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Religion Bulletin – July 2020

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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 tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.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. 

Religion 360°

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. 

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.

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/2-1.png
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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