai followers has fallen to 556,234 people,  a 76 percent reduction since 2009.

Hoa Hao Buddhism Suffered a 31 Percent Reduction of Followers in the Last Decade

Just like Cao Daism, Hoa Hao Buddhism has suffered a reduction of the number of its followers during the last 10 years.

In 2009, the Bureau for Religious Affairs of Can Tho City confirmed that there were 1.43 million Hoa Hao Buddhists in Vietnam. However, in 2019, the number of Hoa Hao Buddhists had fallen to 983,079 people, a 31 percent drop from the year 2009.

Before 1975, there were 2 million Hoa Hao Buddhists living in the west of South Vietnam, concentrated in An Giang and Chau Doc provinces.

What Caused the Reduction of Followers?

We could not find any report that offered reasons relating to the drastic reduction of the followers for these two religions. We believe the reason for this reduction could be as follows:

1. The harsh government control over these two religions

After 1975, the new regime tried to erase these two religions but it was forced to recognize Cao Daism and Hoa Hao Buddhism after it failed to eradicate them. The government recognized Cao Daism in 1997 and Hoa Hao Buddhism in 1999.

The independent followers of these two religions often stated that the regime only allowed the followers that  obeyed  government instructions and controls to become the leaders of the two “official” and “recognized” associations for Cao Daism and Hoa Hao Buddhism.

After 1975, the activities of these two major religions were significantly restricted  by the government. Followers could no longer conduct charity work and education and missionary work were also forbidden, preventing the two religions from being practiced as freely as before. 

More than that, the government implemented strict punishment of any followers who opposed the government’s handling of religions, such as applying the Penal Code or suppressing and harassing critics on a daily basis.

After the government recognized these two religions at the end of the 1990s, it also clarified how it would keep them from expanding. The religious practices of these two religions were once celebrated widely in the south of Vietnam, but are now restricted locally with strict controls by the government.

2. Young People Distance Themselves from Religion

The education system in Vietnam has always discouraged the discussion of religions and religious activities in society.

Educational books often teach children about loyalty to the Communist Party and to follow the law, but they rarely discuss traditional values and religious beliefs within the community.

The mass media is controlled by the State and newspapers, television and radio also do not discuss religion.

We do not have statistics on the number of followers of these two religions during different times, but the current government policy is to try to stop them from developing through the enactment of a numbers of drastic rules and regulations to control religious practices.

3. Identification Cards Are the Only Method for Counting Followers of Specific Religions

All identification cards in Vietnam specify a person’s religious affiliation.

In reality, to reduce potential problems involving religion, such as being discriminated against in recruitment to some governmental departments or joining the Communist Party, many families may declare that they are not members of any religion even though they actually follow a religion.

On the other hand, some police officers put down “no religion” when processing identification cards for people, possibly  to reduce the number of followers of a religion or to reduce its influence.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – April 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

April’s [Religion 360°] will cover the month’s main religious developments, including the arrest of three ethnic Bahnar followers of the Ha Mon religion, the arrests of numerous Falun Gong proselytizers, and a number of other stories. We look back at the April 2004 protests over land and religious freedom in the Central Highlands in [On This Day]. And finally, [Did you know?] will discuss the custom of ancestral worship, which was almost wiped out after 1975. 

Religion 360°

Three ethnic Bahnar arrested in March 2020 with no connection to FULRO 

According to Health & Life newspaper, three ethnic Bahnar, Ju,56, Lup, 50, and Kunh, 32 were arrested by Gia Lai provincial police on March 19, 2020, in a matter unrelated to FULRO (Front United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) operations.

Kunh revealed to investigators that he was not directed or supported by FULRO forces, and that he had only kept in contact with an individual named Y Khoet, who was a follower of the Ha Mon religion in Kontum Province.  

According to the above article, beginning in July 2012, the three arrested men would hide deep in the jungle during the day and then sneak into the village at night to talk to young people about the Ha Mon religion. On March 19, 2020, police arranged the capture of all three. 

(From left) Lup and Ju were arrested by Gia Lai provincial police on March 19, 2020. Source: D.A.

Many arrested for propagating Falun Gong after the Government Committee for Religious Affairs warned that “new religions may take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic” 

At the beginning of April, the website of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs announced its request to all provinces and cities to be on-guard for and prevent “extremist religious sects” from taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to “assemble and incite large gatherings of people”. 

The announcement also stated that provinces and cities needed to prevent people from transforming their residences into houses of worship, as well as organizing illegal collections of money for religious sects. 

According to Procuracy, the online newspaper of the Supreme People’s Procuracy, at the end of March and beginning of April, Ha Tinh provincial police arrested and administratively punished four women and one man for illegally propagating Falun Gong as they distributed masks and religious pamphlets to residents. 

Nghe An Newspaper also reported that three women were arrested and administratively punished at the end of March for illegally propagating Falun Gong.

Two of the five individuals arrested by Ha Tinh provincial police at the beginning of April 2020 for illegally propagating Falun Gong in Ha Tinh. Source: Procuracy Newspaper.

In mid-April, provinces and cities made announcements regarding the supervision and prevention of activities by new religious sects, which they referred to as “strange religions” and “heresies” on their websites. 

Similar to Khanh Hoa Province, Dak Lak provincial authorities reported that the “strange religions” in the region were: the “Supreme Master Ching Hai organization, Falun Gong, and the activities of extremist Protestant religious sects (such as the “Church of God and Heavenly Mother”, “Saving Grace”, “The Graceful Path”, “New Heaven and Earth” and otheres).” Besides these new religious groups, Binh Thuan provincial authorities also identified a number of others, such as the Buddhists of Miraculous Sound, Religion of Consistence, and the Supreme Order of Dragon & Flower.

Authorities of Hoa Binh Province in northern Vietnam announced that they are assigning the provincial Bureau of Internal Affairs the task of determining which illegal religious activities are those of “religious groups”, “assemblies”, and “religious organizations”.

Venerable Thich Tue Sy to lead the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam

On April 18, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam announced the decision of the former Fifth Patriarch Thich Quang Do regarding the transfer of full church leadership powers to the Venerable Thich Tue Sy.

According to this decision, once Venerable Thich Tue Sy meets the requirements, he will convene an extraordinary assembly on behalf of the Patriarchal Institute to elect all positions in Hoa Dao Pagoda. 

The Venerable Thich Quang Do signed the decision on May 24, 2019, before he passed away February 22, 2020. The signing ceremony was recorded, and Venerable Thich Tue Sy was present with many others. 

Venerable Thich Tue Sy

Birth name: Pham Van Thuong 

Birthdate: February 15, 1943 

Entered monastery: 1950

Age: 77
Native region: Quang Binh Province

According to the Lotus Library, Venerable Thich Tue Sy is an erudite scholar of philosophy and Buddhism. He is fluent in many foreign languages and has contributed to the translation of many foreign books.

Before 1975, he participated in teaching and management at Van Hanh University. In 1984, he was arrested along with other monks while protecting the university after the authorities confiscated the property to turn it into Su Pham University. He was imprisoned until 1988, when he was sentenced to death for attempting to overthrow the state and establish a revolutionary organization. In 1998, his sentence was reduced, and he was released. According to RFA, he was kept under very strict house arrest until 2004.

7 Catholic priests punished for violating COVID-19 social distancing orders 

According to VnExpress, on April 16, 2020, Ha Tinh Province decided to administratively punish seven Catholic priests for assembling parishioners for prayers during the government-ordered social distancing period.

The authorities stated that on April 4 and 5, six parishes in Ha Tinh organized prayer sessions for hundreds during church ceremonies.

Each priest was fined from 5 to 7.5 million dong (US$216 to US$325). 

Government social-distancing orders were in effect from March 28, to April 22, 2020. During this time, religious activities and assemblies were greatly restricted; many instead took place on social media. 

On This Day

Large protests in the Central Highlands, April 2004

In April 2004, Vietnamese journalists reported that protests had broken out on April 1011 in the three Central Highland provinces of Dak Lak, Gia Lai, and Dak Nong.

According to VnExpress, approximately 10,000 people participated in the protests on those two days.

The VnExpress article, along with other state newspapers, reported that local residents rode farm vehicles and motorcycles carrying deadly hunting weapons, swords, sticks, crossbows, and rock. The protestors caused riots by destroying property and stealing food items along the protest path. 

The chairman of the Dak Lak Province People’s Committee, Nguyen Van Lang, asserted that these riots were organized by FULRO forces demanding the establishment of a separate, autonomous state. 

However, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the primary reasons for the riots were harsh religious policies, unjust land policies, and government failure to guarantee social welfare in the Central Highlands. After protests in 2000, police launched several large waves of suppression against locals who wanted to practice independent religions.

Describing the method of suppression, the chairman of the Dak Lak Province People’s Committee stated: “In the latest event, we simply used the riot police and self-defense militia to restore order. After we gathered the women and children together, we explained to them that we had directed buses here to drive them directly back to their villages, so they could return to their normal lives.” 

However, according to HRW, police used excessive force, killing 8 local people on the streets, while many others died behind bars. 

The authorities did not announce the number of arrests after these protests. Nevertheless, an article in Vanguard Newspaper reported that in the last two months of 2004 alone, Gia Lai provincial police had arrested 146 local people with alleged ties to FULRO.

Siu Wiu, an ethnic Jrai, was forced to undergo extrajudicial re-education for participating in the 2004 protests. He stated to us that he went through re-education with 180 residents of Gia Lai. They had to labor heavily from morning to night while lacking sufficient food and shelter.

After the protests in 2004, the Central Highlands remained the site of many other protests by locals demanding religious freedom and the right to own land. 

Did You Know?

Ancestral worship was abolished by the state after 1975 but was later revived as a national tradition 

After the Saigon government fell in 1975, folk religious activities in the South were seen as “meaningless ceremonies”, “superstitions”, or “old-fashioned customs”. Ancestral worship was one of many activities that the state tried to abolish. 

In the North, spiritual activities began to be abolished in 1940 after the Communist Party began to control a number of northern areas. In 1994, a study showed that for every 35 Vietnamese families surveyed (including those of cadres), only one family worshipped its ancestors. [12]

Research has revealed a number of reasons why the state limited or prohibited many religious activities after 1975:

  • It believed religious activities were “superstitious”, “backwards”, and limited human capability by convincing people to believe in the mystical.
  • It saw the worship of dead people as a “meaningless ceremony”. 
  • It believed religious activities were a tool of the feudal class to exploit the people. 
  • It believed faith and religious activities were tools used by foreigners to take advantage of the masses and control the country, because ultimately, religions and faith practices in Vietnam all originated from overseas: Catholicism and Protestantism are both from the West, and Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism entered Vietnam from China.

According to Professor Philip Taylor, though they were prohibited, folk religious activities continued on in multi-faceted fashion, especially when the government opened up its doors to enact “Doi Moi” (economic and political reform in the mid-1980s). 

In the late 1990s, government policy regarding faith and religion began to be researched for carrying out reform. The following reasons convinced the government to place religious and faith activities under its strict control: 

  • The ideology behind proletarian revolution was no longer effective in the era of globalization, especially as Communism collapsed across the world.
  • The Vietnamese economy cratered when the government tried to centralize it.
  • Vietnamese state researchers pointed out that faith and spiritual activities contributed effectively to building nationalism, especially ancestor worship.
  • Ancestor worship had also been used to maintain the legitimacy of the Communist Party, such as to “give thanks” to “revolutionary heroes” who sacrificed themselves for national independence.
  • The desire to attract overseas Vietnamese back to their homeland to re-invest and support relatives. Ancestral worship activities were encouraged to draw overseas Vietnamese back to their homeland.

In 2004, after nearly 30 years of abolishing customs and ceremonial offerings, the state officially recognized faith activities, but through a different lens.

According to the National Assembly’s 2004 Decree #21 regarding religion and faith: “Faith activities are activities that express the worship of ancestors; commemorating and honoring those who have served the country, the community….” Article 5 of this Decree affirms that ancestral worship is a national tradition. 
See more: Vietnam after April 30th, 1975: how “superstition” became “national character” – Part 2

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