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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

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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:

https://www.luatkhoa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/image1-2.png
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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