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Religion Bulletin – January 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.

The Vietnamese government views all developing religions today as heresy. Our [Flashpoint] section seeks to show you how the struggle between the Dien Bien provincial authorities and developing religions is unfolding. Discover the fascinating aspects of developing religions of the past in [Did You Know?] section. It’s been 15 years since Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was allowed to return to Vietnam; read about it in the [On This Day] section.

Flashpoint

Dien Bien province

  • Region: northwestern Vietnam
  • Area: 9,541.2 km2
  • Number of ethnic minority groups: 21 
  • Population: approximately 576.700 (2017)
  • Predominant religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, and Buddhism
  • Developing religions: The Faith of Ho Chi Minh’s Spirit, Buddhists of Miraculous Sound, Doan Trang, Familial Tradition of the Lac Viet, Falun Gong, Gie Sua, Lady Do, and the World Mission Society Church of God
  • The number of arrests related to developing religions in 2019: more than 22 people
  • Concern: suppression of developing religions
  • Methods of suppression: preventing proselytization, imprisoning proselytizers, forcing citizens to sign vows to abandon their religion. 

The current emergence of developing religions: 

Dien Bien is a province in northwestern Vietnam with predominantly mountainous terrain; most of its land area borders Laos, with a small portion bordering China. 

According to the Dien Bien provincial government, the province has seen in the past few years the emergence of many new religions, which they refer to as “heresy”. These religions mainly gather large groups of people to proselytize, acts which the government claims both are illegal and take advantage of people. 

According to the Dien Bien provincial government, at the end of 2017, the province discovered that the Gie Sua religion was proselytizing mainly those of the Mong ethnic minority group. In 2019, Dien Bien province had 1,208 followers of the Gie Sua religion. Though it did not describe the religion clearly, both the Dien Bien government and the police force used the press to propagate the idea that it was a strange, heretical religion that caused harm to law and order and needed to be stopped.

According to the Dien Bien Phu Newspaper, a propaganda arm of the provincial government, the World Mission Society Church of God appeared in the province in 2018, spread to Pu Nhi commune, Dien Bien Dong suburban district, but was able to be quashed by the government in time. 

The Buddhists of Miraculous Sound was first discovered by the Dien Bien provincial authorities in 2009 with approximately 10 followers in the city of Dien Bien Phu. The religion was started in 2004 by a Vietnamese individual named Tran Tam, who also goes by “Master Ruma”, with many offices around the world. Tran Tam converted a number of Vietnamese in Laos and Cambodia, and then afterwards, carried the faith to Vietnam. The Buddhists of Miraculous Sound use a number of meditation practices from both Buddhism and Catholicism.

Another northern province with followers from this religion is Vinh Phuc, which borders Hanoi on the northeast. According to the Vinh Phuc provincial government, Tran Tam has entered Vietnam and been deported many times. Vinh Phuc province has uniformly rejected all applications for activities related to the Buddhists of Miraculous Sound.

https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/6gSTUeGcmtatF3CZPSglTU3cjC85W99SyUQmf3OA9pvvdSHzCKRNX_Y5YC3IngkeXv8aIIPJc9UJCAa2Mn_Nxa-3IkxdaydosEF2MPORbkiLilVdBSPloYDAPuWY4u6CYVvz_JIg
Police of Muong Nhe suburban district, Dien Bien province advise people not to follow new religions. Source: Dienbientv.vn.

Methods the government uses to eliminate developing religions 

Opinion pieces published by the Dien Bien provincial government regarding developing religions all revolve around how to eliminate them. 

According to the Dien Bien provincial authorities, in order to eliminate these religions, they’ve had to prevent conversion sessions, arrest proselytizers, force followers to sign pledges abandoning the religion, or introduce or reintroduce followers to state-sanctioned religions. 

“The masterminds, the heads of these heretical groups must be firmly dealt with, […]. Here’s a typical example: recently, police gathered, arrested, and prosecuted a number of individuals who led the establishment of the “Mong State”, one of which was involved in proselytizing people into the Gie Sua heretical religion […], By April 9th, 2019, 14 individuals representing 14 households, and 74 followers of the Gie Sua religion in the mountainous village of Na Co Sa 3, Na Co Sa commune (Nam Po suburban district) had […] signed pledges to abandon the religion”, Dien Bien Phu Newspaper, Dien Bien province.

In the first ten months of 2019, authorities in the suburban district of Muong Nhe arrested 22 people involved in “heretical” religious activities. By May 2019, the Dien Bien provincial government stated that it had convinced 1,006 followers to abandon the Gie Sua religion and that it would continue such efforts to completely eliminate the religion from the province. 

“We visited them house-by-house, speaking with residents so that they better understand. We asked them to sign pledges to leave the Gie Sua religion, to not listen, to not believe propaganda arguing for the establishment of the “Mong Kingdom”. […] As of now, the Na Co Sa Military Border Post has gotten 55 households/325 individuals to sign pledges abandoning the heretical religion”, Commander Vu Van Hanh, Na Co Sa Military Border Post, responding to Dien Bien Phu Newspaper in February 2020.

The Government’s Reach

There’s no room for new religions in Vietnam

Emerging new religions in Vietnam appear to be effectively nipped in the bud with labels like “heresy” and “strange faith”. 

Activities spreading superstition affect the social fabric. They have the clearest and broadest influence on the population in places where these new religions (heresy, strange faiths) appear: Supreme Master Ching Hai, Long Hoa Maitreya, Treasured Temple of the Three Religions, Protestant Word of Life…” Lê Minh Quang – Deputy Head of the Lam Dong Provincial Party Committee.

In an article published March 2015, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs documented 60 counts of new religions, “a number of which are heretical, negatively influencing order, morality, lifestyles, customs, habits, culture, and health.”

Though there was no official list of these heretical religions, a publication of the Central Propaganda Committee divided these “heretical religions” into three groups. The first group included religions that sprung up locally from Protestant foundations (Dega Protestantism, Vietnam Protestant Church of Christ, Prayer Committee for Protestant Revivalism, the Lutheran Fellowship Church of Vietnam and America) and Buddhist foundations (Trang Huong Quang, Maitreya Buddhism, Treasured Temple of the Three Religions, Peaceful Sky, Great Ancestral Orthodox Church…). The remaining group contains those religions that were imported from overseas, such as Supreme Master Ching Hai, Falun Gong, Charismatic Revival, Yiguandao, Wuwei,…

These religions obviously cannot register their activities with the government, as their proselytizing efforts are essentially illegal. The government subjectively deems them “heretical religions” by default, rather than through any judicial review. 

In terms of Protestant denominations that have no been officially recognized, the government has issued Directive #01/2005/CT/TTg, which allows people to sign up for group activities through local authorities. However, this directive is not applicable for those new religions with Protestant foundations. 

In 2015, the Lam Dong provincial authorities “firmly disallowed registration” of any group religious activities by Tran Xuan Vinh, a follower of the Vietnam Protestant Word of Life Church (seen as a “heretical religion” under its previous name Charismatic Revival). According to the Lam Dong authorities, there are currently 37 families in the province that still congregate for this religion. 

The government attaches the label “heresy” on these religions based on characteristics that one could also find among other state-sanctioned religions in Vietnam: founders calling themselves the heads of religions, collecting money to build temples and shrines, developing organizations; proselytizing by appealing to people’s trials and tribulations; drawing in family members; not carrying out traditional customs. Moreover, these new religious groups, after being punished, run the risk of becoming seen as anti-government.

Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2020: the Vietnamese government has yet to do anything to improve freedom of religion 

“Religious groups which are not officially recognized, including some branches of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religions, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Buddhism face constant monitoring and threats of harassment and intimidation.” – World Report 2020, Human Rights Watch 

With its long-standing “achievements” in religious oppression, Vietnam is one of a number of countries closely followed by international organizations. In the past 20 years, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has repeatedly criticized the Vietnamese government for systematically oppressing fundamental civil and political rights, especially the religious freedom of local minority groups and unrecognized religious groups.

Its latest report revealing much of the same, HRW states that the Vietnamese government continues to monitor every move made by religious groups and is prepared to strongly suppress at a moment’s notice. The government continues to use regulations to limit religious freedom, police to harass religious activities, and courts to punish religious activists and dissidents with jail terms.

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/hs7hvR4iskHTgySQH9VXLBGgQaLdd421oi-q3YS42S58UswZ2qCKWHh0Ihmze5OsAJMwH8B90L56GSPH8CuL-XSt18q1qKfEzY9rdiJjxsQ6MkzV2C9Za0V6hbHWH_WG21iyvUdC
Rah Lan Hip, 39, of Jrai ethnicity, was sentenced by the People’s Court of Gia Lai Province to 7 years in prison and 3 years house arrest in August 2019 for his religious activities in the Central Highlands.

“Although the authorities allow many churches and temples within state control to organize worship and offerings, they still forbid religious activities that are contrary to “national interest”, “public order”, or “greater unity”. These arbitrary categories include many ordinary religious activities,” HRW concluded about religious freedom in Vietnam in 2019. 

HRW’s observations reveal that Vietnam has not fulfilled the obligations it stated it had during the country’s Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in June 2019. During the session, Vietnam had “accepted the recommendation” from Italy and Angola to reduce bureaucratic procedures surrounding religious activities. It also accepted a recommendation from Poland guaranteeing that it would carry out the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion in accordance with international standards. In its pledge to the United States, Vietnam agreed to allow Protestants and other groups in its northwest to register their activities; however, it has so far refused to do the same for groups in the Central Highlands. 

See more: When the Central Highlands are no longer home (How did the Thuong people escape the Central Highlands?)

On This Day

15 years ago today, Vietnam permitted Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to return home

“For 40 years, we tried to arrange our return to Vietnam. Finally, in December of 2005, I was given permission to return to my homeland…”

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Art of Power. 

In January of 2005, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, together with approximately 200 individuals, returned to Vietnam. The Vietnamese state allowed him and his Buddhist delegation to return home for 10 weeks.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s first trip back home after 40 years gave him a favorable impression of the government, even though police stringently checked his delegation. His delegation was able to convince the government to allow public prayer sessions in Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi.

However, he was not allowed to meet with dignitaries of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (a Buddhist organization that was re-established in 1991 and repeatedly suppressed by the state) in Ho Chi Minh City. 

This trip was the first time Hanh has been allowed by the Vietnamese authorities to return home since he traveled to the United States to advocate an end to the Vietnam War in 1966. In the entirety of his time overseas, he never stopped advocating an end to the devastating war. Up until 1975, Hanh, along with those inside the country directed social programs, chief among them the Youth School for Social Service and the Committee on Vietnamese Reconstruction and Development. After 1975, Thich Nhat Hanh began programs to rescue refugees escaping Vietnam by boat, along with many other humanitarian activities. 

When the war ended, he settled in Paris and established a center for meditation studies. From then onwards, thousands of people from all over the world became disciples of Hanh and his Plum Village Tradition. Thich Nhat Hanh would become one of world’s most influential Vietnamese. 

Prior to his return in 2005, Hanh’s books were not permitted wide publication inside the country. Even now, a number of his books have not been published in Vietnam, like Lotus in a Sea of Fire. 

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/8zEga7Kzi419PXm94UsEYiQLixiAT56a8XFMHMRiR_etUveVYoQ6hBfRMmEYzBiZzLNTin-RsurZuleyMpFMvsDksKCT9YIuQB7W_1rZU1dhlknICoT-HmPq3aJKdKEOwwlcVLaA
Thich Nhat Hanh and his students walk along a path in Hue, during his first return to Vietnam in 2005. Source: PVCEB.

Did You Know?

The mystery of past new religions in the South 

The South during French colonization and the Republican era saw the birth of many new religions, a few of which are still growing vibrantly to this day.

These religions, when they first emerged, displayed characteristics that today’s government would deem “heretical”, including sharing a foundation with larger religions like Buddhism and Daoism, founders calling themselves the heads of religion, and attracting followers by treating unusual illnesses.   

Let’s go through a number of strange aspects of these past new religions in order to better understand the new religions of today. The religions below have all been recognized by the Vietnamese government. 

Hoa Hao Buddhism 

In 1939, in the village of Hoa Hao, Tan Chau district, Chau Doc province (today known as An Giang province), a young man not yet 20 years old announced that he had lived through several incarnations of suffering and was sent down by the Buddha to “save all living creatures”. From that moment, Hoa Hao Buddhism was born and the young man became the religion’s founder.

That young man was named Huynh Phu So; legend has it he was born emaciated and sickly, but upon his return from the Bay Nui area, he made a complete transformation, speaking eloquently, and possessing an excellent command of Buddhism. 

Concerned about the large following that Hoa Hao Buddhism had, the French colonial authorities accused Huynh Phu So of being mentally ill, had him psychologically treated in Saigon, then put him under house arrest in Bac Lieu. 

See more: The turbulent and tragic history of Hoa Hao Buddhism  

Cao Dai 

If the Cao Dai religion came into existence today, it’s very likely the authorities would find every way to eliminate it due to its mystical nature.  

The Cao Dai religion emerged in the South during French colonial rule. This religion has its roots in an activity that is still seen as superstitious to this day: seances. According to the religion’s history, the first followers of Cao Dai were able to connect to souls that conveyed a request from the Jade Emperor to establish the religion.

Cao Dai’s mission is to unify the “Triple Schools” of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. On top of this, it also fuses five larger religions (Five Branches) into one, including Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, and Confucianism. Because of this, Cao Dai worships 8 individuals who represent the Triple Schools and the Five Branches.

See more: Squarely in the South, the origins of Cao Dai 

Curious Fragrance of Treasure Mountain

“Curious Fragrance of Treasure Mountain” is a religion that emerged in the middle of the 19th century. It was founded in the Mekong River Delta by a man whose identity is still unclear, a man named Doan Minh Huyen, born in 1807.

According to Tran Van Dong, folk tales claim that Doan Minh Huyen was able to attract many followers because he was able to heal people using natural water; he would give sick people ashen water and fresh flowers to consume as an offering to the Buddha. Doan Minh Huyen also announced a Long Hoa Festival, where Maitreya would appear and receive practitioners.

Curious Fragrance of Treasure Mountain is a religion whose foundation is Buddhism; however, unlike Buddhism, it does not require followers to leave their homes (to become monks or nuns), eat vegetarian, or set up costly altars; rather, its followers simply worship a red sheet of fabric. 

Translated by Will Nguyen

Religion

Vietnam Officially Announces National Decline In The Number Of Buddhist Followers, Shocking Its Buddhist Sangha

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Graphics: Luat Khoa Magazine. Photo courtesy: Buddhist demonstration in Saigon in 1963 (left, source: Posterazzi). Buddhist followers at a ceremony at Hoang Phap Pagoda in 2010 (right photo, source: Hoang Phap Pagoda).

According to Vietnam’s official statistics, in 2019, the religion with the largest number of followers in the country is Catholics with 5.9 million people. The number of followers of Buddhism is 4.6 million, ranking second. However, the numbers reported by this census contradict statistics from other state agencies, leading religious leaders and followers in Vietnam to question its accuracy.

The Giac Ngo Newspaper – a Buddhist media – reported that this news “shocked” some monks, and that some  believers “burst into tears” when they heard the news. Many people naturally assumed that Vietnam would have more Buddhists than any other religious group.

However, over the years, followers, monks and as well as senior sangha officials in Vietnam, have gone from one disappointment to another because the number of Buddhists has fallen dramatically in state statistics.

The number of Buddhists in the 2009 Population and Housing Census was 6.8 million, a decrease of about 300,000 compared to 1999. Even so, Buddhism remained the religion with the largest number of followers in Vietnam.

The situation only changed with the 2019 census results.

In that year, the government announced that the number of Buddhists decreased by 30 percent compared to 2009. From 2019, Buddhism has lost its top position in the number of followers in Vietnam according to the State census.

Over the past 50 years, Vietnam’s general population increased, but the number of Buddhist followers decreased

Buddhism – a religion of about 2,000 years of development in Vietnam – now has only 4.6 million followers, accounting for about 4.78 percent of the total population.

Meanwhile, the number of people who claimed to be Buddhist in the Republic of Vietnam (which only consisted of the south of Vietnam and a portion of the center) in 1963 was 9 to 11 million, accounting for 70 percent to 80 percent of the south’s total population as stated in the estimates that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) compiled that year.

The current figure of 4.6 million Buddhists is also less than the number of followers identified by the CIA as active Buddhists in the Republic of Vietnam in 1974, which was about 5-6 million.

After 1975, the vibrant religious culture in the south suffered a period of “government watch” for more than 15 years. During that time period, major religions were restricted in their practices and the smaller religions were completely banned.

According to State Magazine, a research journal of the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the first two censuses of 1979 and 1989, Vietnam did not record the number of religious followers.

By the early 1990s, Vietnam began to officially recognize the religions that were previously popular in the South but which were banned after 1975, such as Hoa Hao and Cao Dai Buddhism. In 1999, the government started to keep statistics on the number of religious followers in the country.

Nevertheless, as more statistics were completed, it was observed that the number of Buddhist followers were reported as having fallen. Throughout the three censuses (in 1999, 2009, and 2019), the number of Buddhists decreased by 35 percent while the national population increased by about 26 percent

Graphics from Luat Khoa Magazine based on the data sources below.

The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha refutes the state figures, but also does not publicize its own membership numbers

Looking back, in 2012, the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam opined about the number of Buddhists in Vietnam after the 2009 census results were published.

Although Most Venerable Thich Bao Nghiem, vice chairman of the board of directors and head of the Board of the Dharma Preaching of the Central Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, acknowledged the 2009 census is quite “large, serious, and objective,” he also said at the time: “The statistical results …. about Buddhism are not accurate for many different reasons.” He explained that in Vietnam, apart from those who claim to follow other religions, the rest are really “followers of Buddhism, who love Buddhism and are influenced by Buddhism”. If one accepts Thich Bao Nghiem’s reasoning, then the number of followers of Buddhism in Vietnam could have been about 78 million in 2009 – which is the number we get when we subtract all people who declared themselves to have a different religion than Buddhism from the national population at that time.

However, in 2019, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha was again surprised when the State census stated that the number of Buddhist followers declined further and that Buddhism was no longer the religion with the most followers in Vietnam.

Despite this continuing disappointment, over the years, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha – with nearly 40 years of operation and the only state-recognized Buddhist organization in the country – still has not published the number of its own followers. The only official figure for Buddhists in Vietnam comes from state statistics.

Meanwhile, other religions have tallied and announced the numbers of their own followers. For example, in 2018, the Vietnam Catholic Bishops’ Council announced that the whole country had about 7 million Catholics (Vietnam’s state statistics put the number at just about 5.86 million). Overseas branches of Hoa Hao Buddhism also stated that there were about 3 million Hoa Hao Buddhists in 2010 (state statistics in 2009 said just 1.3 million).

Figures for the number of Buddhist followers from other state agencies are also inconsistent

Unable or unwilling to declare the number of its own Buddhist believers, the Buddhist Sangha currently uses statistics from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

Accordingly, the Sangha often uses the estimate given by Tran Thi Minh Nga that she used when she wrote an article in 2014 on the website of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Nga said that up to June 2010, Buddhism had had about 10 million followers in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the number of Buddhists in 2009 announced by the General Statistics Office was only 6.8 million.

Nga did not cite the data source that she mentioned in her article at that time. In 2014, she was the deputy director of the Buddhist Department of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Currently, she is serving as the deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

In a report on religious freedom in Vietnam in 2019, the US Department of State also used data from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, which in January 2018 stated that about 14.9 percent of the total population was Buddhist. If applying this ratio to the total population in 2019, the number of Buddhists would have been about 14.3 million.

According to Associate Professor Hoang Thu Huong of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, the National University of Hanoi, Buddhist monks believe that Buddhists must include both 1) those believers who take refuge in the Three Jewels or Triple Gem (also known as the “Three Refuges”), and also 2) those who identify themselves as being influenced under Buddhism. Dr. Huong also said that because the criteria for inclined towards Buddhism could not be included in statistics survey questions, and that could be why the number of Buddhist followers differs among different state agencies.

However, during the period of the Republic of Vietnam, the CIA recorded both of these statistics, including active believers (possibly including the Three Refuges) and self-proclaimed and sympathetic Buddhists.


(*) Data sources for the chart listed above.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 18, 2021. The translation was done by Luu Ly.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin, December 2020: Falun Gong Encounters Troubles With The Authorities

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Kon Tum provincial police formally express the government’s position on Falun Gong.

To our readers:

In 2020, we began to publish monthly bulletins on religion in Vietnamese on Luat Khoa and in English on The Vietnamese in order to record events affecting freedom of religion and faith in Vietnam.

In addition to these religion bulletins, Luat Khoa also regularly publishes articles on freedom of religion and it has also created an English-language database on the same topic.

Luat Khoa’s efforts in 2020 on freedom of religion remain modest. To prepare content for 2021, we hope readers will contribute suggestions for religious topics at tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org


[Religion 360*]

Authorities accuse Falun Gong of intending to establish an opposition political force

In December 2020, provincial and municipal authorities continued to block the spread of Falun Gong.

Police and the state-run press have asked citizens not to spread Falun Gong, not to share information regarding the religion on social media, and to report to police anyone “propagandizing” the religion.

Information drawn from the state press indicates that in 2020, the authorities confiscated materials to spread Falun Gong from at least 71 people.

These people were normally stopped as they were individually handing out flyers and gifting keychains and books. No reports indicate that these people spread Falun Gong in any organized manner.

Provincial and municipal authorities have consistently blocked the spread of Falun Gong by citing that the state had yet to permit the distribution of the religion’s flyers.  

However, in December 2020, Kon Tum provincial police took this policy one step further in expressing the government’s position on Falun Gong.

Kon Tum provincial police stated that Falun Gong uses its focus on health and exercise as a cover to lure people into joining the religion. They also accused Falun Gong adherents of asking the government for legal recognition in order to form an opposition political force in Vietnam.

Below are the cities and provinces that have investigated and confiscated materials from Falun Gong practitioners in December 2020.

Hai Duong Province: Keychains with propaganda content confiscated from two people 

According to VTC Newspaper, Thanh Mien district police in Hai Duong Province investigated a 61-year-old woman for promoting  Falun Gong among students on December 2, 2020. 

The woman was investigated by police for handing out keychains containing a link to a Falun Gong website for students. Police confiscated 190 of the woman’s keychains.

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Confiscated keychains containing messages promoting Falun Gong. Photo: Hai Duong Newspaper.

Also in Hai Duong Province, police confiscated 10 greeting cards and 24 keychains belonging to a 26-year-old woman who was handing out materials promoting Falun Gong on December 23, 2020.

Quang Ninh: Falun Gong books and flyers confiscated prior to distribution

On December 29, 2020, Tien Yen district police in Quang Ninh Province reported that they had requested a woman turn in Falun Gong materials that she was storing at her residence. Police confiscated 40 books, 6 flyers, and 10 keychains containing Falun Gong content from the woman.

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Photo: Quang Ninh provincial police.

The items were confiscated for containing material promoting Falun Gong, a religion not yet permitted by the state.

Bac Ninh Province: Two Falun Gong students prevented from proselytizing by police

A number of unsourced photographs and videos shared on social media showed two Falun Gong students in Bac Ninh encountering difficulties with police on the night of December 22, 2020. 

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Photo: Vietnamese History Forum.

According to the photographs and video, a man and a woman dressed in Santa costumes on the occasion of Christmas spread Falun Gong materials in a public area. 

The police officer in the clip stated that a number of Catholics were “upset” at the pair’s actions and reported them. Police ordered the two to the police station for questioning.

State journalists have yet to report on this case.


Head of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism’s Central Oversight Committee prevented from attending prayer ceremony

On December 15-16, 2020, Can Tho city police prevented Mr. Nguyen Van Dien, head of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism’s Central Oversight Committee, from attending a prayer ceremony.

According to the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism, on the afternoon of December 15, 2020, a group of plainclothes individuals from Can Tho city police arrived at Dien’s residence to demand that he not attend an important prayer ceremony at its temple.

On the morning of December 16, 2020, police continued to demand that a driver not take Dien to the ceremony.

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Two Can Tho city police officers sit opposite Dien. Photo: Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism.

The organization’s website stated that police stopped Dien by using COVID-19 and the ban on assemblies as a pretense. However, only Dien was prevented from attending the ceremony. Moreover, other ceremonies in the area were allowed to carry on as normal.

Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism is not recognized by the state. Members of this organization are regularly obstructed at gatherings and events.


Ho Chi Minh City authorities return five religious properties to the Saigon Archdiocese

According to the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee website, municipal authorities  “gifted” five religious properties to the Saigon Archdiocese on December 21, 2020. The reason for this “gift” was not provided.

The Saigon Archdiocese confirmed the return of the religious properties belonging to five parishes: Tan Lap Parish, Cong Thanh Parish (District 2), Tan My Parish (Hoc Mon), Tan Hiep Parish (Hoc Mon), and Binh An Parish (District 8).

The Archdiocese website confirmed that the government had “returned” the properties to them. 

According to Archbishop Nguyen Nang’s statement during a meeting, these were religious properties that the parishes had lent to the state after 1975 to serve as schools. He stated further that the archdiocese was “delighted to receive back the properties, in order to provide necessary services for parishioners” and that he hoped the other properties would also be returned if the city was able to build new schools.

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A meeting between the Saigon Archdiocese and the Ho Chi Minh City authorities on December 2t, 2020.  Photo: Saigon Archdiocese.

After 1975, Catholic organizations in southern Vietnam lent many properties to the state for educational purposes.

To this day, the number of properties lent has not been precisely established. Conflicts between the state and the Catholic church continue to occur.


Thien An Abbey’s shrine to the Virgin Mary vandalized

In December 2020, the area around Thien An Abbey that was dedicated as the shrine to the Virgin Mary (Thua Thien – Hue Province) was trespassed upon by strangers many times.

The monks stated that many stone benches and greenery in the area were vandalized and that the grounds of the shrine were sullied with dirt. The abbey has reported the incident to the authorities, but the area around the shrine continues to be vandalized. 

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Pictures of the vandalized shrine were taken by Thien An Abbey.

For more than 20 years, Thien An Abbey has been in limbo due to a land dispute between the abbey and local residents and Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities.

Events indicate that the authorities and local households have teamed up in their land disputes with the abbey.


Government prevents the Unified Buddhist Sangha from distributing free aid

According to the Unified Buddhist Sangha, Huong Tra commune authorities in Thua Thien – Hue Province prevented the church from distributing free aid to flood victims at the end of December 2020.

Afterwards, authorities confiscated all gift vouchers and prevented residents from coming to Long Quang Monastery to receive free aid. 

The reason authorities gave for the obstruction was that as the Unified Buddhist Sangha was not recognized by the state, and therefore distributing free aid was illegal.


[On This Day]

Letter from the House of Representatives on freedom of religion in Vietnam

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Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Edward R. Royce, and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Daniel J. Kritenbrink. Photo: CFUS News (left), AFP (right).

In December 2017, Mr. Edward R. Royce, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, sent a letter to Mr.  Daniel J. Kritenbrink, US ambassador to Vietnam, to express his concerns about freedom of religion in the country.

In the letter, Royce expressed his concerns about the new Law on Faith and Religion, which was set to go into effect on January 1, 2018.

“I fear that this new law will form the basis for continued mistreatment of those who seek to practice their faith in Vietnam,” he wrote.

Royce’s fears have become a reality. 

In the past three years, state organizations have taken advantage of the law’s nebulous regulations to control religious activities.

Most recently, the Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern branch) had to postpone its clerical congress for not sufficiently meeting the requirements of the Law on Faith and Religion. Specifically, they had not sent the roster of candidates to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs prior to the congress.

Royce’s fears about the Vietnamese government using ambiguous national security concerns as pretext to suppress religious activities also proved to be true. 

In a number of areas in the northwest, authorities have tightly controlled religious activities. The Protestant Church of Christ in the Central Highlands is even seen as a threat to national security. 


If you have any suggestions or would like to join us in writing reports, please email us at: tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org

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Religion

Religion Bulletin, November 2020: The Saigon Archdiocese Sues The Ho Chi Minh City Authorities

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The municipal government is being sued for borrowing a church’s school and not returning it, along with other news.

You’re reading the November 2020 Religion Bulletin.

Religion 360* includes noteworthy stories such as: the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee recently being sued by the Saigon Archdiocese, the Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern region) being unable to hold its congress due to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs’ desire to check the church’s roster of candidates, and state media implicitly confirming that the committee limits proselytizing activities in areas of Dien Bien Province.

On This Day highlights the story of Hoang Duc Oanh, the bishop of Kon Tum Diocese, who was repeatedly prevented from holding mass at parishioners’ residences. Did You Know introduces  the case of the “Barnyard” Protestant Church. 

[Religion 360*]

More than 40 years after Thi Nghe Parish lent the school to the state, usage rights of the Phuoc An – Thi Nghe Private School today belong to Phu Dong Elementary School. Photo: Ho Chi Minh City Office of Education – Training.

The Saigon Archdiocese sues the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, demands the return of the Phuoc An – Thi Nghe School

On November 30, 2020, the Saigon Archdiocese granted Father Phero Nguyen Thanh Tung, head of Thi Nghe parish, the authority to file suit against the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee for granting usage rights of two of the church’s school grounds to another entity. 

The suit was sent to the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court.

Prior to 1975, these two school grounds were the site of the Phuoc An – Thi Nghe Private School, managed by Thi Nghe Parish.

After 1975, the parish executed a form handing the two school grounds over to the state for use as a public school, today known as Phu Dong Elementary School, at 22B Xo Viet Nghe Tinh St., 19th Ward, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City.

However, in July 2020, the Binh Thanh District People’s Committee notified Thi Nghe Parish that the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee granted Phu Dong Elementary School the usage rights to these two school grounds in 2013.

After receiving the notice, the parish stated that although it lent the schools to the state, it still owned them outright, based on a 1975 agreement between the Ho Chi Minh City Office of Education and the Vietnamese Catholic Education Contact Committee. 

In the lawsuit, the parish proposed that the court strike down the decision granting usage rights of the two school grounds to Phu Dong Elementary School and re-confirm the parish’s ownership of them.

We will continue to provide updates regarding this case.

The Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern region) postpones its congress due to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs’ demand to see the church’s roster of candidates

Photo: The Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern region).

On November 25, 2020, the Greater Federation of the Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern region) postponed its congress of the clergy due to a lack of a permit from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

Afterwards, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs requested the church abide by Article 34 of the Law on Faith and Religion. According to the article, a church must provide the Government Committee for Religious Affairs the roster of candidates for the clergy. Only when this roster is approved by the government committee can the congress can be organized.

The church stated that its clergy selections, organized according to its own constitution, were always recognized by the state, that it had always tended the list of winning candidates to the government after the selections. 

Currently, the church still has not received any word regarding the upcoming congress.

This case reveals the extent to which the Law on Faith and Religion (2016) exercises control over religious organizations. The state does not treat religious organizations in Vietnam as civil entities. Recently, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs even sought to control the religious activities of Vietnamese residing overseas.

Did the government establish no-proselytizing zones in Muong Nhe District? 

Public Security agents advising residents not to follow new religions. Photo: VOV.

Throughout the past year, state journalists have regularly reported on the religious situation in the northwest, a treacherous, mountain area populated by local ethnic minorities.

In a Voice of Vietnam (VOV) web article published November 20, 2020 on religious activities in the Muong Nhe District of Dien Bien Province, an ethnic minority villager stated: “I studied to become a pastor in Ho Chi Minh City, so I understand religion. I only propagate among groups (religious activities) permitted by the state; if the state does not grant permission, then I won’t propagate.”

In the same article, Mr. Vui Van Nguyen, chairman of the Muong Nhe District People’s Committee, stated that the authorities were closely monitoring “18 groups yet to receive permission to conduct religious activities.” The government sends cadres and police down to the groups regularly to ascertain their histories and activities. 

Furthermore, the religious groups must register their syllabi every year.  Religious activities such as Christmas and Lunar New Year must receive government permission.

The article reveals that the government seems to be establishing areas in which it limits the transmission of religion, applying rather strict controls over Muong Nhe District.

The northwest region is an area religious activists have difficulty accessing, partly due to the government’s strict controls, but also partly due to the religious community’s relative isolation from activists. News of religious conflicts in the area rarely made it to the general public.

German parliamentarian sponsors Hoa Hao Buddhist currently serving prison sentence 

German parliamentarian Martin Patzelt and Hoa Hao Buddhist Bui Van Tham. Photo: WELT (left), RFA (right).

On November 26th, 2020, German parliamentarian Martin Patzelt announced that he was sponsoring a Hoa Hao Buddhist prisoner of conscience, Bui Van Tham, 3), currently serving a six-year prison sentence.

Tham was arrested in June 2017, and he was later sentenced to six years in prison for disturbing public order and obstruction of officials. Five others were sentenced in the same case, including Tham’s parents and older sister. Currently, Tham’s father and sister are still serving their sentences.

Martin stated to the RFA that he sought to galvanize prisoners of conscience with this sponsorship and that he also hoped that his action might improve the  treatment of people behind bars. He said further that he hoped his  act would also show the Vietnamese government that the international community was carefully following Hanoi’s incarceration of prisoners of conscience. 

Tham’s case began on April 19, 2017, when police prevented individuals from attending a death anniversary at Tham’s residence. Traffic police handed out administrative fines and confiscated the vehicles of those in attendance. Immediately afterwards, Tham’s family along with two other practitioners organized a protest directly in traffic to oppose the authorities’ suppression of religion. 

Using traffic police to obstruct religious practitioners from congregating is a well-worn government tactic. Tham’s family is one of many Hoa Hao Buddhist families who have been oppressed in An Giang Province. Prior to this case, Tham and his father had previously served time in jail for allegedly disturbing public order. 

Prisoner of conscience in the case of the “Bia Son Public Justice Council” released early

Ms. Do Thi Hong (left), who was released early, and Mr. Le Trong Cu, another defendant in the case.  Photo: People’s Public Security Daily.

On November 2t, 2020, the human rights organization BPSOS reported  that a practitioner of the An Dan religion, Do Thi Hong, 63, was released four years and three months early from prison. In 2013, Hong was sentenced to 13 years in prison for allegedly acting to overthrow the state.

According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, Hong was charged with this crime after participating in the Bia Son Public Justice Council, an organization that the government stated was using religious activities and ecological travel to overthrow the state. However, state journalists did not specify Hong’s role in the case. 

Before he was held in pre-trial detention, Mr. Nguyen Thai Binh, another defendant in the case, told RFA that the Bia Son Public Justice Council was simply a religious organization where its members also had a travel business. Binh was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Twenty others were sentenced in the same case; one was given probation, 18 were sentenced from 12 to 17 years in prison, and the last was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

[On This Day]

Authorities prevent Bishop Hoang Duc Oanh of Kon Tum Diocese from holding mass at parishioners’ residences

Bishop Hoang Duc Oanh when he served as the Bishop at Kon Tum Diocese.  Photo: Kon Tum Diocese.

In November 2010, Hoang Duc Oanh, bishop of Kon Tum Diocese, relayed the story of how Gia Lai provincial authorities prevented him from holding mass at parishioners’ residences. 

The story could very well have taken place hundreds of years ago, when Catholicism was ruthlessly persecuted in Vietnam.  

In September 2010, Bishop Hoang Duc Oanh sent a letter to the chairman of the Gia Lai Province People’s Committee recounting how provincial police harassed parishioners.

After a mass was held at the house of a Kon Chro District resident, police invited the resident in for questioning several days in a row. Police forced this individual to sign a form acknowledging illegal assembly and pledging to no longer allow mass to be held in his residence. In K’Bang district, the bishop stated that residents were so terrified that no one dared to offer their house for mass.

In the letter, the bishop also requested the authorities allow the construction of a church in each district so that residents would have a place to practice their faith.

After two months of no response regarding the construction of churches, Bishop Oanh continued to travel to say masses. After mass was over at a residence in Kon Chro District, police arrived to issue a warning to the homeowner. Police issued reprimand reports to the next two houses. Upon arriving in K’Bang district, Bishop Oanh’s 16-member entourage was blocked by civil defense, who awaited further instructions from commune authorities. After receiving no response from commune authorities, the entire entourage returned home.

The next day, two families that had organized the mass were invited in for questioning by the Commune People’s Committee. They were accused of illegally holding a mass and had to sign forms promising not to repeat the offense.

The Central Highlands is among the most religiously restrictive areas in Vietnam.  Bishop Oanh stated that there were districts in the area called “white districts”, where there was no religion; anyone who chose to live or work in the area either had to give up their religion or practice no religion at all.

[Did You Know] 

Case of the “Barnyard” Protestant Church

Ten years ago, in the 28th Ward of Binh Thanh District (Ho Chi Minh City), there was a Protestant church that operated in a dilapidated shed, a shed that was once a barnyard. 

The founder of the church was a tailor who had unjustly lost his land. In turn, he helped others sue for their land, and he even served two years in prison after he was charged with insulting the district chairman in 2004.

In 2007, he founded a Protestant church in a friend’s barnyard. The barnyard was also the place he, his disabled wife, and their son stayed after their home was cleared away by the authorities.

That man was Pastor Duong Kim Khai of the Vietnamese Mennonite Church. After operating the church for three years, the number of attendees grew to about 20. Pastor Khai even established the “Barnyard” Protestant Church in Ben Tre Province. Many of this church’s attendees were residents who had unjustly lost their land.

In 2010, the church was rocked by an event that nearly destroyed it.

A religious gathering at the “Barnyard” Protestant Church. Photo: VPEF.

In August 2010, Pastor Khai was arrested and charged with “acting to overthrow the people’s government.” In May 2011, Khai was tried along with six others, including four who belonged to his church in Ben Tre Province.

Afterwards, Khai and two other defendants were accused of participating in Viet Tan, an overseas political party which has been categorized as a terrorist group and banned in Vietnam. Viet Tan, at that time, also subsequently confirmed this fact.

The preliminary trial in Ben Tre Province sentenced Khai to six years in prison. Three of the other six defendants were sentenced to five, seven, and eight years. The remaining three were sentenced to two years in prison for the same crime of “acting to overthrow the people’s government”.

Lawyer Huynh Van Dong, who defended Khai and the other defendants, stated that none of his clients violated either Vietnamese law or international law. 

After the initial trial, Dong was expelled from the Dak Lak Lawyers Association for not respecting the tribunal, not paying dues, and not participating in trials assigned by the association.  

The initial trial was virtually closed to the public. Victims of injustice and practitioners of the “Barnyard” Protestant Church had police show up on their doorstep and demand they not come to the trial. Security was tight around the courthouse. The American diplomatic mission from its embassy in Vietnam requested to attend the trial but was denied permission.

In August 2011, during the appellate trial in Ho Chi Minh City, Pastor Khai’s sentence was reduced to five years in prison.

Pastor Khai completed his sentence in August 2015. His wife had passed away three years before. The barnyard no longer remained, and he and his son were forced to stay at the house of a fellow pastor.

Pastor Duong Kim Khai before and after serving his sentence. He left prison in 2015. Photo: RFI (left), Dan Luan (right).

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