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Religion Bulletin – June 2020

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Followers return home from the jungle, land disputes, Vietnam objects to US report.

Many religion-related events transpired in June 2020, including a dispute between an independent Cao Dai temple and registered Cao Dai followers, and a land dispute between a Catholic parish and a Buddhist abbey and local authorities, all covered along with other news in [Religion 360°]. Find out how independent Cao Dai temples have been bullied in past years in [Did you know?].

We welcome your suggestions and collaboration on reports. Email us at tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org.

[Religion 360°]

Three ethnic Bana arrested, but not prosecuted, for following the Ha Mon religion, after nine years of hiding in the jungle.

Three ethnic Bana: Ju, 56, Lup, 50; and Kunh, 32, were arrested on March 19, 2020, after nine years of hiding in the jungle. Authorities allowed them to return home and did not press any charges against them.

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From left: Kunh (second), Ju (third), and Lup (fifth). Photo: TTXVN.

All three were allowed to return home to “draw from experience and educate themselves before the people” in their home villages on June 3, 2020. This method is commonly used to deter residents in areas that the authorities deem susceptible to religion.

State journalists published a flurry of articles describing the Vietnamese state’s lenient policy towards those who repent after joining religious groups not approved by the government. 

Newspapers that published stories regarding the return of these three include: Public Security, Vietnam News Agency, and Vietnam Plus.

According to the above reports, the three were not involved in any anti-state activities or foreign organizations, but had hid in the jungle for nine consecutive years because they feared punishment from the authorities for following the Ha Mon religion. 

Independent religious practitioners in the Central Highlands often abscond to the jungle to avoid being hunted down by police. Many then proceed to contact relatives while in hiding to bring them over to Thailand or Cambodia as refugees. Services transporting people across borders are commonplace among independent religious practitioners in the Central Highlands.

Vietnamese journalists mobilized to oppose 2019 international report on religion authored by the United States

On June 11, 2020, many newspapers in Vietnam published articles related to a 2019 international report on religion authored by the United States.

The articles could be divided into two categories. The first simply conveyed the Foreign Ministry’s opposition. The second asserted the American report was inaccurate and distorted the religious situation in Vietnam.

Nation and Development, an extension of the National Committee – Forum of Compatriots for Vietnam’s Ethnic Groups, said the report was slander and contained false information regarding the religious situation in Vietnam. The paper stated that these kinds of reports serve to help “hostile forces” overthrow the state.

The Times, a publication of the People’s Daily, stated that the United States “lacked logic” by putting out this report instead of focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the country and the “equally negative turmoil regarding African-American George Floyd”.

The article in The Times also asserted that the American report was unable to differentiate between “those who genuinely practiced their faith or religion and those who used faith or religion to propagate superstitions and anti-government sentiments”. 

An independent Cao Dai temple in Phu Yen Province falls victim to bullying 

According to RFA, on the morning of June 18, 2020, independent followers of Hieu Xuong Temple in Tuy Hoa City, Phu Yen Province, attempted to protect the institution from their state-registered counterparts, who planned to seize the building.

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A dispute at Hieu Xuong Temple on June 18, 2020. Photo: Công Danhboy’s Facebook account.

The independent Cao Dai followers told RFA that approximately 60 registered followers came with police to their temple, which was built in 1964. 

RFA quoted Hieu Xuong Temple overseer Nguyen Ha as stating that the registered followers brought an administrative order to confiscate the temple.

Hieu Xuong Temple followers closed the gates to prevent the confiscation until 11 am that day, when the registered group dispersed.

Overseer Cao Van Minh, who is currently managing the temple, told RFA that he simply wanted the institution to be able to practice independently. 

Hieu Xuong Temple is among a number of temples that remained independent after 1975, refusing to join the state-sanctioned Cao Dai bloc. These independent temples regularly face harassment from the authorities and the state-sanctioned Cao Dai bloc. Currently, there are no statistics on the number of independent Cao Dai temples operating.

High school principal stripped of all party positions after practicing Falun Gong with others at his home

At the end of June 2020, Vietnamese journalists reported on Tran Huu Duc, a 41-year-old principal of a school in Quang Tri Province, due to his affiliation with the Falun Gong.

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 Tran Huu Duc. Photo: Cua Tung High School.

According to Traffic Newspaper, Quang Tri provincial police reported him to the Vinh Linh suburban district committee after discovering that he was propagating and practicing Falun Gong with others at his home.

Afterward, the suburban district standing committee requested that he cease congregating people in his home and stop distributing Falun Gong materials. 

On May 15, 2020, Duc tore up the forms he had completed with the Vinh Linh suburban district committee. Shortly after, Duc also returned to them the form for party members who showed signs of infringement. After Duc’s defiant acts, the suburban district committee decided to strip him of all party positions in the 2020-2025 term, and also suggested that the Office of Education and Training discipline him. 

In March 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs announced that all localities should be on strict guard for those who might try to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to conduct illegal religious proselytizing. As of May 2020, local police had arrested at least 23 people for spreading Falun Gong.

State newspapers warn against the activities of two unregistered sects

At the start of June 2020, Voice of Vietnam’s news page reported there were currently many Protestant sects illegally operating in Vietnam. 

The article focused on two sects with South Korean origins, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus and the World Mission Society Church of God. It reported that these two religious organizations were operating surreptitiously, disrupting social order in Vietnam, and destroying familial and societal traditions.

The article also warned residents not to participate in the activities of these two sects.

Nguyễn Hồng Phong, vice director of the Internal Security Bureau (Ministry of Public Security) stated that Vietnam currently had approximately 70 unregistered Protestant organizations, with around 200,000 followers.

Land dispute between Dong Dinh Parish and Ninh Binh provincial authorities 

At the end of May and beginning of June 2020, the members of Dong Dinh Parish, in Nho Quan suburban district, Ninh Binh Province, stated that they had been deceived by local and provincial authorities, who had taken their land but not returned it as agreed.

According to information from Dong Dinh Parish, at the beginning of 2019, the parish had a back-and-forth with local authorities about the need to expand parish land. 

In April 2019, 12 households with land bordering the parish agreed to donate 4.5 hectares of agricultural land and merge it with the church.

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The large piece of land outlined in red is the 4,569 square meter piece of land that the 12 households donated to the Dong Dinh Parish in order to expand the church land outlined in orange. Photo: Dong Dinh Parish.

On May 22, Dong Dinh Parish submitted an application to expand its parish to include the land that the 12 households had donated to the Ninh Binh Province People’s Committee, the Nho Quan Suburban District People’s Committee, and the Huu Thuong Commune People’s Committee.

In September, representatives of the Nho Quan Religious Front guided the 12 houses in filling out the application to return the land to the government so that provincial authorities could then confer the land back to Dong Dinh Parish.

On May 28, 2020, Huu Thuong commune authorities allowed workers onto the land that the 12 households donated to conduct measurements and announce the construction of a dyke between current parish land and the donated land to prevent flooding. 

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The red line indicates the position of the dyke commune authorities planned to build to prevent flooding. Photo: Dong Dinh Parish.

On May 29, parishioners decided to cordon off the donated land with wire mesh, placing seven holy statues in different places to prevent trespassing.

Afterwards, the government, Dong Dinh Parish, and parishioners had a dialogue but were unable to reach an agreement.

Unknown persons trespass upon Thien An Monastery’s forests 

On June 12, 2020, Thien An Monastery announced that individuals had trespassed upon the monastery’s pine forests to cut down trees.

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Bamboo groves on monastery land were surreptitiously chopped down. Photo: Thien An Monastery.

The abbots were able to prevent the would-be choppers but do not know who organized the action. Many older-aged trees within a one-square-hectare space were cut into but not felled, so that they would die slowly of natural causes.

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A pine tree which the abbey estimated to be more than 60 years old was deeply sawed into, ensuring its death. Photo: Thien An Monastery.

Thien An Monastery was officially constructed in 1943 on land which today includes approximately 107 hectares of land, homes, and pine forests owned by the monastery. It is located in Thuy Bang Commune, Huong Thuy Suburban District, Thua Thien–Hue Province.

In the past 20 years, Thien An Monastery and Thua Thien–Hue provincial authorities have butted heads over how to use the monastery’s land. Events such as forest burnings, trespassings, and authorities harassing abbots have occurred repeatedly in past years.

In April 2019, more than 10 hectares of the monastery’s pine forests were burned in one night. According to the abbey, the area burned was only 200 meters away from the Tien Phong Arboretum but no alerts were issued.

Did you know?

Independent Cao Dai temples continue to be bullied over the years

For many decades, independent Cao Dai temples have operated under duress, unsure of when their temple would be repossessed by “state-sanctioned Cao Dai”. 

The Cao Dai religion has been recognized by the state since 1997. At that time, a new sect called Sect 1997, or “state-sanctioned Cao Dai,” was established to control the religion, a move which independent Cao Dai followers inside and outside the country have criticized. 

The incident at Hieu Xuong Temple above is but one of many conflicts that have occurred over the years as Sect 1997 and local cadres try to expropriate independent Cao Dai temples.

At the beginning of 2020, as an independent Cao Dai temple in Ben Tre Province was carrying out its normal rituals, local cadres and authorities came to “conduct work”. The independent adherents saw this as harassment and refused to cooperate. 

In 2017, the independent adherents of Hoai Nhon Temple in Binh Dinh Province were harassed by the authorities as they were preparing to carry out a ritual. That same year, Dong Thap provincial authorities harassed independent followers in Tam Nong Suburban District and repossessed their temple to give to Sect 1997. The followers in Tam Nong were then convinced by the authorities to conform to Sect 1997.

In 2015, an independent Cao Dai family in Tay Ninh Province told RFA they were assaulted by a member of Sect 1997 when they organized a gathering at their home with other independent adherents. The family alerted the authorities, who did not intervene. 

In 2012, according to RFA, independent Cao Dai followers of Phu My Temple in Binh Dinh Province were assaulted by “state-sanctioned” adherents, injuring six people. According to the independent followers, police were present but did not intervene. 

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Photo of the scuffle that broke out between followers of the Phu My Temple and “state-organized” followers in Binh Dinh Province on September 16, 2012. Photo: DVOV/BPSOS.

According to BPSOS, these disputes are part of plans by Sect 1997 to increase control over independent Cao Dai followers and push them to conform to the sect.

Currently, there are no accurate and updated statistics regarding the number of independent Cao Dai temples nor any news regarding the current dispute with Sect 1997. We hope to gather more information regarding the independent Cao Dai temples in the near future. Please send any information you have to tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@the vietnamese.org.

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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