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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. 

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Human Rights

The Tumultuous Lives of Three Monks: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thich Tri Quang, and Thich Quang Do

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Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (left), Venerable Thich Tri Quang, and Venerable Thich Quang Do. Source: PVCEB, LIFE, AFP.

Long ago, there lived three monks: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thich Tri Quang, and Thich Quang Do. All three were well-versed in the Buddhist Dharma. Nhat Hanh spoke eloquently and wrote well. Tri Quang had talent for leadership and was trusted by the masses. Quang Dao was well-studied and excelled in foreign languages. 

Long ago, there lived three monks.

When Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime cracked down on Buddhism, these three combined forces to fight back. Nhat Hanh campaigned overseas, calling for peace and religious freedom in Vietnam. Tri Quang led tens of thousands of monks and Buddhist adherents as they protested in Saigon. And Quang Do, the youngest of the trio, stood side-by-side with these Buddhists as they marched on the streets.

Long ago, there lived three monks. 

When the communists arrived, the paths of these three diverged. Nhat Hanh became world-famous with his Plum Village Monastery. Tri Quang was imprisoned and refrained from speaking about politics again. Quang Do continued the struggle for religious freedom and human rights, ultimately serving the longest period of house arrest of any monk in Vietnam.

1997

One day in October of 1997, in a theater in Berkeley, California, approximately 3,500 people, who paid US$20 a ticket to meet their most beloved monk, sat in silence.

A ringing bell echoed across the theater, and a monk’s voice loudly called out: “All rise!”. Zen Master Nhat Hanh, draped in a deep brown robe, lead 35 monks and nuns as they slowly spread out across the stage. 

Many in the audience clasped their hands before their chests and directed their eyes towards the stage. Sitting on a high podium next to a large, bronze bell and an arrangement of giant sunflowers, Zen Master Nhat Hanh began expounding on mindfulness. “Learn how to stop running,” he advised his audience. “Many of us have been running all our lives.”

“Society is very individualistic, selfish, with people thinking about himself or herself alone. Each for himself, each for herself alone. But in fact even if you have the desire, the intention, to help others, it would still be difficult for you to do so, because when you are not in peace with yourself, it’s very difficult to relate to people in a peaceful way in order to help them,” he stated to reporter Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle.

By that point, Zen Master Nhat Hanh had become internationally renowned for this talks on mindfulness and world peace. After 1975, he stopped speaking to the international media about human rights in Vietnam, even though Buddhism there was suffering through hardship.

At the same time, in a prison cell thousands of miles away from America, Venerable Quang Do was compiling a Buddhist dictionary. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1995 for helping flood victims in the Mekong Delta. Ten years before that, he witnessed his mother pass away in hunger and poverty after the government exiled both to Thai Binh.

In 1997, Venerable Tri Quang grew accustomed to his comfortable life. He no longer spoke about politics or peaceful resistance.

After 1975, he was confined to a wheelchair to heal his feet, which had atrophied after government torture, according to a monk who was imprisoned with him at the time. From the 1980s onwards, the international media stopped mentioning him and the tragedies of Buddhism in the south.

Childhood in chaos 

Born during the tumult of French and Japanese fighting over control of the country, the three monks were all witness to the historical crises of that era.

One day in Diem Dien Village, Quang Binh Province, the mother of Tri Quang met two monks who left a deep impression on her, he relayed in his autobiography. Upon returning home, she told her husband that the family should have someone join the monastery, as the two monks had. Thus, on the eve of the lunar new year in 1938, Tri Quang shaved his head and entered the monastery at Pho Minh Pagoda; he was only 15 years old. The next year, he was transferred to Hue to study for another six years. When he was put in charge of the Quang Binh Province Buddhist Committee for National Salvation (seen as a part of the Viet Minh Front), he saw many of his classmates sacrifice their lives in the resistance war against the French. 

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Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, in Hue, when he was 16 years old. Source: Plum Village.

In Hue, Nhat Hanh grew up the son of a man who worked for Emperor Bao Dai’s government. Nhat Hanh stated the seed of the Great Buddha blossomed within him from when he was very young. Responding to reporter Don Lattin about his childhood, he stated that while he was studying at the village school, he and his friends would go door-to-door begging for bowls of rice to give to those dying of hunger. He relayed that the kids had to decide early on who would get to eat and who wouldn’t because there simply wasn’t enough rice to go around. In 1942, Zen Master Nhat Hanh left his family and entered the monastery at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue. He was only 16.  

In the same year, a 15-year old teenager in Thai Binh traveled to Ha Dong province (today’s Hanoi) to enter the monastery at Thanh Lam Temple. He took on the Buddhist name Quang Do. He recalled, only three years after he left his family, he witnessed his master tied up and brought out to the village courtyard like a criminal, after the Viet Minh suspected him of being a traitor. His master was then denounced and executed by three bullet rounds. It was then the young 18-year old swore to himself that he would use Buddhism’s mercy, forgiveness, and non-violence to fight against fanatics and the unforgiving.

A united sense of purpose

After the tragedy at Thanh Lam Temple, Thich Quang Do went to study in Hanoi. During this time, Tri Quang and Nhat Hanh likely met one another in Hue. 

At the time, the Bao Quoc Buddhist Institute had just been established in Hue in 1947. A year later, Tri Quang became a teacher there, and Nhat Hanh a student. 

In 1950, Tri Quang went to Saigon for the first time, concurrent with Nhat Hanh. In Saigon, Tri Quang, along with some other monks, unified three Buddhist institutes into one, locating it at An Quang Temple. Nhat Hanh began teaching here.

Both Nhat Hanh and Tri Quang had a common desire to unify Buddhism and develop it into a national religion [1]. Both pursued this desire through journalism. 

After the Geneva Accords were signed in 1954 and the country was temporarily divided in two, Tri Quang became the editor-in-chief of the Vien Am paper. A year later, Nhat Hanh was made editor-in-chief of Vietnamese Buddhism, but after two years, he was forced to suspend the paper after pushing for Buddhist unification too vociferously.

During this time period, both individuals suffered enormous mental anguish. Nhat Hanh was completely “defanged” in his struggle and afterward temporarily withdrew from the limelight, retreating to a solitary location with allies in Lam Dong. Tri Quang, haunted by images of his mother being publicly denounced in 1956, wandered to Nha Trang before returning to Hue in 1960. Buddhism’s suppression (by Ngo Dinh Diem’s government) would add an extra layer of pressure on top of his mother’s tragedy. 

In 1958, Quang Do returned to Saigon after studying abroad in Sri Lanka and India. Under Ngo Dinh Diem’s religiously discriminatory regime, and the conflict brewing between the Nationalists and the Communists hanging over their heads, young Nhat Hanh and Quang Do were not able to accomplish much in the way of big tasks. But it seems all three were able to sense impending disaster for Buddhism in the south. 

In his book Intention’s Road Home, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh explained that in 1961, when he and his friends’ place of residence was raided, he had to retreat to Saigon for safety. During this difficult time period, he traveled to the United States, where he conducted research on Buddhism at Princeton University and then taught at Columbia University.

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Pictures of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Venerable Thich Tri Quang, and Venerable Thich Quang Do, taken in 1960. Source: PVCEB, AP, and Vietnamese Buddhists.

Days of struggle

On the night of May 8, 1963, as Venerable Tri Quang, head of central Vietnam’s Buddhist Association, stepped into Hue’s radio station together with the provincial leader to resolve ongoing protests as gunfire rang out among the Buddhist crowds surrounding the station. That night, Hue Radio did not broadcast as promised the program celebrating Vesak, recorded earlier that morning. Compounding popular anger was the fact that the government had prevented the flying of Buddhist flags. The crowds did not disperse until two in the morning. That night, many were seriously injured, resulting in eight deaths.

In the gloom of the next morning, as Venerable Tri Quang was  resting, roiling crowds of young people began filling the streets, holding Buddhist flags. That same day, Buddhists in Saigon decided to establish the Inter-party Committee to Protest Buddhism (abbreviated as the “Inter-party”), confirming a drawn-out struggle. Venerable Tri Quang sat on the Advisory Board, while Venerable Quang Do worked as assistant to the public relations committee of the Inter-party.

The objective of the Inter-party was to get the government to respond to five demands: withdraw the decree banning the flying of Buddhist flags, put Buddhism on equal footing with Catholicism, end the suppression of Buddhist followers, grant Buddhist monks and nuns the freedom to proselytize, and compensate for the deaths caused (during the crisis) and punish those responsible.

In the two days following the incident at the Hue radio station, Buddhists protested spontaneously, but thereafter, they gained a sense of order and organization with Venerable Tri Quang’s direction, the monk recounted in an autobiographical short story. He also found ways for Buddhists to come to Tu Dam Temple to pray each week for those who had passed away. In Saigon, monks organized spiritual processions from one temple to the next, as well as protests and hunger strikes.  

The government only ramped up its repression; many temples in Hue were blockaded, and monks and nuns were publicly attacked. It wasn’t until Venerable Thich Quang Duc, 73, immolated himself on June 11th, 1963 that the situation improved in any meaningful way. Tri Quang traveled from Hue to Saigon to enter into discussions with the government. 

In the weeks and months that followed Venerable Quang Duc’s self-immolation, the Inter-party signed a joint communiqué with the government responding to Buddhism’s five demands. However, the government never implemented the communiqué, greatly angering monks, nuns, and the general population. 

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, at the time he was in America campaigning for religious freedom and a cessation of war in his own homeland. He appeared on television, met journalists, translated materials detailing the human rights violations in Vietnam, and pushed international organizations, including the United Nations, to intervene in the increasingly volatile situation in South Vietnam.

As Thich Tri Quang relayed in his autobiography, on the morning of July 17, 1963, Venerable Quang Do was unable to deliver translated international press updates to Xa Loi Pagoda. That day, countless Buddhists poured into Giac Minh Temple, where the monks were on a hunger strike. These crowds quickly morphed into an enormous protest. As the Buddhist adherents tried to approach Giac Minh Temple, they were blocked by police. Venerable Quang Do was among them, directing the protests to struggle not only against the police barricade but for Buddhism itself. In his book History of the Vietnamese Buddhist Struggle, Monk Tue Giac writes that after 10 am that morning, the protests had devolved into a fighting match with police. Venerable Quang Do suffered a head injury, blood pouring down his face. Any Buddhist who had not been arrested by police returned to Giac Minh Temple, resisting as barbed wire fencing kept more than 600 monks, nuns, and adherents barricaded for 54 hours. 

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Thich Quang Do (circled) directs a protest on the streets of Saigon, July 17h 1963. Source: HORST FAAS/AFP.

By August 20, 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem’s government was determined to restore order. A day after martial law was imposed, monks were arrested and adherents attacked. Venerable Quang Do was apprehended. Venerable Tri Quang went to the American Embassy to apply for amnesty. 

From that point until President Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination on November 2, 1963, the struggle raged between Buddhists, the Army, and international pressure. 

In December 1963, after the struggle had succeeded, Venerable Tri Quang along with other monks established the Unified Buddhist Church, Venerable Quang Do went overseas for medical treatment, and Venerable Nhat Hanh returned to Saigon. 

While Venerable Tri Quang mobilized Buddhist adherents, monks, and nuns to continue the political struggle, Nhat Hanh was able to fulfill his wish of establishing several campuses, including the La Boi Publishing House, Van Hanh University, the Youth School for Social Services, and the Tiep Hien Congregation (a congregation centered on the full integration of Buddhism into daily life).

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Thich Tri Quang walks among South Vietnamese soldiers in Danang, January 1965. Source: Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/CORBIS.

In May 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh headed to the US to campaign for an end to the war in Vietnam. After three months, the South Vietnamese government refused to let him return home. At the time, Thich Nhat Hanh began becoming world-renowned as the face for peace in Vietnam. The next year, Reverend Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Thich Nhat Hanh on his way to the United States to campaign for the end of war in Vietnam. His trip was originally planned to span three months, but after he left, the South Vietnamese government refused to let him return home again. Source: PVCEB.

A road diverged three ways

At the beginning of 2005, as the people proudly and warmly greeted his arrival, Zen Master Nhat Hanh was finally able to return home after more than 40 years away, accompanied by a Sangha of approximately 200 adherents. He conducted talks with audiences that included party members in Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi. 

Meanwhile, Venerable Quang Do lived in solitary confinement, locked in a room at Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City. Across the street were police whose only job was to keep an eye on him day and night. 

During his trip, Zen Master Nhat was able to visit Venerable Tri Quang but not Venerable Quang Do.

In the eyes of the Vietnamese media, Zen Master Nhat Hanh was someone to be immensely proud of, he was “flesh and blood” who had returned to his homeland to further contribute to the people’s well being. Venerable Quang Do, on the other hand, was a boil that the government tried every means to remove. But back then, both monks were cut from the same cloth, up until the day Saigon fell. 

After 1975, as Zen Master Nhat Hanh set up his Plum Village Monastery in France, Venerable Tri Quang was imprisoned for a year and a half in a hole the size of a coffin, which he was only allowed to leave for 15 minutes each day to wash up. From then on, people no longer saw him calling for protests or making demands for Buddhism; the international media was never able to make direct contact with him again for as long as he lived.

After the war, Venerable Quang Do along with a number of other monks fought for those who had self-immolated in the name of religious freedom and in protest of the new regime’s intention to eliminate the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. In a country with no international media, no independent courts, and no freedom of association, these efforts would be in vain, the number of immolated corpses perhaps outnumbering that of the old regime. He was never able to reach a compromise with the government, up until the day he died. 

Long ago, there lived three monks: Nhat Hanh, Tri Quang, and Quang Do. When the communists arrived, the lives of these three diverged completely. 

Correction (April 12, 2020): in a version of this article, we had written that Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh had entered the monastery at Tu Dam Temple. We wish to correct this to Tu Hieu Temple, in Hue.

Footnote:
[1] See numbers 2 to 28 in Buddhism Magazine, and Intention’s Road Home (Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh).

References:

This article was written by Tran Phuong and published by Luat Khoat magazine on April 12, 2020. It was translated by Will A. Nguyen.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – June 2020

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

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

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

[Religion 360°]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Tran Huu Duc. Photo: Cua Tung High School.

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

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

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

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

State newspapers warn against the activities of two unregistered sects

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

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

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

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

Land dispute between Dong Dinh Parish and Ninh Binh provincial authorities 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown persons trespass upon Thien An Monastery’s forests 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know?

Independent Cao Dai temples continue to be bullied over the years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Religion

LIV Launches Database on Religious Freedom in Vietnam

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Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa magazine

On July 17, 2020, Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV) launched its Database on Religious Freedom in Vietnam.

LIV is a non-profit organization based in California (United States) and is the organization that oversees both Luat Khoa Magazine and The Vietnamese. You can find more information about LIV and the reason the organization is based in the United States (and not Vietnam) here.

With this regularly-updated data, LIV hopes to begin documenting cases related to religious freedom, both past and present. 

It could be an issue related to the land dispute between the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church and Phu Yen provincial authorities. It could be the trial of an ethnic minority member from the Central Highlands who practiced Dega Protestantism or trials for those who promoted Falun Gong. 

It could also be the conflict between Hoa Hao Buddhists in An Giang Province regarding the restoration of the An Hoa Tu Temple or the scuffles between unaffiliated Hoa Hao Buddhists and local police.  

Currently, when you access this data, you will see 19 cases (among them, more than 20 events involving Falun Gong practitioners have been combined into one case), with more than 91 victims or persons directly involved. Other cases are still being updated.

To expand the number of readers, this data content will be presented in English. After consulting the Q&A information below, you can access data regarding freedom of religion here: www.liv.ngo/data

Why did LIV put together this database?

The multi-faceted religions of Vietnam are a national point of pride, and the strength of religion and faith has contributed to the ability of Vietnamese to persevere through difficult periods in history. 

After April 30, 1975, however, many people became victims of the Vietnamese state’s harsh religious policies. 

Although the strict control of religion has gradually decreased over time, the state still maintains a tight spiritual grip on religion. Activities that lay outside government control or that allegedly do not support the government’s efforts to build “national unity” are all seen as illegal. 

As an organization that primarily conducts journalism, LIV has encountered many difficulties in evaluating the situation regarding freedom of religion and faith in Vietnam. Unlike cases involving freedom of speech or other political cases, those involving religion are generally not known or else fall into obscurity. For cases that are known, information is spotty and lacking. We believe that other press and human rights organizations also encounter similar problems. 

Because of this, our initial data is created by compiling information regarding cases related to religious freedom in a systematic way. We hope this data can be a useful source of information for journalists, activists, as well as readers who care about the right to freedom of religion. 

How was the data compiled?

The compiled data is based on information coming from sources such as local and foreign journalists, as well as from human rights organizations. 

Furthermore, where such arrangements can be made, LIV will directly gather information from the people involved.

Database information only includes cases reported by journalists and those people directly involved. We will not provide our own viewpoints regarding these cases.

We hope readers will contribute information about cases that they are familiar with. For directions on how to contact us, please see the section “How Can I Provide Information?”

How do I read information from the data table?

Readers can view the data using the Air Table tool. This is an interactive spreadsheet tool that makes it easy to find information without having to switch tables.

When you open the link www.liv.ngo/data, you will see four tables: 1. Case, 2. People (victims), 3. Case Timeline, and 4. Supporting Documents.

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Photo Courtesy: Luat Khoa magazine

For information about each case, you only need to read Table 1. All information in the other, remaining tables are connected to this first one. 

In Table 1, you’ll see the name of each case in the first column, with the relevant information added across rows.

In the next four columns, you can filter cases according to more detailed information: Related religion, Issues, Location, and Status, by pressing the “Filter” button and entering the information you want filtered. 

For example: if you want to find cases that occurred in An Giang Province, press “Filter”, choose “Location”, and pick the province of “An Giang”.

In the three columns near the end of Table 1, including People, Case Timeline, and Supporting Documents, you can see that the information here is colored. With these three columns, you can click on the phrases in each cell to view more detailed information.

For example, if you want to read more information about individuals related to the case of Rlan Hip, an ethnic Jrai sentenced to seven years in prison for disrupting national unity, you can press on his name in People (victims) in Table 1. Information about the victim, Rlan Hip, will appear as follows:

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Photo Courtesy: Luat Khoa magazine

The People section includes the personal information of relevant individuals, such as birthdate, ethnicity, identifying photographs, gender, and activity timelines.

Case Timeline provides chronological summaries of cases based on information from  sources that we have quoted in the penultimate column of Table 1.

Supporting documents can be videos, photographs, or any materials related to each case.

Similarly, you can also filter data by Table 2. People (victims) to look at information according to gender, ethnicity, religion, and criminal prosecution.

How can I provide information?

We hope you can contribute to this religious freedom database as much as possible. Tell us about cases involving religious freedom that you know about or are directly involved in. 

Readers can send us information through this link: bit.ly/vuviectongiao. We’ll reach out to you as soon as possible to gather more information. You can also provide us information anonymously. Information provided will only be used for this religious freedom database and will not be given to any third party. 

As we compile and present data, it will be difficult to avoid errors, and we hope readers can take a little time to contribute their thoughts. Email us at tongiao@luatkhoa.org or religion@liv.ngo.

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