The Report on Religious Freedom in Vietnam is published each month. If you would like to contribute information to the report, please send it to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the [The Government Hand] and [On This Day] we explore why religions are not able to grow in the face of strict government discriminatory policies regarding land rights. In the section [Religion 360°] read about how the government continues to harass Falun Gong proselytizers, about four religious rights activists in the Central Highlands who were interrogated and other monthly news. The [Did You Know?] section may surprise you with the news that there are four religions that have suffered as much as a 90 percent loss of followers.
The Government’s Hand
Land Rights Disputes and Discriminatory Governmental Policies to control the growth and development of religious organizations
For more than 45 years after the fall of Saigon, religious organizations continued to demand that the government return their lands and real properties which the authorities had “confiscated or borrowed”. A few of these real properties were turned into restaurants or hotels, while some others had been turned into hospitals and government buildings during the last four decades.
The long wait to for the return of land and real properties that the government “borrowed”
On July 18, 2020, Thien An Monastery submitted a petition to the People’s Commission of Thua Thien – Hue Province and the Tien Phong Forestry Company to demand the return of St. Mary’s School, which the government had “borrowed” (in reality, it was a forced extortion) in 1976. Tien Phong Forestry Company is owned by the People’s Commission of Thua Thien – Hue Province.
From the allegations in the above-referenced petition, the government transferred the right to use St. Mary’s School and its related real property and land in close proximity to Tien Phong Forestry Company. Thien An Monastery alleged that the Tien Phong Forestry Company had sold or given these real properties to people and businesses to build personal villas and restaurants.
Petition dated July 18, 2020. Photo courtesy: Thien An Monastery
After 1975, the new regime interfered with the land rights of religious organizations in the south of Vietnam. The government extorted the lands of “unrecognized” religious organizations such as Hoa Hao Buddhism, Cao Dai, and the Baha’i Faith. For the “recognized” and larger religions, such as Catholicism and Buddhism, the government “borrowed” real properties and land from them.
Until the 2000’s, land disputes between the Catholic Church and the Vietnamese government continued to be tense as the regime began to permanently transform the land and real properties it had taken from religious organizations into development projects for both private enterprises and government businesses.
In 2013, the Archdiocese of Hanoi announced that there were 95 homes and real properties of the archdiocese currently being extorted by the government. In Ho Chi Minh City, about 400 homes and lands of the Catholic Church were confiscated by the government after 1975.
At the end of 2008, the government issued Decision 1940/CT-TTg to direct local authorities to review the lands and real properties which used to belong to religious organizations that the government confiscated or borrowed since 1975. In that decision, the government advised the local authorities to reassess how the lands and real properties that belonged to the religious organizations had been used so that they could decide if they would continue their use, return them to the organizations, or give the organizations other real properties to replace the ones that had been taken.
The details of how Decision 1940/CT-TTg was carried out in reality were not widely publicized. But we have found a report from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs in 2011 that summarized the results of over 2 years in compliance with Decision 1940/CT-TTg. The government stated that 7,102 religious structures in 33 provinces received the right to use land.
However, in 2015, Vietnam’s Ministry of Construction disclosed that the petitions and litigations regarding land rights involving buildings and real properties of religious organizations continued to increase and had become more complicated. These buildings and real properties all belonged to the category in which the Vietnamese government had borrowed or confiscated them.
Following the national election in 2016, it is almost certain that the government stopped discussing this decision in Vietnam.
At present, the land dispute between religious organizations and the government is mostly focused on the large and organized religions that have sufficient power to stand up to the government, such as the Catholic Church and the Protestant.
The other religions, such as the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Baha’i, Cao Dai, etc., seem to have accepted the government’s arrangement, or else do not actively make public the land rights problem between them and the government.
Religious organizations face danger when their lands and real properties are located in high-price areas that are part of the government’s planning scheme
During the history of religious development in Vietnam, many of the real properties belonging to religious organizations were located in the highest priced lands around the country. Furthermore, with the fast economic development in Vietnam, many provincial governments have developed planning schemes for their cities which include lands belonging to religious organizations.
In 2015, the Redemptorist Church of Nha Trang strongly protested the decision of the government to lease an abbey located in one of the highest priced lands in the city. The government confiscated this abbey from the Redemptorists Church of Nha Trang in 1978. The church petitioned many times for the return of the abbey in 1996, 2006, and 2008, but these demands yielded no results. At present,, the government has leased this abbey to a private enterprise until 2062 for the construction of a commercial building and a hotel.
In the picture above, the abbey belonging to the Redemptorist Church of Nha Trang was confiscated by the government in 1978 (Smaller inset photo courtesy of the 459 Signal Battalion) and later became the Hai Yen Hotel. In 2015, the government continued to lease this land to build a commercial building and 40-story hotel. (Larger photo courtesy of Beau Rivage Nha Trang).
On the location beside the Saigon River next to District One – the financial center and the local government’s headquarters of Ho Chi Minh City – the government has been trying to gradually reduce the land and real properties once belonging to the Thu Thiem Congregation of the Holy Cross Lovers.
According to a RFA report, after 1975, the new regime “borrowed” a few schools operated by the Thu Thiem Congregation to build new public schools. In 2016, the government ordered the closure and abandonment of a cemetery belonging to the congregation. In 2018, the Ho Chi Minh City government ordered the relocation of the Thu Thiem Church to build new roads along the riverside. However, because of public outrage over that decision, one year later, the government agreed to not relocate the church, but that other real properties belonging to the church would be closed to accommodate the road building project.
The Carmelite Church in Hanoi also faced the same dispute with the government as the Thu Thiem Congregation, but was a lot less fortunate. From 2012 to 2016, the government started to demolish churches and monasteries that belonged to the Carmelite Church located at 72 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Hanoi, to build a new section of Saint Paul’s (Xanh Pôn) Hospital. The government has since completely demolished the churches and the monasteries of the Carmelite Church.
According to the Archdiocese of Hanoi, it had never authorized the transfer or donating of these lands and real properties to the government. In addition, the government is currently using four other locations belonging to the Archdiocese to run a hospital. The Archdiocese of Hanoi stated that the church and monastery of the Carmelite Church should not be demolished.
Land policies especially designed for religious organizations
Religious organizations in Vietnam suffered tremendous losses when their lands and real properties were confiscated by the regime after 1975. More than that, the land policies during the last decades greatly hampered the ability of religions to grow and develop.
The government has established and maintained land policies designed to discriminate against religious groups.
In Vietnam, while the land theoretically belongs to all of the people, in reality, entrepreneurs and individual citizens can buy and sell land as the law allows people to “transfer and receive land usage rights.” However, religious organizations are not allowed to practice this right because they have to follow rules and regulations that only apply to religious groups.
Vietnam’s current Land Law 2013 specifies that religious organizations may only have land when the provincial government allows them to do so. Religious organizations recognized by the government have to petition provincial governments when they want to expand their real properties and land. The provincial government will decide whether to approve a petition or not. If people want to donate land to a religious organization, then the government will need to approve the request by a religious group to receive such land. The government then will receive the title of the lands and transfer it to the religious organization.
This policy has in fact limited the expansion of religious groups in Vietnam. Even when religious organizations gather enough money, they cannot freely buy land to expand their operations without government approval.
In 2014, the Baha’i Faith petitioned the government and requested that their lands and real properties that were confiscated after 1975 be returned to them. The Vietnamese government recognized the Baha’i Faith as a religion in 2008, but up until 2014, it still could not operate because it did not have any locations to build structures for their religion. As a result, six years after the religion was officially recognized by the government, the Baha’i Faith still has not received any of its former land or real properties to practice their faith. Compared to before 1975 when the group owned hundreds of locations to practice their religion, nowadays, the Baha’i Faith only has two locations. One is in Ho Chi Minh City and the other is in Danang.
Another issue with the government’s land policy is that these religious organizations have often gotten into trouble with the government.
One example is a case that happened in June 2020 in Ninh Binh Province. After receiving land from 12 individual households who wanted to donate them to the Dong Dinh Parish, the provincial government did not give the land to the parish. Instead, it announced that it will use the land between the parish and the 12 lots that these individuals wanted to donate to build a river-bank dike.
Dong Dinh Parish stated that the white curve in the photograph marks the donated land on which the government announced it would build a dike. Photo courtesy: Dong Dinh Parish.
The government often announced that it had provided sufficient assistance to religious organizations to obtain lands because it did not charge any administrative fee for land rights transfers. However, in reality, this land policy has prevented the development of religions in Vietnam. Religious organizations cannot develop and expand if they cannot freely engage in transferring land usage rights like any other individual or entity in Vietnam.
This land policy also created significant difficulty for religions that are not recognized by the government. It is illegal to practice religion on personal property in Vietnam. Therefore, religions like Hoa Hao Buddhism, CaoDaism, and the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam face the risk of being in conflict with the government.
Police in Ha Tinh broke into the private practicing place of 28 Falun Gong proselytizers
According to Ha Tinh Newspaper, at 3 pm on July 18, 2020, the police of Cam Vinh Ward, Cam Xuyen District, Ha Tinh Province, reported that they had disbursed a gathering of 28 people who were practicing Falun Gong exercises at someone’s residence in that area.
A video of the incident recorded by the police showed 28 middle-aged people sitting together in front of a television, watching and practicing Falun Gong exercises.
Lieutenant Dang The Long, the head of the Cam Vinh Ward police, stated that the gathering of people to practice Falun Gong, which is not a religion recognized by the government, was unlawful and could disturb the peace in the area.
At present, Falun Gong practitioners often gather in public parks and on beaches to practice. So far, there have not been any reports that police were intervening in the practice of Falun Gong. However, the government does not allow people to gather in large groups in a private residence to practice Falun Gong.
From March to May 2020, the police of Ha Tinh Province fined at least five individuals for disseminating materials about Falun Gong.
Twenty-eight Falun Gong proselytizers in a home where the Ha Tinh Police conducted an investigation. (Top photo courtesy: Ha Tinh News). A group of Falun Gong practitioners practice at a beachside in Danang. (Bottom photo courtesy: Youtube/Nguyen Trong The).
An Announcer of Ha Tinh Radio and Broadcasting was temporarily suspended from his job for disseminating Falun Gong materials
On July 24, 2020, Nguoi Viet Daily News, citing information from social media, reported a disciplinary decision by Ha Tinh Radio and Broadcasting to discipline an announcer because he had disseminated Falun Gong materials.
According to the news report, the announcer disseminated information about Falun Gong on his social media account. This conduct was found to be a violation of his company’s “policies and internal regulations.” The order also stated that formal disciplinary action will be decided after the matter has been thoroughly investigated.
In June 2020, a principal of a high school in Quang Tri Province was disciplined after he gathered a group of people to practice Falun Gong at his house.
Four religious rights activists were investigated by the police after meeting with a group from America about the freedom of religion in Vietnam
Independent journalist Vo Ngoc Luc reported that on July 17, 2020, Pastor Nguyen Ngoc Khanh was interrogated by the police of Buon Me Thuot City, Dak Lak Province. The police stated that the interrogation was related to a “meeting with foreign individuals and organizations.” Prior to his interrogation, Pastor Nguyen Ngoc Khanh had met with a group from the United States to discuss freedom of religion.
Similarly, Mr. Y Kuan E Ban (often referred to as Ama Sim) was also interrogated by the police of Cuor Dang Ward, Cu M’gar District, Dak Lak Province. The local authorities came to his house during the night of July 15, 2020 and asked him to cooperate with them. The local government investigated him at his home and stated Y Kuan E Ban “had practiced Protestantism unlawfully” with 40 other people and asked him to go to the People’s Committee Office of the ward the next day. The next day, Y Kuan was interrogated by the local authorities about his meeting with the American group about freedom of religion.
On the left, the invitation to Pastor Nguyen Ngoc Khanh; on the right, the investigative report of Y Kuan E Ban. Photo courtesy: Vo Ngoc Luc
Another case was reported by Human Rights and Justice for Indigenous People of Vietnam. Specifically, the Cu Kuin District police invited Mr. Y Quy Bdap and Pastor Y Khen Bdap to their station on July 23, 2020 to discuss “how to work together to ensure public safety in that location.”
The invitations were sent by the police of Cu Kuin District to Pastor Y Khen Bdap and Y Quy Bdap on July 22, 2020. Photo courtesy: Human Rights and Justice for Indigenous People of Vietnam.
However, during the interrogation on the morning of July 23, 2020, both men were only asked about their meeting with the American group to discuss freedom of religion. The police accused them of participating in human rights work and alleged that they had made false statements about Vietnam. Both men reported that they were threatened and verbally abused by the police during the interrogation.
After the interrogation, the police requested that the two men continue to be interrogated in the afternoon, but they both refused citing health reasons. In the evening, after they failed to return to the police station, the police sent seven security police to their houses and forced them to go to the station. The family of Y Qui Bdap protested and prevented the police from forcing him to go.
Human rights activists and religious rights activists are often interrogated by the police after they meet with groups from foreign countries. The government uses this tactic to investigate the content of meetings and to also prevent activists from criticizing Vietnam when speaking with foreign officials.
Police in Gia Lai Province publicly criticize a Montagnard in a community meeting because he was found to be involved with De Ga Protestantism
According to the Gia Lai Police Department Newspaper, on July 4, 2020, the police of Ia Grai District, Gia Lai Province brought a Montagnard, Puih Hong, 40, to a public criticism session at Cham Village, Grand Ward.
Puih Hong at the public criticism session on July 4, 2020. Photo courtesy: Gia Lai Police
A public criticism session is a method that the police frequently use to intimidate people in the Central Highlands. The subject of the criticism session has to stand in front of his neighbors and admit to crimes he has been alleged to have committed.
At this public criticism session, Puih was accused of distributing information about De Ga Protestantism and it was alleged that he had “defamed the religion laws and the great unity of the government.” Puih was also accused of illegally escaping to Cambodia between June 2017 to May 2020 after which the Cambodian government deported him back to Vietnam.
The police of Dak Lak Province allege that the Montagnard Evangelical Church Of Christ is anti-government
On July 24, 2020, a report accused the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ of being anti-government and of mobilizing people to secede from Vietnam to form an autonomous region in the Central Highlands. This report was broadcasted on the Security Police Television under the Ministry of Public Security.
In this report, the Senior Lieutenant Colonel Truong Hong Quy, who is the head of the Domestic Security Police Bureau of the Dak Lak Province Police Department, stated that a few individuals had used religion to mobilize and propagandize the people to secede and become opposed to the Vietnamese government. In this specific case, the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ was cited.
Quy also said that the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ received financial resources from overseas to mobilize people to be anti-government.
Colonel Nguyen The Luc, the deputy director of the Dak Lak Province Police Department, also stated that the group had used religion to engage in anti-government conduct and that it now used the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ. According to the police, before that, practicing De Ga Protestantism was used to mobilize people.
This report also alleged that members of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ were former members of FULRO, that they had participated in anti-government protests and were being imprisoned at re-education camps. The arrested included Y Jol Bkrong, Ksor Sun, Y Kou Bya, Y Nia Ayun, Y Nuen Ayun, and Y Nguyet Bkrong.
Throughout this report, one can see that the Dak Lak Province Police Department has a firm belief about the character of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ and that the department will try its best to dissolve the religious group.
The Administrative Council of Hoa Hao Buddhism prevented from entering a religious location to conduct rituals
The Administrative Council of Hoa Hao Buddhism announced that it was prevented from entering its temporary religious site in Long Giang Ward, Cho Moi District, An Giang Province from July 6-8, 2020.
On the evening of July 8, 2020, the Administrative Council was allowed to enter the site to perform rituals to commemorate the day Founder – Master Huynh Phu So – established Hoa Hao as a religion.
In previous years, during big celebrations to commemorate certain events and anniversaries of Hoa Hao Buddhism, its followers faced harassment and were prevented by the government from practicing their beliefs. The security police often set up posts to control followers going to their religious sites.
On This Day
The demolition and forced evacuation of real properties and lands of religious organizations in Thu Thiem
According to Tuoi Tre News, as of July 2016, 22 religious sites were willing to relocate from their current locations to new places. These 22 religious sites were originally located in the area that had been assigned for the construction of the new urban compound at Thu Thiem, District Two, Ho Chi Minh City.
The article strongly emphasized that these religious organizations agreed to transfer their lands to the government and to be moved to other locations. However, it also targeted the Lien Tri Temple and spread news that the temple was not willing to relocate like others. However, Lien Tri Temple belongs to the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, which was organized and founded before 1975, and it is not recognized as a religion by the current government.
Thich Khong Tanh, the abbot of the Lien Tri Temple at the time, stated that other religious organizations were willing to relocate because they received compensation and were given lands with higher prices. At the same time, the Lien Tri Temple did not receive similar equal treatment.
The government announced that it would demolish the temple in July 2016. On September 8, 2016, when it could not reach an agreement regarding the compensation with Lien Tri Temple, the government sent its forces to occupy and demolish the structure.
The monks who used to live at Lien Tri Temple disbursed themselves and were allowed to live in other temples; the government has yet to compensate them.
Thich Khong Tanh, abbot of Lien Tri Temple, sits on the grounds of the collapsed temple after the government forced its demolition. Photo courtesy: Quang Duc
Did You Know?
The followers of four religions decreased by more than 90 percent
The national census of 2019 showed that a lot of religions suffered significant decreases in the numbers of their followers, including four religions which saw a decline of more than 90 percent.
Three of the religions, which include Ta Lon Dutiful and Loyal Buddhism, Vietnam Pure Land Buddhist Association, and Southern Buddhism Minh Su Faith, suffered more than a 90 percent decrease in the number of their followers in the past decade. The Baha’i Faith also suffered a loss of 90 percent of its followers since 1975.
In a report published in 2017 by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, it was reported that Ta Lon Dutiful and Loyal Buddhism had 6,500 followers. But only after two years, the Census of 2019 showed that the number of followers had fallen to just 401. Ta Lon Dutiful and Loyal Buddhism was founded in 1915 in Kien Giang Province with beliefs in Buddhism and Confucianism.
Among the Buddhist sects in Vietnam, the Vietnam Pure Land Buddhist Association was viewed as the sect that had the most followers. The Government Committee for Religious Affairs reported that it had about 1.5 million followers and 350,000 members in 2010. Nevertheless, in 2019, the number of followers of this sect had decreased to 2,306 followers.
The Census of 2019 also reported that the Southern Buddhism Minh Su Faith only had 260 followers. In 2010, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs reported that the group had 11,224 followers.
The Baha’i Faith has waited 33 years for the government to recognize it as an official religion which happened in 2008. In 2010, it had about 7,200 followers. At present, the current number of followers of the Baha’i Faith is about 2,153, a 90 percent decline compared to the 200,000 followers it had before 1975.
Furthermore, seven other religions suffered a loss of 50-80 percent in the number of their followers. Those religions include Caodaism, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Giao hoi Co Doc Phuc Lam, and Hoa Hao Buddhism. A few other religions also suffered a loss in followers during the last decade, including Buu Son Ky Huong, and Hoi thanh Minh Ly Dao – Tam Tong Mieu.
Thien An Abbey – 45 Years Under The Government’s Fist
“Thien An” means “heavenly peace”, but the Catholic monks here have never lived in peace.
In the 45 years since Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, the monks of Thien An Abbey have only known hard labor and study, and resistance against forces hell-bent on taking their land by any and all means.
Thien An Hill today is no longer covered by sweeping pine forests; under the government’s fist, the trees have all withered away. The authorities have coercively taken the land by using thugs. The monks defend themselves using the only weapon they have: prayer.
Once sacred and picturesque, the area has now become anything but. How did this come to pass?
Thien An Abbey is born on Thien An Hill
1940 – 1943: The abbey comes into existence
In 1940, Father Romain Guilauma, a French missionary, purchased a piece of land on today’s Thien An Hill. The place resembled a miniature Da Lat and was only about 10 km away from the center of Hue. Father Guilauma built a thatched cottage on the land to receive monks from the Order of Saint Benedict. The land is currently situated in Cu Chanh Village, Thua Thien – Hue Province.
Antonin-Fernand Drapier, the French Resident Superior of the Holy See, said a celebratory mass upon the opening of the abbey on June 10, 1940. The abbey was given the name “Thien An”, meaning “heavenly peace”.
1943 – 1965: Digging Lake Thuy Tien, planting pine forests
During this time, monks expanded the abbey’s footprint, building structures, cultivating the land, and raising livestock to achieve self-sufficiency.
The abbey built a chapel and a three-story building with 28 rooms in 1943. In 1956, the abbey began construction on a second three-story building, with 38 rooms on the upper two floors.
The pine forests on Thien An Hill were almost certainly planted by monks during this time period. Furthermore, according to the Hue Festival, monks also dug two large lakes (Upper and Lower Thuy Tien), which provided water for the entire area.
From then on, these lakes and pine forests became one of Hue’s hidden getaways and the area began to be referred to as Thien An – Lake Thuy Tien.
1965 – 1975: Re-issuing a copy of the “parcel map”
In 1969, Abbot Thomas Chau Van Dang asked the Thua Thien provincial Land Office (under the Republic of Vietnam) to reissue “copies of relevant land registers and maps”, lost after the violent Tet Offensive in 1968.
The abbey stated that the Land Office provided it with “a copy of the parcel map”, that showed an area of 107 hectares.
According to the map, abbey land bordered Upper Duong Xuan Village to the north, Bang Lang and Kim Son villages to the south, Minh Manh Road to the east, and Bara Dam and Cu Chanh villages to the west.
Monks have stated that these 107 hectares of land are predominantly pine forests, punctuated by a fish farm, a dam, an elementary school, an orphanage, Duc Me (Mother Mary) Hill, and Thanh Gia (Cross) Hill.
Four decades of unrest
1975 – 2000: Abbey land is turned into an amusement park and private villas are also built on the site
After the Communist victory in 1975, religious establishments no longer had a voice. They had to follow the orders of the revolutionary government, no matter how backwards these orders were.
In January 1976, the head of Hue’s Office of Agriculture and Forestry asked the abbey to “cede” a school it no longer used to house workers. The office began using the school before the abbey had agreed to cede the property.
Afterwards, the abbey said, the government garrisoned troops on abbey land and asked the monks to hand over its dispensary, orphanage, and one hectare of land. The abbey faced with no choice and had to agree. A fish pond was also later requisitioned.
The land dispute over Thien An Hill took on another layer of complexity when the central government became involved.
In November 1999, the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province recommended that the government confiscate Thien An Hill to construct an amusement park. A month after, Vietnam’s prime minister decided to take over more than 49 hectares of the abbey’s land and rent it to the Ancient Capital Hue Travel Company (a state-run business) to build the Thuy Tien Lake and Thien An Hill Amusement Park.
In the process of confiscating the abbey’s land, monks stated, the government wrongly used an order for uncultivated land, which meant the government could confiscate lands without providing the abbey with any compensation or advance notification; as such, the abbey was neither compensated nor notified that the land had been taken.
The abbey petitioned the government regarding the wrongful confiscation of the land, stating that the government lacked jurisdiction according to the Land Law at the time.
Also in 1999, Boi Tran Villa, a restaurant and an exhibition hall for an individual, Ms. Phan Thi Van’s paintings, was constructed. The abbey said that the villa’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove, which the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold.
The forestry school later became the Tien Phong Forestry Company, owned by the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province.
2000 – 2010: The state “does not recognize” the 107 hectares of abbey land
Before the abbey’s petition was even addressed, the Thuy Tien Lake amusement park opened in 2001, with more than 70 billion dong (US$3million) in investment.
In 2002, Vietnam’s State Inspector General addressed the abbey’s petition, responding that: “The State does not recognize Thien An Abbey’s land usage rights for the 107 hectares of land and pine forest on Thien An Hill.”
What’s even more strange is that while the State Inspector General pointed out that “the entirety of the land and pine forest on Thien An Hill” had been given to the Tien Phong Forestry School in 1976, the abbey was completely unaware of this.
The abbey continued to oppose the Inspector General’s conclusion through more of its petitions to the government, stating that such conclusion did not focus on resolving the abbey’s disagreement according to the prime minister’s decision.
The Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park had begun admitting people from the public in the middle of 2004. However, by 2008, it was suffering heavy losses. The provincial People’s Committee later allowed another company to lease the amusement park.
In December 2008, the government issued a directive for provinces and cities to review and return to religious organizations all properties that were not being used effectively; however, none of Thien An Abbey’s properties were returned.
2010 – 2015: Another villa in the “special-use forest”
The government designated Thien An Hill a “special-use forest” but continued to build villas within it.
In 2010, the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat was constructed. The business venture was pursued by another individual, Ms. Ta Thi Ngoc Thao, aiming to provide a space for rest, meditation, and Zen study. The abbey stated that the retreat’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove that the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold.
In 2011, the Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park was closed down due to unprofitability.
Thien An Abbey reported that in 2013, the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee issued papers certifying Tien Phong Forestry Company’s land usage rights, which included a number of the abbey’s structures, including an internal road, a chapel, a dormitory, and a building that the Hue Office of Agriculture and Forestry had borrowed since 1976.
2015 – 2017: Conflict escalates, a statue of Jesus smashed
From the beginning of 2015, peace was shattered on Thien An Hill as the gentle lands became anything but.
The abbey said that beginning in January 2015, the government proposed multiple times that the abbey accept a measly 18 hectares of land so that their claims would be entered into the official registry. The abbey refused.
In May 2015, monks discovered that a statue of Jesus belonging to the abbey had been smashed and scattered in the wilderness.
At the beginning of 2016, a group that included police, cadres, employees of the Tien Phong Forestry Company, and reporters entered the abbey to investigate the chopping down of numerous pine trees. Afterwards, the monks were rounded up by investigators allegedly for the crime of deforestation. The monks stated that an article in the Vietnam Law Newspaper slandered the abbey, falsely accusing it of deforestation and obstructing officials.
In March 2016, a statue of Jesus that had just been put up was pulled down by a group of women, civil defense officers, and cadres mobilized by the government.
In the middle of 2016, the abbey reported that the Thuy Bang commune authorities led about 200 individuals accompanied by a large excavator to halt road construction linking the abbey to a partially-completed garden. The Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee afterwards issued the abbey a form stating that it had trespassed on special-use forest land by constructing this road.
In March 2017, authorities continued to mobilize people to prevent the abbey from leveling land in areas the abbey claimed.
That same month, unknown persons carved large V’s into numerous pine trees near the abbey’s dam, causing them to slowly wither and die.
In May 2017, the government continued to allow numerous individuals to arrive at the abbey and disrupt renovation work on the abbey’s claimed land.
At the end of June 2017, a statue of Jesus and the Holy Cross was resurrected only for the government to pull it down again. A number of monks were injured in the incident, but were unable to get to the hospital for treatment because police had set up traffic barriers blocking exit from the abbey.
After that scuffle, the provincial People’s Committee met with abbey representatives, but the conflict remained unresolved. The committee stated that the prime minister’s statement in 1999 and the State Inspector General’s decision in 2002 were “faultless and should remain as is”.
On July 25, 2017, the abbey reported that the provincial People’s Committee had responded to a number of the abbey’s grievances regarding the piney hill:
First, the abbey’s school building was demolished according to the government’s 1976 Decision 188/CP because the school was a “remnant of land possession and colonial exploitation…”
Second, the land which the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat sat on originally belonged to the Tien Phong Forestry School, which transferred it to a residential household in 1984; this entity then passed it onto another household, which then passed it onto the retreat.
Third, the owner of the Boi Tran Villa purchased land for his/her villa by combining purchases from two different households: one from the household that passed the land to the Cat Tuong Quan retreat and the rest from another household.
Fourth, regarding another household that was supposedly using abbey land, the committee stated that this household was sitting on land that the forestry school had granted to the family in 1984 to start a garden and build a house.
The abbey argued that the committee’s explanations were not convincing, especially since land survey records remain conspicuously missing.
On December 18, 2017, commune authorities blocked monks from setting up a Christmas welcome gate on an internal road leading into the abbey.
Approximately one week later, the abbey reported that Phan Ngoc Tho, the vice-chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee, proposed that the Order of Saint Benedict and the Provincial Vietnamese Order of Saint Benedict no longer designate Father Nguyen Huyen Duc as the abbey superior and that he should be transferred out of the province.
2018: Year of repeated forest fires
In January 2018, Thuy Bang commune police asked the abbey to provide a list of individuals who resided at the abbey in any form to help with on-site corroboration.
At the beginning of March 2018, after monks felled a tree to prevent a fire, police and traffic officers, forest management, and government cadres all joined forces to obstruct the felling, ultimately confiscating the pine tree. After this event, five incidences of forest fire occurred one after the other.
On March 4, 2018, a portion of the abbey’s claimed pine forest caught fire. After the fire, four other forest fires occurred on May 10, May 22, May 23, and July 4, 2018. The abbey claimed that the fires destroyed about 8 hectares of pine trees that were about 60 years old.
In June 2018, Phan Ngoc Tho became the chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee after his predecessor retired early.
On July 18, 2018, the abbey reported that a group of employees from the Tien Phong Forestry Company had entered the burned land on July 4 to plant pine trees but were stopped by the abbey.
In December 2018, the abbey continued to demand the Tien Phong Forestry Company return the school it had borrowed from the abbey.
2019 – 2020: Strains continue to worsen
On the night of April 19, 2019, about three hectares of old pine trees that had grown for more than 60 years burned completely. According to the abbey, Tien Phong Forestry Company regularly claims that it manages the land but it did nothing to stop the burning.
The abbey reported that this fire and the previous five fires were ignored by firefighters and that the government, which has released no public information about the events, failed to carry out an investigation into the damage.
In May 2020, Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities announced that they would transform the dilapidated Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park into a “cultural park to serve the community, a state-of-the-art creative space, a sculpture garden.”
About a month afterwards, approximately one hectare of the abbey’s pine forest was hacked to pieces. Many large pine trees were sawed into, leaving deep scars that would kill the trees slowly without felling them.
In July 2020, the abbey continued to send official documents asking for the return of the elementary school that the Tien Phong Forestry School borrowed from the abbey.
Over three consecutive days, from August 10-12, 2020, when the entirety of Thua Thien – Hue Province was on-guard against COVID-19, a crowd of approximately 40 people held up signs and shouted over loudspeakers at the site of a toppled statue of Jesus, demanding the abbots halt their work and return the land to them.
Abbots recognized these individuals as committee cadres, members of the Thuy Bang commune women’s association, and familiar security and surveillance officers.
Protests of this nature cannot be organized without the backing of local authorities. The ongoing dispute between the abbey and the government continues to escalate with no prospects of good results. We will continue to update the latest developments of this dispute in the coming months.
This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Will Nguyen.
Religion Bulletin – August 2020
Discover the four common tactics the Vietnamese authorities use to suppress religious organizations in [The Government’s Reach]. In [Religion 360°], we continue coverage of the parishes resisting the government acquisition of schools borrowed after 1975, along with other news. Learn a bit about the Khmer Krom movement in [On This Day], where we discuss the arrest of a former Khmer temple head in Tra Vinh.
If you have any suggestions or would like to join us in writing reports, please email us at: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
[The Government’s Reach]
Four tactics the Vietnamese authorities use to suppress religious organizations
For years, the government has used multiple tactics to suppress religious organizations it does not agree with. The authorities refer to their actions as “professional”, but in common parlance, these actions are more “cloak and dagger”. The following are the four most common tactics used by the government to suppress religious organizations.
- Organizing crowds to protest
The land dispute at Thien An Abbey continued to escalate in August 2020. On August 10 and 11, a group of about 40 individuals organized a protest to speak out against Thien An Abbey for sitting on their and the government’s land. Protestors used large signs and loudspeakers to threaten and insult monks while standing on the disputed land. According to the abbey, the crowd’s organizers were cadres of the Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee, along with a number of police, as well as cadres from social organizations such as the Women’s Association.
In May 2017, an enormous mobilized force of between 1,000 to 3,000 people organized a week-long protest to speak out against Father Dang Huu Nam, the head of Phu Yen Parish in Vinh Diocese. This force criticized the clergyman’s words against the government and his actions when he assisted parishioners in suing the Ha Tinh Formosa Co. a year after the company caused a marine environmental disaster in 2016.
In Vietnam, protests like these cannot be organized without the backing of the government. They’re put together to smear and lower the prestige of religious organizations that the government does not approve of.
- Using state media
The protests against the monks of Thien An Abbey were reported in detail by the Thua Thien – Hue Province state media. After the protests, Thua Thien – Hue newspapers published two articles on August 18, 2020 and August 26, 2020 accusing the monks of surreptitiously taking land and falsely slandering the authorities with accusations of oppression. Hue Radio-Television broadcast a report on the protests as well. State journalists have previously blamed the monks of Thien An Abbey for being “aggressive and uncooperative with the authorities”.
The protests opposing Father Dang Huu Nam were also reported in-depth by scores of other state journalists. More significantly, Vietnam Television (VTV) conducted a live national broadcast on the evening of March 24, 2017, regarding priests in Phu Yen Parish. The VTV report accused the Phu Yen priests of disrupting order and security by inciting parishioners to submit litigation against the Ha Tinh Formosa Co..
The Vietnamese state closely monitors media organizations, and journalists are not allowed to report on news that could adversely affect government interests. No independent television and radio stations are permitted to operate.
Religious organizations today normally have to establish their own media channels or use social media to speak up for themselves. There are currently two Catholic websites actively operating: “Good News to the Poor” and “VietCatholic,” but both are blocked in Vietnam. Independent media, such as VOA, RFA, BBC, and RFI, are also blocked in Vietnam.
- Using hired thugs
According to the monks of Thien An Abbey, this land dispute has lasted more than 20 years and has always involved unidentified, aggressive individuals who assault the monks. Over many years, Thien An Abbey has faced numerous aggressive acts, including glass shards strewn across the football field, pine trees being cut down, statues of Christ being stolen and smashed, stalking, and threats—none of which are investigated by local authorities.
The Vietnamese authorities are well-versed in using hired agents to create physical scuffles in order for police to then respond with violence.
On February 14, 2017, according to VOA, police infiltrated a group of people who were mobilizing to sue the Formosa Co. These infiltrators threw rocks in the direction of riot police and instigated violence, giving police a pretext to suppress the movement, injuring about 50 parishioners. Police also instigate and/or stage scenes of violence in order for state media to record negative images.
Hired agents who were not part of the contingent hurled rocks in the direction of riot police in order to instigate violence. Source: VTV.
In October 2019, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were stopped by a mob blocking the road and were severely beaten as they were on their way to An Hoa Temple to stop the re-tiling of that temple’s original roof. The matter was not investigated by the police.
The government use of hired thugs to instigate violence and threaten activists and religious groups is commonplace in Vietnam—and a serious problem.
- Harassment using administrative regulations unrelated to religion
In 2018, Thuy Bang Commune police asked Thien An Abbey to provide a list of individuals who lived at the abbey in order for police to carry out direct inspections and corroborations.
In June 2017, Thua Thien – Hue provincial police set up a traffic blockade to prevent parishioners and monks from entering Thien An Abbey. Simultaneously, a large scuffle broke out at the abbey itself, injuring many monks who were unable to get to a hospital because of the traffic blockade.
This administrative harassment may seem insignificant but sometimes it is part of a larger trap to ensnare religious organizations and activists.
In February 2018, six Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to between two years of probation and six years in prison for interfering with traffic police who had prevented residents from attending the death anniversary of a fellow follower. The six were convicted of obstructing officials and disturbing public order when they protested and argued with traffic police who were purposefully checking the papers and confiscating the vehicles of those attending the anniversary.
Local authorities regularly misuse administrative regulations as tools to punish and entrap religious organizations and to hinder activities. Authorities in a number of locations in the Central Highlands refuse to issue paperwork to independent worshippers, such as identity cards, passports, marriage licenses, and land use deeds, as punishment.
Thi Nghe Parish asks for help as the authorities unilaterally change the usage rights of a parish school
In August 2020, Thi Nghe Parish in Ho Chi Minh City asked citizens for support in demanding the return of their school, which the authorities had initially borrowed and later permanently altered the usage rights to.
Vietnam does not recognize the right to land ownership. Land belongs to the state and citizens are granted usage rights.
Before 1975, Thi Nghe Parish contributed money to build Phuoc An Private School for approximately 4,000 students. After 1975, when private schools were abolished, the parish lent the state two three-story structures and another single-story building to function as a school (named Phu Dong Elementary School).
In 2019, when the parish was conducting a survey to build an underground parking structure for parishioners, it discovered that the authorities had granted usage rights to Phu Dong Elementary School in 2013; for six years, the parish was unaware that the school structures no longer belonged to them.
After more than a year of petitioning, in July 2020, Binh Thanh District authorities responded, stating: “Phu Dong Elementary School, including border walls, are state property to be managed by Phu Dong School.”
Land policy from the 2000s granted local authorities the ability to delineate to themselves the (continued) usage of religious grounds already being used by the state. If the state continues to use these religious grounds for public purposes, then religious organizations cannot ask for the return of their properties.
Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation demands the return of a school building it lent to the authorities
At some point in the last 44 years, the Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation’s Giuse School became a Dong Nai Province medical center.
Nuns in the congregation stated that before 1975, 1,000 students came to study at the school every year, at both the elementary and middle school levels. In 1976, the congregation lent the school to the authorities for five years to train cadres.
After five years, not only did the authorities refuse to return the school to the congregation, they further borrowed two rowed structures and a 6.482 square meter plot of land. These grounds were handed over to Bien Hoa General Hospital, which was then granted usage rights in 2004.
Recently, the Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation is in need of activity grounds for newly-joined nuns and as senior facilities for older nuns, hence it has asked for the return of the school building it lent to the government. But similar to the situation in Thi Nghe Parish, such returns are difficult to achieve if the authorities do not voluntarily choose to do so.
Dak Nong Province announces that it must “deal with” many new religions in the region
In August 2020, the Dak Nong Newspaper, belonging to the Dak Nong Province Communist Party, reported that many new religions were operating illegally in the region.
These new religions are referred to as “strange” or “heretical” religions. According to the Dak Nong Newspaper, approximately 10 of these “strange, heretical religions” have penetrated the province. Among them, the Gie Sua religion has the most followers, with 232; Falun Gong has 96; Hoang Thien Long 71; the World Mission Society Church of God 53; and the Tien Thien religion 24.
The Dak Nong Newspaper reported that the government will resolutely eliminate these “strange, heretical religions” from the province, and will ask residents to denounce anyone following or spreading these unsanctioned religions.
State journalists report that the Gie Sua religion was founded by an ethnic Hmong in the United States, who changed Protestant rites, such as worshipping on Sunday instead of Saturday, not recognizing the lord Jesus’ name, and not celebrating Christmas or Easter.
According to Nghe An Newspaper, the Hoang Thien Long religion involves the spiritual worship of martyrs and “Uncle Ho” to treat diseases.
The Khanh Hoa Newspaper states that the World Mission Society Church of God was a religion based on the tenets of Protestantism and was introduced from South Korea into Vietnam in the 2000s.
The Tien Thien religion has yet to be reported on by state media. Information available online indicates that this religion is based on the teachings of Daoism.
Individual punished for spreading Falun Gong beliefs
State media reported that at least one person has been punished for spreading Falun Gong practices in August 2020.
According to the People’s Police Newspaper, Hai Duong provincial police arrested Ms. Le Thi Thoa, 61, as she was “illicitly spreading Falun Gong” in an alleyway in the city of Hai Duong. She was fined 300,000 dong (US$13).
Though the government has not made any formal pronouncements about Falun Gong, local authorities uniformly see it as heretical and forbid people from promoting the movement.
A number of religious prisoners unable to receive foodstuffs, medicine, and supplies due to COVID-19
Hua Phi, Cao Dai leader and member of the Inter-religious Council of Vietnam, told RFA that the authorities were not allowing religious prisoners to receive foodstuffs, medicine, and supplies due to COVID-19.
Near the end of July 2020, COVID-19 resurged in a number of cities in Vietnam, and detention centers and prisons temporarily discontinued outside visits. These detention centers became disease hotspots, such as in Da Nang, where outside visits and deliveries for prisoners were temporarily halted.
However, in other cities and provinces, a number of families of non-political and non-religious prisoners were still able to send in medicine and supplies.
Current regulations allow these detention centers autonomy in determining visitation and outside delivery policies. There’s a high possibility that these centers are using COVID-19 as a pretense to punish religious prisoners.
Authorities finally recognize Lai Chau Parish as a religious organization after more than 13 years of applying
On August 21, 2020, the Lai Chau Province People’s Committee permitted the Hung Hoa Diocese to establish the Lai Chau Parish as a legal religious organization.
According to Father Phero Pham Thanh Binh the Epsicopal See of Hung Hoa Diocese had been requesting that the authorities recognize Lai Chau Parish as a legal religious entity since 2007, a request that has only just now been accepted.
The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that an organization granted a certificate of registration must operate for at least five years and meet a number of other requirements before it is officially recognized as a religious organization. In actuality, however, the authorities often drag their feet in granting legal status to any religious organization.
Hung Hoa Diocese manages parts of the north of Vietnam, including the entirety of Phu Tho, Yen Bai, Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Dien Bien, and Son La provinces, a portion of Hoa Hinh, Ha Giang, and Tuyen Quang provinces, as well as the city of Hanoi.
According to the head of the Hanoi Episcopal See, Giuse Vu Van Thien, Hung Hoa Diocese has faced many difficulties, because the religious policies are different from province to province: “Some policies are relaxed, but some others are difficult. Some of the policies have limited government interference, but some are overbearing. And there are others that even have cadres announcing white zones which means there are no religions in that locality at all”.
[On This Day]
The imprisonment of a Khmer temple’s former head and the Khmer Krom Movement
At the end of July 2010, Tra Vinh provincial police imprisoned Thach Sophon, the former head of a Khmer temple, after investigating him for a case that occurred in April 2010.
Thach Sophon was arrested July 29, 2010, two days after he left the priesthood. The government stated that his arrest stemmed from an incident in April of that same year, in which the temple he headed held a suspected burglar in captivity for a night before bringing him to police. More than a month after his arrest, he was still not allowed to see his family or any lawyers.
According to RFA, the human rights group Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), which advocates for the rights of Khmer living in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, raised objections to Thach Sophon’s detention. The federation stated that he was arrested because the government suspected he was linked to the Khmer Krom movement. In 2006, the federation said, a disciple of his was accused of anti-state propaganda but was able to escape to Thailand before being detained. Another disciple confirmed that Thach Sophon had been monitored by the authorities since 2005.
In September 2010, Thach Sophon was sentenced to nine months of probation for illegally detaining another person.
These events pushed many human rights groups to suspect that the authorities intentionally arrested Thach Sophon to interrogate him about the Khmer Krom movement. When this proved unsuccessful, they framed him with a case that occurred three months earlier.
The Khmer Krom Movement
The Khmer Krom movement picked up strength during the 2000s and still operates, though it no longer draws as much attention. It is a movement that peacefully advocates for the rights of local Khmer living in Vietnam, including Khmer monks. Many Khmer Krom organizations participate in the movement, but the predominant one is the The Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), whose website is currently blocked in Vietnam.
The Khmer Krom movement advocates for human rights in Vietnam for the Khmer ethnicity, including their freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the press, land rights. It also includes medical right, the environment, and local culture.
However, the Vietnamese authorities still see the movement as a seditious one that unites Cambodian citizens and Khmer living in the Mekong Delta against the government. In August 2010, Vietnam requested that Cambodia resolutely shut down this movement. In 2014, many large protests broke out demanding human rights for Khmer living in Vietnam.
The temporary confiscation of a Khmer monk’s passport after an alleged violation of the Cybersecurity Law in February 2020
In February 2020, Long Phu district police in the province of Soc Trang interrogated a 36-year-old Khmer monk of Cambodian citizenship named Seun Ty, confiscating his passport for two weeks.
“They interrogated me and pressured me to confess to violating Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law after I shared a Radio Free Asia (RFA) interview with Mr. Tran Manrinh, a representative of KKF,” Seun Ty told Voice of America. ‘They used this action to accuse me of violating the Cybersecurity Law.”
Long Phu district police had threatened to bar him from entering Vietnam or fine him 30 million dong (US$1,298). After human rights organizations forcefully spoke up, his passport was returned after two weeks.
Vietnam: What Does The Government Committee For Religious Affairs Do With More Than 64 Billion Dong Every Year?
This article was first published on 06/21/2020 in Vietnamese by Luat Khoa Magazine with Thái Thanh as the author. The English translation was first published by the US-Vietnam Research Center at the University of Oregon.
In simplest terms, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs is the “church” of all churches in Vietnam.
As you read this article, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs is burning through its 64.9 billion dong (US$2.8 million). Though details of its budget are not made public, we know only 60.7 billion dong are used for committee activities.
At the local level, Luat Khoa has read through all 2020 budget estimates for Vietnamese provinces and cities, but only 14 provinces have enumerated the amounts distributed to their provincial and municipal religious committees.
In 2020, the religious committees of these 14 provinces and municipalities were provided 33.965 billion dong. If this number is extrapolated to include all 63 cities and provinces, the approximate total would reach more than 152.840 billion, equivalent to about 60 percent of the 2020 budget for Vietnam Television (VTV).
Phu Tho Province has earmarked 600 million dong of a budgeted 1.885 billion dong (~78,000 USD) to celebrate festivities and welcome religious dignitaries.
In Thanh Hoa, the provincial religious committee is allotted 5.14 billion dong, five times the amount given to the province’s SOS Children’s Village; what this money is used for, however, is not publicly disclosed.
The numbers above do not include the budgets provided for hundreds of religious affairs offices at the urban district, district, and provincial city levels.
But what do the Government Committee for Religious Affairs and local religious offices do anyway, and are they worthy of taxpayer money?
Back then, back then…
According to the Government Committee on Religious Affairs, the forerunner to the committee was established in 1955 as the “Central Committee on Religion”, directly responsible to the prime minister’s office.
At the time, the task of this committee was to: “Network with religions, and in particular, implement their abilities to mobilize”.
But given the partition of the country at the time, in what ways did this committee “network” with and “mobilize” religions?
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has written in The History of Vietnamese Buddhism that in the north, no Buddhist periodicals were allowed to be published, no Buddhist institutes were allowed to accept disciples, no prayer books were printed, orphanages were shuttered, monks under the age of 30 had to give up their robes and don army fatigues or peasant garb to produce (for the state), churches no longer had anything with which to practice and their land had to be “donated” to the state in order to build socialism. 
Monks who disagreed with the government were quickly isolated until their deaths, as happened with the Venerable Thich To Lien, Venerable Thich Vinh Tuong, and Venerable Thich Tri Hai.
In 1975, this northern tradition of controlling and subjugating religion was applied to the south. Scores of self-immolations by monks and nuns occurred to protest the discriminatory religious policies of the new government. Arrested monks were sent to re-education camps, tortured, and some even died in prison, such as the Venerable Thich Thien Minh. Others were confined to wheelchairs after their time behind bars, such as Venerable Thich Tri Quang.
Up until the late 1980s, the government saw religion and popular faiths as impediments on the path to socialism. Hoa Hao Buddhism and the Cao Dai religion were seen as “heresies”, tools of foreign countries.
It was not until the 90s that the Communist Party of Vietnam began to accept that religious morality was compatible with “Doi Moi” policies.
The Government Committee on Religious Affairs at the time had the dual task of controlling and utilizing the power of religion; ancestor worship was no longer seen as superstition. Boat people were called to return home to pay respects and send foreign currency to relatives.
By the late 1990s, the Cao Dai religion and Hoa Hao Buddhism were both begrudgingly accepted by the state after millions of followers had suffered more than 20 years of government discrimination.
And now, and now…
Three recent activities carried out by the Government Committee on Religious Affairs give us a good overview of what the body does currently, outside of its tasks of issuing regulations and controlling the publication of religious works.
The first has to do with Dinh Quang Tien, the head of Cao Dai Affairs, meeting with the Tien Thien Cao Dai Church to prepare for the All-sect Congress of Nhon Sanh Representatives.
According to the Government Committee on Religious Affairs, during this meeting, Mr. Tien directed the church’s internal affairs, “building regulations regarding public dignitaries and functionaries and regulations resolving petitions and complaints; and publicly electing dignitaries with sufficient qualifications for the Church’s Senate, Standing Committee, and Chambers.”
The second concerns deputy head Tran Thi Minh Nga chairing a seminar on “Deviance within Religious Activities in Vietnam Today”, with the participation of the Fatherland Front, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Travel.
Not only does it control religions within the country, but the Government Committee on Religious Affairs also extends its arm overseas.
On June 18, 2020, leaders of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs and the State Committee on Overseas Vietnamese held a meeting regarding the religious activities of the five million Vietnamese living overseas.
During this meeting, the Committee confirmed that the latter organizes annual trips overseas to “meet with communities, understand their sentiments and aspirations, exchange views with local authorities, and suggest ways to help Vietnamese communities with religious and spiritual activities”.
On the Committee website, its regularly-posted activities include organizing conferences and visiting local and overseas locations to conduct business with religions and the relevant city and provincial authorities. However, this committee does not publicize its budget as other bodies do.
In its 2020 budget estimate, this committee is the only body in the Ministry of the Interior to provide 1 billion dong for environmental protection activities. A portion of this money appears to be earmarked for the “National Conference on the Role of Religion in Protecting the Environment and Responding to Climate Change”.
Today, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs has become the “Church” of all churches in Vietnam, at once interfering in the internal affairs of religions while also trying to determine the “religious standards” for society.
Different from democratic countries, where religious organizations operate independently, religious organizations in Vietnam that want official recognition must operate as though they were a government body. On that front, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs functions as an intermediary for the state to control religious activities.
Laudable “achievements” that have yet to be lauded
The Government Committee on Religious Affairs also has its share of achievements which have not been shared on its website.
Currently, in Thailand, there are more than 1,000 Montagnards who are religious refugees. They fled their villages in the Central Highlands with their families and went to Thailand after being harassed and oppressed, and some were even jailed for many years for wanting to practice their religions freely or demanding the return of land to locals. Some went separately with their families, while others traveled together in large groups; some even had the misfortune of falling victim to human trafficking networks.
In Dien Bien, the authorities forced residents to sign a pledge renouncing the “Gie Sua” religion. A lieutenant colonel from a provincial border guard post stated that he went from house to house, rationalizing the reasons, and then asked residents to sign a pledge renouncing the religion.
The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam,established in 1964, was no longer recognized by the government in 1975. Leading members of the church were closely monitored; Venerable Thich Quang Do was under surveillance until his death, and Buddhist temples regularly faced harassment from the authorities.
In An Giang Province, independent Hoa Hao Buddhists organize every year to mark the day the religion’s founder disappeared from his home. Many scuffles have broken out between independent Hoa Hao Buddhists and police, with many followers handed lengthy jail sentences for “obstruction of officials”.
Independent Cao Dai followers are struggling with “state-run Cao Dai” to protect the former’s remaining temples. On June 18, 2020, in the city of Tuy Hoa, Phu Yen Province, “State-run Cao Dai” tried to confiscate the Hieu Xuong Temple, which belonged to independent followers.
From 2009 to 2019, the number of followers of the Cao Dai religion and Hoa Hao Buddhism has decreased dramatically.
The Cao Dai religion has lost approximately 76 percent of its followers. Of approximately 2.4 million followers in 2009, only 556,234 remain, according to the 2019 Census.
Hoa Hao Buddhism has lost nearly a third of its followers compared to numbers from 2009. Follower count has decreased from 1,433,252 in 2009 to 983,079. During his return to Vietnam in 2007, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggested that the state dissolve both the Government Committee on Religious Affairs and the police division overseeing religion because they did more harm for religion than good.
He stated that this police division and the Government Committee on Religious Affairs were erroneous emulations from China and lamented that the Vietnamese government still held onto them.
 Việt Nam Phật giáo Sử Luận (Translated: The History of Vietnamese Buddhism), Nguyễn Lang (pen name of Thich Nhat Hanh), p. 744.
The original Vietnamese version of this article is on Luat Khoa Tap chi. Translated by Will Nguyen.
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