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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

Religion Bulletin, April 2021: The United States Proposes Putting Vietnam On The List Of Countries Of “Particular Concern.”

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The Vietnamese government is found to have systematically violated freedom of religion.

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Illustration: Luat Khoa

[Religion 360*]

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Proposal to put Vietnam on the list of countries of particular concern

In its latest report on religious freedom, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) proposed reinstating Vietnam onto the list of countries of particular concern (CPC).

Governments that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom are placed on the list of CPC. For countries on this list, the U.S. Congress will introduce non-economic policies before taking economic measures to stop violations.

USCIRF assessed that Vietnam’s religious freedom conditions in 2020 were as bleak as those in 2019. This is because the Vietnamese government enforces its Law on Faith and Religion, which contravenes international human rights standards and systematically violates religious freedom.

The organization listed numerous suppression and obstruction of religious freedom in Vietnam in 2020 involving independent religious groups and those recognised by the government.

Ethnic minority groups in mountainous areas that follow new religions and sects, Buddhist dignitaries, independent Cao Dai adherents, Protestants, Catholic clergy members, and prisoners of conscience are victims of the Vietnamese government’s strict religious policies. 

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The USCIRF’s 2021 report on religious freedom. Photo: USCIRF.

Specific instances of religious suppression in 2020 that USCIRF cited:

  • Suppressing religious activities conducted by ethnic minorities Hmong and Montagnard in the Central Highlands.
  • Limiting the religious activities of independent Hoa Hao Buddhists.
  • Interfering in the funeral of Venerable Thich Quang Do, the fourth patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church.
  • Obstructing the Unified Buddhist Church’s relief efforts in Thua Thien – Hue Province.
  • Harassing independent Cao Dai followers, attempting to take over their temples, and forcing them to unite with state-recognized churches. 
  • Harassing and attacking clergy members of Thien An Abbey over a land dispute.
  • Subjecting prisoner of conscience Nguyen Bac Truyen to poor prison conditions and limiting his access to medical care; refusing to provide the prisoner of conscience Le Dinh Luong a Bible.
  • Using Article 34 of the Law on Faith and Religion to interfere in the election affairs of a state-recognized religion. 

Deputy Minister of Home Affairs: “False religions” must be stopped

At the beginning of April 2021, Vu Chien Thang, deputy minister of the Ministry of Home Affairs and head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, affirmed the need to stop “false religions” from illegally operating and affecting social life.

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Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Home Affairs and head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Vu Chien Thang, talks about stopping “false religions”. Photo: Xuan Thu / TTXVN.

The Ministry of Home Affairs deputy minister stated that factions, sects, and illegal religious phenomena had appeared in many locations.

Afterwards, the head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs presented two solutions to deal with new religions.

First, local religious committees have to coordinate with other organizations, such as the police, to stop illegal religious activities in a timely manner.

Second, state-recognized religions have a responsibility to direct citizens towards their organizations. 

That there is no place for new religions in Vietnam has been the government’s consistent message for many years.  

In April 2021, Tuyen Quang Newspaper also reported that Tuyen Quang Province was currently seeing many new religious activities of a superstitious nature. These religious activities were being used to oppose the government.

The activities of new religions are never presented from multiple viewpoints. Instead, the press covers these religious phenomena from the government’s vantage, which predominantly opposes religious activities not recognized by the state. 

New religions are multiplying in Vietnam by the day, but the government’s hardline view pushes many followers to practice surreptitiously and without legal registration. 

Vietnam has regulations regarding the registration of religious activities, but the majority of them are dependent on the subjective views of the government and their acceptance of the religion.

The government asserts three reasons for the abandonment of new religions. First, new religions contain superstitious activities. Second, new religions have different tenets and conceptions from state-recognized religions, ruining customs and distorting culture. And third, new religions (such as Falun Gong) have a political agenda.

Greater Unity Newspaper: Investigate party members and state cadres that participated in the Humanity Club

In April 2021, the state press continued to investigate the activities of the Humanity Club (HC), a spiritual organization operating as a private enterprise.

We summarized notable events related to this organization in a recent bulletin. The Government Committee accused the HC of Religious Affairs and other state organizations of propagating superstitions and defrauding members.

This time, the Greater Unity Newspaper (which belongs to the Vietnamese Fatherland Front and aligned with the Vietnamese Communist Party) confirmed that some Party members and low-level and high-level state cadres were members of this club.

“Information obtained by Greater Unity reveals that the list of HC participants includes the former vice chairman of Hanoi city and even leaders who currently hold important government positions,” the Greater Unity Newspaper claimed.

Furthermore, the paper stated that some lecturers and cadres (without naming specific individuals) from a roster of universities, academies, and schools have participated in the club. 

The paper also asked that Party and State organizations “quickly deal with offenders” who had participated in and had propagated a superstitious organization.

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A meeting of the Humanity Club. Photo: Greater Unity Newspaper.

Followers of the Ba-ni religion protest their merge with Islam

At the end of April 2021, the Ba-ni religious community strongly protested on social media the requirement that they list their religion to be Islam or “other” when applying for new ID cards.

The Ba-ni religion is not recognized by the state as Buddhism and Catholicism are. Those who follow the religion are lumped together by the State with those who follow Islam.

Ba-ni religious followers are ethnic Cham, a long-standing indigenous group in Vietnam. Cham Ba-ni practitioners state that their practices and rituals are different from those of Muslims. Thus, they do not accept the merging of their religion with Islam. 

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Two Cham Ba-ni clergymen prepare betel leaves to place at the foot of a gravestone in a gravesite cleansing ritual. Photo: Ninh Thuan Newspaper.

Government vague in requiring faith certifications when citizens declare their religion on new ID cards

Vietnam’s new identity cards do not indicate the religions of their owners. However, the government is requiring that people declare their religion on their ID applications.

At the beginning of 2021, the government began issuing citizens new ID cards fitted with chips. Police in several provinces and cities have mandated that citizens present their faith certifications when they declare their religions.

This mandate has alarmed many religious followers, who practice their religion without faith certifications.

On April 24, 2021, Ho Chi Minh City authorities announced that citizens could declare their religions when applying for new ID cards without faith certifications.

At present, other provinces have yet to make similar announcements.

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Citizens apply for new ID cards in Hai Ba Trung District in Hanoi on March 9, 2021. Photo: VnExpress.

Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, head of the Buddhist Department under the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, stated to  Giac Ngo Newspaper at the end of March 2021: “There is nothing troublesome about requiring Buddhist faith certifications.”

On April 14, 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs confirmed that different locations had different requirements for religious declarations and new ID cards.

Nghe An: Government blocks two groups from the World Mission Society Church of God from operating

On April 12, 2021, Nghe An provincial authorities reported to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs that religious activities were still being exploited to oppose the government in the province.

The information above was brought up during a summary conference in Nghe An, marking three years since implementing the Law on Faith and Religion and its attendant 2017 decree.

Provincial authorities stated that the state’s management of religion was not tight enough, allowing some individuals to exploit religious activities to oppose the government.

The statement did not identify any religion in particular, but the situation on the ground reveals that the authorities were alluding to the dignitaries and followers of Catholicism. 

In 2020, Father Dang Huu Nam was transferred out of My Khanh Parish, and his pastoral duties were stopped. Father Nam is known for leading parishioners to sue the Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company after the central coast environmental disaster. Authorities had long demanded his transfer and the cessation of his pastoral duties.

On April 7, 2021, VOV Newspaper reported that Anh Son suburban district police in Nghe An Province had obstructed proselytizing activities at a private residence in Phuc Son Commune. The activities involved six adults and six children from the World Mission Society Church of God, a religion the government fiercely suppresses. Police dispersed the meeting and confiscated exhibits, computers, and proselytizing materials.

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The children and adults of the World Mission Society Church of God blocked by police from proselytizing in Phuc Son Commune, Anh Son Suburban District, Nghe An Province. Photo: VOV Newspaper.

On April 19, 2021, the authorities blocked another group from the World Mission Society Church of God from conducting religious activities in an apartment in the city of Vinh. The People’s Public Security Newspaper reported that the police had brought approximately 11 adults and five children to the Hung Dung Ward police station for investigation. Religious documents and objects were confiscated, and local authorities were instructed by police to “supervise and educate” those involved.

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Followers of the World Mission Society Church of God were blocked from conducting religious activities on April 19, 2021, in the city of Vinh. Photo: People’s Public Security Newspaper.

This year’s commemoration of “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day” again interrupted by the authorities

In 2020, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church reported that An Giang provincial authorities once again prevented followers from congregating to mark “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day”.

Beginning on April 4, 2021, authorities set up two checkpoints on the road leading to the headquarters of the Central Directors Committee of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church in Long Giang Commune, Cho Moi Suburban District, An Giang Province.

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On April 5, 2021, police set up a checkpoint on the road leading to the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church’s commemoration site, one day before the event. Photo: Le Quang Hien.

After being blocked from their headquarters, many of the church’s dignitaries moved the prayer site to another location.

Furthermore, on April 5, 2021, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church’s Communications Department reported that security forces had tailed the church’s directors.

Other Hoa Hao Buddhists celebrated at home by setting up altars and hanging flags and banners. There have yet to be any reports of police harassment and obstruction at private residences during this year’s commemoration.

The Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the government, has never organized for this holiday, which is among three major holidays for Hoa Hao Buddhists. 

[Did You Know?]

The difference between the Ba-ni Cham and the Islamic Cham

According to researcher Inrasara, Islam began to influence the Champa kingdom in the 16th Century. During that time, Islam arrived by way of wealthy Arab merchants who had left China to spread the religion southward.

As it made its way into the kingdom, Islam entered into large and persistent conflict with indigenous Cham inhabitants who followed Hinduism. By the time of King Po Rome’s reign (1627 – 1651), Islam had indigenized to become the Ba-ni religion.

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The attire of Ba-ni Cham women (left) and Islamic Cham women. Photo (from left): Inra Jaya, Lam Vien Nui Cam.

Today, Cham people who follow Islam in the areas of An Giang, Tay Ninh, and Ho Chi Minh City; Cham people who follow Ba-la-mon (a Hindu religion) and the Ba-ni religion mainly reside in the two provinces of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan. 

The 2019 census only recorded the number of followers of Islam and Ba-la-mon, providing no figures for the Ba-ni Cham.

According to statistics from April 1, 1999, Vietnam had a total of 152,132 ethnic Cham. [1] Among them, Ninh Thuan had 61,000 people; Binh Thuan 29,312; An Giang 30,000; Binh Dinh and Phu Yen 20,000; Ho Chi Minh City 5,000; Dong Nai 3,000; Tay Ninh 3,000; and Binh Phuoc and Binh Duong 1,000. According to the Nation and Development Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs, there were approximately 31,000 Ba-ni Cham in 2018.

Ba-ni Cham has different religious activities from Islamic Cham. They believe in Allah, but they also worship the gods of rain, the seas, and the mountains, as well as their ancestors. They have lost the tradition of going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Vegetarianism and daily prayer are carried out in September and only by laypeople. The influence of matriarchy has caused Ba-ni Cham to focus more on the karơh ceremony for women than the katat ceremony for men (both are initiation ceremonies the Ba-ni religion reserves for boys and girls when they reach puberty).[2]


References:

[1] Inrasara, Journeys and Home, page 16, Writers Association Publishing House.

[2] Inrasara, Cham Wisdom, page 106, Knowledge Publishing House.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin, March 2021: More Ethnic Montagnards Under Scrutiny For Religious Activities In Phu Yen

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[Religion Flashpoints]

Map and data source: Phu Yen Province People’s Committee

Phu Yen police: “Where are the papers certifying this group site?”

In March 2021, the Youtube page DAK LAK NEWS published a clip showing the authorities and commune police arriving to stop the religious activities of Montagnards in Khit Village, Ia Lam Commune, Song Hinh District, Phu Yen Province.

More than 10 ethnic Montagnards, including seniors, women, and children, sat and listened to the allegations as police prepared to file a report against them.

Source: DAK LAK NEWS.

Based on a government representative’s recitation of the document, the incident occurred at an unspecified date. Police vehemently objected to a phone user recording the meeting.

Police repeatedly and loudly asked: “Where are the papers certifying this group site?”.

This is likely a case of the police and the authorities attempting to prevent religious activities at “unauthorized” congregation sites, in accordance with the 2016 Law on Religion and Faith.

According to this law, when registering group religious activities, registrants must declare to local authorities the religious activities and festivals to be organized. The local authorities can then either approve or deny the permit for group religious activities.

In January 2021, Phu Yen provincial authorities organized a public interrogation of five ethnic Montagnard people for following the Protestant Church of Christ (UMCC) in Ia Lam Commune, Song Hinh District.

That was not the only interrogation session ethnic Montagnard Protestants have faced in Phu Yen.

Another group of Protestants under scrutiny in Phu Yen Province

At the beginning of April 2021, Public Security News reported that Phu Yen provincial police and Song Hinh district police put detained four ethnic Montagnard for public interrogation following UMCC. The public interrogation took place in Song Hinh village or, Song Hinh district. 

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From left: Ma Lang, Ma Sing, Ma Duyen, and Ma Phep during their public interrogation in Song Hinh Village, Song Hinh District. Photo: People’s Public Security Newspaper.

According to the article, Ma Lang, Ma Sing, Ma Duyen, and Ma Phep were accused of following UMCC, connecting with individuals overseas to carry out unauthorized religious activities, and providing information on social issues in order to lower Vietnam’s reputation before the international community.

During the public interrogation session, Ma Lang stated that he would leave UMCC.

The article also accused the human rights organization BPSOS of “spreading propaganda, developing armed forces, and enticing” numerous ethnic Montagnards into following UMCC. Currently, there is no information on any other form of punishment meted out to the four ethnic Montagnards. 

Phu Yen will likely be a religious flashpoint in 2021. The recent suppressive activities demonstrate that the government is putting pressure on ethnic Montagnard Protestants, especially followers of the Protestant Church of Christ.

[Religion 360*]

A Hanoi club accused of spreading superstitions

On March 23, 2021, Greater Unity Newspaper (Báo Đại Đoàn Kết), an organization of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, launched a series of articles on a club that the newspaper asserted was spreading superstitions and deceiving its members.

The reported club, named the Humanity Club (HC), has operated in Hanoi since July 2019. The club is legally registered as a limited liability company.

Greater Unity Newspaper accused the Humanity Club of spreading superstitions regarding spirits, collecting and modifying the teachings of other religions to propagate to members, and forcing members to raise money for charity.

Greater Unity Newspaper also cited former members who now opposed to the club.

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A meeting of the Humanity Club. Photo: Humanity Club.

After Greater Unity Newspaper’s series on the Humanity Club, state organizations began intervening. Below is the official timeline of events:

  • March 23, 2021: Greater Unity Newspaper launches reports on the Humanity Club.
  • March 27, 2021: Secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee demands the Hanoi People’s Committee begin an investigation to clarify and verify the information. 
  • March 29, 2021:
    • The Government Committee For Religious Affairs confirms that the Humanity Club’s activities spread superstitions. 
    • The Office of Publishing, Printing, and Distribution suspends publication of the book “God Bestows upon Mankind an Intellectual Foundation” (book of Dharma) used by the Humanity Club.
  • March 30, 2021: The Government Committee For Religious Affairs confirms that the book of Dharma has elements of superstition, causes fear and confusion among readers, and negatively impacts citizen morale.
  • March 31, 2021: the Ministry of Public Security announces an investigation of the Humanity Club.
  • April 1, 2021: The Humanity Club announces a temporary suspension of operations and moves out of its headquarters.
  • April 2, 2021: The Hanoi Committee For Religious Affairs announces that it will conduct an interdisciplinary inspection of the Humanity Club.

According to Vietnamnet – a state-owned newspaper – a club member stated that the club had, of its own volition, returned all money it had received from the individual on April 7, 2021, including dues and other donations.

The club’s website and Facebook page announced a temporary suspension of operations in order to find a new venue. It has yet to publish any response to the accusations of Greater Unity Newspaper and other government bodies.

Bac Kan: Two groups from the World Mission Society Church of God prevented from practicing religion

According to Youth Newspaper, on March 27, 2021, Bac Kan city police blocked two groups of the World Mission Society Church of God from carrying out religious activities and confiscated a number of religious materials.

The first group consisted of six people and operated at a private residence in the Tong Neng Cluster, Huyen Tung Ward, Bac Kan City. The second group included five people and operated from a hostel in Duc Xuan Ward, Bac Kan City. 

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The first group of the World Mission Society Church of God prevented by Bac Kan city police from operating. Photo: Quoc Huy / Youth Newspaper.

Bac Kan city police stated that this church was not recognized by the government. It accused the church of organizing group religious activities, “complicating social order and muddling the religious lives of citizens.”

According to VietCatholic News, the World Mission Society Church of God was established in South Korea and arrived in Vietnam in 2001.

In 2018, the state press and the Vietnamese government began paying attention to the organization, putting pressure on the church’s operating groups. The Vietnamese government sees the World Mission Society Church of God as a cult.

An Hoa Parish: Pray for the land seized by the state

On March 29, 2021, An Hoa Parish (in the city of Da Nang) organized a prayer session for a piece of parish land that the government was partitioning and selling. 

According to Thai Ha Media, the piece of land is owned by An Hoa Parish. Before 1975, it was the parish’s Gioan XXIII School. 

An Hoa Parish was established in 1960, and the majority of parishioners are northerners who moved south in 1954.

After 1975, the Gioan XXIII School, along with other parish structures, including a printing press and a livestock farm, were requisitioned by the government. For years, the school was left abandoned, and the land on which it sits is now being partitioned and sold. 

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This piece of land was previously the site of An Hoa Parish’s Gioan XXIII School. Photo: An Hoa Parish.

An Hoa Parish stated that it had sent 12 complaints to Da Nang authorities from May 23, 2019, to January 16, 2021, but never received any kind of response. On January 16, 2021, An Hoa Parish reported that it rejected the Da Nang Office of Natural Resources and the Environment’s proposal regarding the parish’s complaints. The parish did not elaborate on the content of the proposal.

Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church: Determined to celebrate “Virtuous Master Huynh’s Disappearance Day”

The Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church announced that it would, by all means, celebrate “Virtuous Master Huynh’s Disappearance Day” this year, even if it meant facing government suppression.

“Virtuous Master Huynh’s Disappearance Day,” also called “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day,” is a holiday to commemorate the work of Huynh Phu So, the founder of Hoa Hao Buddhism, and his disappearance after a meeting with the Viet Minh on February 25, 1947. To this day, no one knows what actually happened to him.

After April 30, 1975, Hoa Hao Buddhism was banned. It was not until 1999 that the government allowed the religion to operate again, through a newly-formed church tightly controlled by the state. This new church has never celebrated “Virtuous Master’s Disappearance Day”.

Hoa Hao Buddhists still do not know when the state will allow them to openly celebrate this important holiday.

In years past, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church still celebrated the holiday, though under tight supervision. Activities had to be limited as much as possible.

Practitioners were allowed to hang up signs and set up altars, but only in their private residences. Other Buddhist holidays, however, are allowed by the government to be celebrated publicly on the streets and with large gatherings.

Ministry of Home Affairs: the government is paying special attention to the religious activities of indigenous peoples

The year 2021 will remain a difficult one for indigenous peoples, as the government remains highly concerned about their religious activities.

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A meeting of the Ministry of Home Affairs regarding the religious activities of ethnic minorities. Photo: Government Committee For Religious Affairs.

The Ministry of Home Affairs reported that currently, there are approximately 2.8 million indigenous people who are religious. Among them, the majority follow Buddhism (mainly Khmer) and Protestantism.

In a conference on the religious activities of indigenous peoples, the Ministry confirmed that the government was paying particular attention to the topic. 

The Ministry of Home Affairs stated that there remained activities that took advantage of religion to incite protests and destabilize security and order, and also noted the emergence and operation of many new religious phenomena in a number of ethnic minority areas.

In the conference, Vu Chien Thang, deputy head of the Ministry of Home Affairs and head of the Government Committee For Religious Affairs, stated that moving forward, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs would maintain closer cooperation with the National Assembly’s Committee For Ethnic Minority Affairs regarding the religious activities of indigenous groups. 

Without participating in state-controlled religious organizations, the indigenous community has almost no other way to engage in religious activities. The government continues to see those outside their control as threats to national security.

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Religion

The Collision Of Religion And The Vietnamese State

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Graphics: Legal Initiatives for Vietnam

The Separation of Church and State is a concept that has been accepted and promulgated by several democratic countries in the modern era. While the seeds of this idea were planted during the late Middle Ages and the Reformation, it was only during the early years of the establishment of the United States of America that this idea started to blossom. 

While this concept is often construed to simply mean that religion should not intertwine with politics, the more comprehensive meaning is as follows: “it is the right to practice any faith, or to have no faith [at all].” As such, the state has no right to interject, interfere, or hinder an individual’s practice of his or her beliefs; ideally, no laws or statutes will be passed that will limit a person’s free exercise of his or her faith.

The Vietnamese Communist Party, however, has chosen to take a radically different approach towards religion. 

Legal Initiatives For Vietnam (LIV) released its legal research in September 2020, penned by Vo Quoc Hung Thinh, in which the author presented the many difficulties, challenges, and hurdles that religious organizations face when they deal with the Vietnamese state. 

The writer also highlights the existing institutionalized discrimination against religions in Vietnam and gives us a glimpse into how the state’s direct interference affects believers as well. 

Faith and Law

Several documents and resolutions have been passed by the VCP that perfectly illustrate its stance towards religious organizations. 

Vo Quoc Hung Thinh noted in his research that in its Resolution 297/CP Concerning Policy on Religion (1976), the Vietnamese government, at least on paper, claimed to acknowledge the right of freedom of religion and supposedly guaranteed equality under the law.  

However, it also emphasized, “that religions shall not be ‘exploited’ to bring harm to the Socialist State.” This resolution then states that the faithful “shall be educated to ensure the spirit of socialist patriotism” and that “ ‘[r]eactionary’ elements hiding inside religions shall be eradicated.”

This resolution seems to assume that religious organizations are going to be used to subvert state authority. And while it is possible for this to happen, this is not something specific for religion itself; any coalition or gathering of people can fulfill this role just as well or even better than a Sunday Bible Study group; to focus on religion is discriminatory and goes against the concept of equality under the law.

Vo Quoc Hung Thinh also noted in his legal research that Resolution 40 –NQ/TW, which focused on religion management in the new situation (October 1, 1981), mentioned several religions that existed in the former Republic of Vietnam (1955-1975) and discussed the “state of socialist enlightenment” among practitioners who belonged to them. 

For instance, regarding the Catholic Church that existed in the former Republic of Vietnam, the current Vietnamese government believed that the followers of this religion were “vulnerable to anti-communist propaganda.” 

Another example would be that of the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam (UBSV). The resolution stated that the leaders of this religion were already somewhat “re-educated” but that the party needed “to abolish UBSV and unify Buddhism in Vietnam under the supervision of the Communist Party.”

While this resolution document is quite outdated and old, through it, we can catch a glimpse of how the VCP deals with religious groups. 

The Communist Party monitors both followers and spiritual leaders in Vietnam, gathers data about them, and directly interferes in the teachings and belief systems of religion. This runs contrary to the right of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

Vo also noted that Resolution 25 – NQ/TW, which focused on the National Central Committee on Religion Management (2003), was drafted after the Doi Moi era when Vietnam wanted to join the World Trade Organization. 

This resolution, therefore, removed most of the aggressive language used in prior legislation but kept several “core principles” intact. This particular document stated that “any religion must be recognized by the State and religious activities shall be subject to [the] State’s regulations and supervision.” It also maintained that there were still “reactionary elements” hiding in various religious groups and that the government shall prepare to defeat any of them. 

All three of these resolutions illustrate, that despite the passage of time, not much has changed in the way the VCP thinks about religious organizations. They are still seen as threats to the Party’s power, and as such, have to be destroyed or controlled. And despite what the VCP might claim, the Party does not respect freedom of belief nor provide these groups equal protection under the law. 

Faith and Red Tape

For religions to be formally recognized in Vietnam, and for them to also have some semblance of protection against state forces, they have to register and be approved by the government. 

Human Rights Watch reported in October 2020 that failure to do so can lead to the arrest, imprisonment, interrogation, and torture of the leaders or followers of these religions. Hence, for the sake of self-preservation, it is in their best interest to comply.

However, this process is far from convenient. 

In order to be recognized, religious groups in Vietnam first need to obtain a Certificate of Religion Operation. Five years later, they then need to formally apply for official recognition. Only upon completion of these two requirements are they, at least on paper, afforded all the rights, benefits, and protections that they should have been given 10 years earlier. 

This process, which is explained in detail in Vietnam’s Law on Religions and Beliefs 02/2016/QH14 (LBB), passed on November 18, 2016, is also vulnerable to abuse by the Vietnamese authorities. 

LIV’s research paper also highlights the case of the religious group An Dan Dai Dao (ADDD), which was established in 1969. It is a sect of Buddhism which had a network of 14 temples and thousands of followers before 1975. After Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, the new ruling Vietnamese Communist Party accused ADDD of working with the Central Intelligence Agency. 

ADDD was also not granted registration, which led to its properties being taken away by the government; their followers were also forced into hiding. 

In 2003, adherents tried to jumpstart their religion once more due to the perceived reforms going on in Vietnam. However, they were once again persecuted by the state. 

Phan Van Thu of ADDD. Picture: The 88 Project.

In 2013, Phan Van Thu, the leader of ADDD, was sentenced to life imprisonment while 21 other leaders were sentenced to a collective total of 299 years in prison and 105 years of house arrest. To this day, the ADDD situation holds the record of having the highest sentence ever imposed in a political-religious case in Vietnam.

Those incarcerated are currently dealing with abuse and maltreatment, and are faced with the very real possibility of death.

In denying the ADDD sect the right to register, the Vietnamese state branded the group as criminals and treated them as such despite ADDD’s lack of involvement in any political activities. 

The followers of this religion have faced persecution for more than 40 years for simply practicing their faith and holding firm to a belief they deem essential to their human existence. This situation casts a bright light on the black bleeding heart of the VCP and exposes the lengths the government is willing to go to destroy its own people. 

Faith and Freedom

Even state-approved religious organizations have to constantly deal with the ever-watchful eye of the VCP. 

LIV research also states that these organizations are required to get the state’s permission and approval for various things such as hosting religious events whether inside or outside their designated place of worship or for something as simple as a change in leadership within their organizations. 

The locations where religious structures can be built also require the state’s consent. In effect, rather than portraying strength, the VCP presents itself as being unhealthily obsessed with religious groups, their leaders, and the many people who are part of them. 

This is not at all surprising; as Marx, the father of the hammer and sickle, once stated “religion is the opium of the people.” 

In Communism, religion is seen as something undesirable, as something taboo, and as something that must be purged. We’ve seen this in the history of many Eastern and Central European countries when they were under the rule of the former Soviet Union.

Vietnam is going through the same motions. Yet, we’ve also seen that after the fall of the USSR, religion never truly went away. 

In religion, people find hope; people find something greater than themselves that they aspire to attain, whether it may be the afterlife, heaven, nirvana, or enlightenment. In faith, they find purpose; they find direction and guidance to help them navigate the tumultuous sea of life with the company of those who choose to travel the same path. 

In belief, they find freedom.

And this is what the VCP fears the most: that the people will no longer be dependent on them for subsistence and survival. They fear for a time when their countrymen start to dream or come to know of a world outside the Party’s tiny dictatorship. They fear a populace that holds another being in higher regard than the crumbling corpse of Ho Chi Minh. 

The VCP fears becoming obsolete. Yet in the end, that is exactly what it fated to be.

Long after Vietnam has risen above the shackles of authoritarianism and long after it has reached a future of true and genuine democracy, the Party will be gone. 

But religion will be there to stay.

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