This article was first published on 06/21/2020 in Vietnamese by Luat Khoa Magazine with Thái Thanh as the author. The English translation was first published by the US-Vietnam Research Center at the University of Oregon.
In simplest terms, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs is the “church” of all churches in Vietnam.
As you read this article, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs is burning through its 64.9 billion dong (US$2.8 million). Though details of its budget are not made public, we know only 60.7 billion dong are used for committee activities.
At the local level, Luat Khoa has read through all 2020 budget estimates for Vietnamese provinces and cities, but only 14 provinces have enumerated the amounts distributed to their provincial and municipal religious committees.
In 2020, the religious committees of these 14 provinces and municipalities were provided 33.965 billion dong. If this number is extrapolated to include all 63 cities and provinces, the approximate total would reach more than 152.840 billion, equivalent to about 60 percent of the 2020 budget for Vietnam Television (VTV).
Phu Tho Province has earmarked 600 million dong of a budgeted 1.885 billion dong (~78,000 USD) to celebrate festivities and welcome religious dignitaries.
In Thanh Hoa, the provincial religious committee is allotted 5.14 billion dong, five times the amount given to the province’s SOS Children’s Village; what this money is used for, however, is not publicly disclosed.
The numbers above do not include the budgets provided for hundreds of religious affairs offices at the urban district, district, and provincial city levels.
But what do the Government Committee for Religious Affairs and local religious offices do anyway, and are they worthy of taxpayer money?
Back then, back then…
According to the Government Committee on Religious Affairs, the forerunner to the committee was established in 1955 as the “Central Committee on Religion”, directly responsible to the prime minister’s office.
At the time, the task of this committee was to: “Network with religions, and in particular, implement their abilities to mobilize”.
But given the partition of the country at the time, in what ways did this committee “network” with and “mobilize” religions?
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has written in The History of Vietnamese Buddhism that in the north, no Buddhist periodicals were allowed to be published, no Buddhist institutes were allowed to accept disciples, no prayer books were printed, orphanages were shuttered, monks under the age of 30 had to give up their robes and don army fatigues or peasant garb to produce (for the state), churches no longer had anything with which to practice and their land had to be “donated” to the state in order to build socialism. 
Monks who disagreed with the government were quickly isolated until their deaths, as happened with the Venerable Thich To Lien, Venerable Thich Vinh Tuong, and Venerable Thich Tri Hai.
In 1975, this northern tradition of controlling and subjugating religion was applied to the south. Scores of self-immolations by monks and nuns occurred to protest the discriminatory religious policies of the new government. Arrested monks were sent to re-education camps, tortured, and some even died in prison, such as the Venerable Thich Thien Minh. Others were confined to wheelchairs after their time behind bars, such as Venerable Thich Tri Quang.
Up until the late 1980s, the government saw religion and popular faiths as impediments on the path to socialism. Hoa Hao Buddhism and the Cao Dai religion were seen as “heresies”, tools of foreign countries.
It was not until the 90s that the Communist Party of Vietnam began to accept that religious morality was compatible with “Doi Moi” policies.
The Government Committee on Religious Affairs at the time had the dual task of controlling and utilizing the power of religion; ancestor worship was no longer seen as superstition. Boat people were called to return home to pay respects and send foreign currency to relatives.
By the late 1990s, the Cao Dai religion and Hoa Hao Buddhism were both begrudgingly accepted by the state after millions of followers had suffered more than 20 years of government discrimination.
And now, and now…
Three recent activities carried out by the Government Committee on Religious Affairs give us a good overview of what the body does currently, outside of its tasks of issuing regulations and controlling the publication of religious works.
The first has to do with Dinh Quang Tien, the head of Cao Dai Affairs, meeting with the Tien Thien Cao Dai Church to prepare for the All-sect Congress of Nhon Sanh Representatives.
According to the Government Committee on Religious Affairs, during this meeting, Mr. Tien directed the church’s internal affairs, “building regulations regarding public dignitaries and functionaries and regulations resolving petitions and complaints; and publicly electing dignitaries with sufficient qualifications for the Church’s Senate, Standing Committee, and Chambers.”
The second concerns deputy head Tran Thi Minh Nga chairing a seminar on “Deviance within Religious Activities in Vietnam Today”, with the participation of the Fatherland Front, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Travel.
Not only does it control religions within the country, but the Government Committee on Religious Affairs also extends its arm overseas.
On June 18, 2020, leaders of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs and the State Committee on Overseas Vietnamese held a meeting regarding the religious activities of the five million Vietnamese living overseas.
During this meeting, the Committee confirmed that the latter organizes annual trips overseas to “meet with communities, understand their sentiments and aspirations, exchange views with local authorities, and suggest ways to help Vietnamese communities with religious and spiritual activities”.
On the Committee website, its regularly-posted activities include organizing conferences and visiting local and overseas locations to conduct business with religions and the relevant city and provincial authorities. However, this committee does not publicize its budget as other bodies do.
In its 2020 budget estimate, this committee is the only body in the Ministry of the Interior to provide 1 billion dong for environmental protection activities. A portion of this money appears to be earmarked for the “National Conference on the Role of Religion in Protecting the Environment and Responding to Climate Change”.
Today, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs has become the “Church” of all churches in Vietnam, at once interfering in the internal affairs of religions while also trying to determine the “religious standards” for society.
Different from democratic countries, where religious organizations operate independently, religious organizations in Vietnam that want official recognition must operate as though they were a government body. On that front, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs functions as an intermediary for the state to control religious activities.
Laudable “achievements” that have yet to be lauded
The Government Committee on Religious Affairs also has its share of achievements which have not been shared on its website.
Currently, in Thailand, there are more than 1,000 Montagnards who are religious refugees. They fled their villages in the Central Highlands with their families and went to Thailand after being harassed and oppressed, and some were even jailed for many years for wanting to practice their religions freely or demanding the return of land to locals. Some went separately with their families, while others traveled together in large groups; some even had the misfortune of falling victim to human trafficking networks.
In Dien Bien, the authorities forced residents to sign a pledge renouncing the “Gie Sua” religion. A lieutenant colonel from a provincial border guard post stated that he went from house to house, rationalizing the reasons, and then asked residents to sign a pledge renouncing the religion.
The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam,established in 1964, was no longer recognized by the government in 1975. Leading members of the church were closely monitored; Venerable Thich Quang Do was under surveillance until his death, and Buddhist temples regularly faced harassment from the authorities.
In An Giang Province, independent Hoa Hao Buddhists organize every year to mark the day the religion’s founder disappeared from his home. Many scuffles have broken out between independent Hoa Hao Buddhists and police, with many followers handed lengthy jail sentences for “obstruction of officials”.
Independent Cao Dai followers are struggling with “state-run Cao Dai” to protect the former’s remaining temples. On June 18, 2020, in the city of Tuy Hoa, Phu Yen Province, “State-run Cao Dai” tried to confiscate the Hieu Xuong Temple, which belonged to independent followers.
From 2009 to 2019, the number of followers of the Cao Dai religion and Hoa Hao Buddhism has decreased dramatically.
The Cao Dai religion has lost approximately 76 percent of its followers. Of approximately 2.4 million followers in 2009, only 556,234 remain, according to the 2019 Census.
Hoa Hao Buddhism has lost nearly a third of its followers compared to numbers from 2009. Follower count has decreased from 1,433,252 in 2009 to 983,079. During his return to Vietnam in 2007, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggested that the state dissolve both the Government Committee on Religious Affairs and the police division overseeing religion because they did more harm for religion than good.
He stated that this police division and the Government Committee on Religious Affairs were erroneous emulations from China and lamented that the Vietnamese government still held onto them.
 Việt Nam Phật giáo Sử Luận (Translated: The History of Vietnamese Buddhism), Nguyễn Lang (pen name of Thich Nhat Hanh), p. 744.
The original Vietnamese version of this article is on Luat Khoa Tap chi. Translated by Will Nguyen.
Religion Bulletin, April 2021: The United States Proposes Putting Vietnam On The List Of Countries Of “Particular Concern.”
The Vietnamese government is found to have systematically violated freedom of religion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.  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).
 Inrasara, Journeys and Home, page 16, Writers Association Publishing House.
 Inrasara, Cham Wisdom, page 106, Knowledge Publishing House.
Religion Bulletin, March 2021: More Ethnic Montagnards Under Scrutiny For Religious Activities In Phu Yen
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Collision Of Religion And The Vietnamese State
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.
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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