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Religion Bulletin – August 2020

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Discover the four common tactics the Vietnamese authorities use to suppress religious organizations in [The Government’s Reach]. In [Religion 360°], we continue coverage of the parishes resisting the government acquisition of schools borrowed after 1975, along with other news. Learn a bit about the Khmer Krom movement in [On This Day], where we discuss the arrest of a former Khmer temple head in Tra Vinh.

If you have any suggestions or would like to join us in writing reports, please email us at: tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org

[The Government’s Reach]

Four tactics the Vietnamese authorities use to suppress religious organizations 

For years, the government has used multiple tactics to suppress religious organizations it does not agree with.  The authorities refer to their actions as “professional”, but in common parlance, these actions are more “cloak and dagger”. The following are the four most common tactics used by the government to suppress religious organizations.  

  1. Organizing crowds to protest

The land dispute at Thien An Abbey continued to escalate in August 2020. On August 10 and 11, a group of about 40 individuals organized a protest to speak out against Thien An Abbey for sitting on their and the government’s land. Protestors used large signs and loudspeakers to threaten and insult monks while standing on the disputed land. According to the  abbey, the crowd’s organizers were cadres of the Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee, along with a number of police, as well as cadres from social organizations such as the Women’s Association. 

Crowds protest at Thien An Abbey on the afternoon of August 11, 2020. Source: Good News to the Poor.

In May 2017, an enormous mobilized force of between 1,000 to 3,000 people organized a week-long protest to speak out against Father Dang Huu Nam, the head of Phu Yen Parish in Vinh Diocese. This force criticized the clergyman’s words against the government and his actions when he assisted parishioners in suing the Ha Tinh Formosa Co. a year after the company caused a marine environmental disaster in 2016. 

A protest opposing Father Dang Huu Nam in May 2017. Source: People’s Police

In Vietnam, protests like these cannot be organized without the backing of the government. They’re put together to smear and lower the prestige of religious organizations that the government does not approve of.

  1. Using state media 

The protests against the monks of Thien An Abbey were reported in detail by the Thua Thien – Hue Province state media. After the protests, Thua Thien – Hue newspapers published two articles on August 18, 2020 and August 26, 2020 accusing the monks of surreptitiously taking land and falsely slandering the authorities with accusations of oppression. Hue Radio-Television broadcast a report on the protests as well. State journalists have previously blamed the monks of Thien An Abbey for being “aggressive and uncooperative with the authorities”. 

The protests opposing Father Dang Huu Nam were also reported in-depth by scores of other state journalists. More significantly, Vietnam Television (VTV) conducted a live national broadcast on the evening of March 24, 2017, regarding priests in Phu Yen Parish. The VTV report accused the Phu Yen priests of disrupting order and security by inciting parishioners to submit litigation against the Ha Tinh Formosa Co.. 

The Vietnamese state closely monitors media organizations, and journalists are not allowed to report on news that could adversely affect government interests. No independent television and radio stations are permitted to operate.

Religious organizations today normally have to establish their own media channels or use social media to speak up for themselves. There are currently two Catholic websites actively operating: “Good News to the Poor” and “VietCatholic,” but both are blocked in Vietnam.  Independent media, such as VOA, RFA, BBC, and RFI, are also blocked in Vietnam. 

  1. Using hired thugs

According to the monks of Thien An Abbey, this land dispute has lasted more than 20 years and has always involved unidentified, aggressive individuals who assault the monks. Over many years, Thien An Abbey has faced numerous aggressive acts, including glass shards strewn across the football field, pine trees being cut down, statues of Christ being stolen and smashed, stalking, and threats—none of which are investigated by local authorities. 

An attack on monks in July 2017, which the authorities did not investigate. Source: Good News to the Poor.

The Vietnamese authorities are well-versed in using hired agents to create physical scuffles in order for police to then respond with violence.

On February 14, 2017, according to VOA, police infiltrated a group of people who were mobilizing to sue the Formosa Co. These infiltrators threw rocks in the direction of riot police and instigated violence, giving police a pretext to suppress the movement, injuring about 50 parishioners. Police also instigate and/or stage scenes of violence in order for state media to record negative images. 

Hired agents who were not part of the contingent hurled rocks in the direction of riot police in order to instigate violence.  Source: VTV.

In October 2019, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were stopped by a mob blocking the road and were severely beaten as they were on their way to An Hoa Temple to stop the re-tiling of that temple’s original roof. The matter was not investigated by the police. 

The government use of hired thugs to instigate violence and threaten activists and religious groups is commonplace in Vietnam—and a serious problem.

  1. Harassment using administrative regulations unrelated to religion

In 2018, Thuy Bang Commune police asked Thien An Abbey to provide a list of individuals who lived at the abbey in order for police to carry out direct inspections and corroborations.

In June 2017, Thua Thien – Hue provincial police set up a traffic blockade to prevent parishioners and monks from entering Thien An Abbey. Simultaneously, a large scuffle broke out at the abbey itself, injuring many monks who were unable to get to a hospital because of the traffic blockade. 

This administrative harassment may seem insignificant but sometimes it is part of a larger trap to ensnare religious organizations and activists.

In February 2018, six Hoa Hao Buddhists were sentenced to between two years of probation and six years in prison for interfering with traffic police who had prevented residents from attending the death anniversary of a fellow follower. The six were convicted of obstructing officials and disturbing public order when they protested and argued with traffic police who were purposefully checking the papers and confiscating the vehicles of those attending the anniversary.

Local authorities regularly misuse administrative regulations as tools to punish and entrap religious organizations and to hinder activities. Authorities in a number of locations in the Central Highlands refuse to issue paperwork to independent worshippers, such as identity cards, passports, marriage licenses, and land use deeds, as punishment. 

[Religion 360°]

Thi Nghe Parish asks for help as the authorities unilaterally change the usage rights of a parish school 

In August 2020, Thi Nghe Parish in Ho Chi Minh City asked citizens for support in demanding the return of their school, which the authorities had initially borrowed and later permanently altered the usage rights to. 

Phuoc An – Thi Nghe Private School before 1975. Source: Ogden Williams Collection.

Vietnam does not recognize the right to land ownership. Land belongs to the state and citizens are granted usage rights.

Before 1975, Thi Nghe Parish contributed money to build Phuoc An Private School for approximately 4,000 students. After 1975, when private schools were abolished, the parish lent the state two three-story structures and another single-story building to function as a school (named Phu Dong Elementary School).  

In 2019, when the parish was conducting a survey to build an underground parking structure for parishioners, it discovered that the authorities had granted usage rights to Phu Dong Elementary School in 2013; for six years, the parish was unaware that the school structures no longer belonged to them.  

After more than a year of petitioning, in July 2020, Binh Thanh District authorities responded, stating: “Phu Dong Elementary School, including border walls, are state property to be managed by Phu Dong School.”

Land policy from the 2000s granted local authorities the ability to delineate to themselves the (continued) usage of religious grounds already being used by the state. If the state continues to use these religious grounds for public purposes, then religious organizations cannot ask for the return of their properties.

Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation demands the return of a school building it lent to the authorities 

At some point in the last 44 years, the Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation’s Giuse School became a Dong Nai Province medical center.

Nuns in the congregation stated that before 1975, 1,000 students came to study at the school every year, at both the elementary and middle school levels. In 1976, the congregation lent the school to the authorities for five years to train cadres.

After five years, not only did the authorities refuse to return the school to the congregation, they further borrowed two rowed structures and a 6.482 square meter plot of land. These grounds were handed over to Bien Hoa General Hospital, which was then granted usage rights in 2004. 

St. Giuse School, currently of Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation. Photo source: Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation.

Recently, the Da Minh Tam Hiep congregation is in need of activity grounds for newly-joined nuns and as senior facilities for older nuns, hence it has asked for the return of the school building it lent to the government. But similar to the situation in Thi Nghe Parish, such returns are difficult to achieve if the authorities do not voluntarily choose to do so.

Dak Nong Province announces that it must “deal with” many new religions in the region

In August 2020, the Dak Nong Newspaper, belonging to the Dak Nong Province Communist Party, reported that many new religions were operating illegally in the region. 

These new religions are referred to as “strange” or “heretical” religions. According to the Dak Nong Newspaper, approximately 10 of these “strange, heretical religions” have penetrated the province. Among them, the Gie Sua religion has the most followers, with 232; Falun Gong has 96; Hoang Thien Long 71; the World Mission Society Church of God 53; and the Tien Thien religion 24.

The Dak Nong Newspaper reported that the government will resolutely eliminate these “strange, heretical religions” from the province, and will ask residents to denounce anyone following or spreading these unsanctioned religions.

State journalists report that the Gie Sua religion was founded by an ethnic Hmong in the United States, who changed Protestant rites, such as worshipping on Sunday instead of Saturday, not recognizing the lord Jesus’ name, and not celebrating Christmas or Easter. 

According to Nghe An Newspaper, the Hoang Thien Long religion involves the spiritual worship of martyrs and “Uncle Ho” to treat diseases.

The Khanh Hoa Newspaper states that the World Mission Society Church of God was a religion based on the tenets of Protestantism and was introduced from South Korea into Vietnam in the 2000s. 

The Tien Thien religion has yet to be reported on by state media. Information available online indicates that this religion is based on the teachings of Daoism. 

Individual punished for spreading Falun Gong beliefs

State media reported that at least one person has been punished for spreading Falun Gong practices in August 2020.

According to the People’s Police Newspaper,  Hai Duong provincial police arrested Ms. Le Thi Thoa, 61, as she was “illicitly spreading Falun Gong” in an alleyway in the city of Hai Duong. She was fined 300,000 dong (US$13).

Ms. Le Thi Thoa was arrested by investigators and punished administratively. Source: People’s Police.

Though the government has not made any formal pronouncements about Falun Gong, local authorities uniformly see it as heretical and forbid people from promoting the  movement.

A number of religious prisoners unable to receive foodstuffs, medicine, and supplies due to COVID-19

Hua Phi, Cao Dai leader and member of the Inter-religious Council of Vietnam, told RFA that the authorities were not allowing religious prisoners to receive foodstuffs, medicine, and supplies due to COVID-19.

Near the end of July 2020, COVID-19 resurged in a number of cities in Vietnam, and detention centers and prisons temporarily discontinued outside visits. These detention centers became disease hotspots, such as in Da Nang, where outside visits and deliveries for prisoners were temporarily halted.

However, in other cities and provinces, a number of families of non-political and non-religious prisoners were still able to send in medicine and supplies. 

Current regulations allow these detention centers autonomy in determining visitation and outside delivery policies. There’s a high possibility that these centers are using COVID-19 as a pretense to punish religious prisoners. 

Authorities finally recognize Lai Chau Parish as a religious organization after more than 13 years of applying 

On August 21, 2020, the Lai Chau Province People’s Committee permitted the Hung Hoa Diocese to establish the Lai Chau Parish as a legal religious organization.

According to Father Phero Pham Thanh Binh the Epsicopal See of Hung Hoa Diocese had been requesting that the authorities recognize Lai Chau Parish as a legal religious entity since 2007, a request that has only just now been accepted.

The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion stipulates that an organization granted a certificate of registration must operate for at least five years and meet a number of other requirements before it is officially recognized as a religious organization. In actuality, however, the authorities often drag their feet in granting legal status to any religious organization. 

Hung Hoa Diocese manages parts of the north of Vietnam, including the entirety of Phu Tho, Yen Bai, Lao Cai, Lai Chau, Dien Bien, and Son La provinces, a portion of Hoa Hinh, Ha Giang, and Tuyen Quang provinces, as well as the city of Hanoi. 

According to the head of the Hanoi Episcopal See, Giuse Vu Van Thien, Hung Hoa Diocese has faced many difficulties, because the religious policies are different from province to province: “Some policies are relaxed, but some others are difficult. Some of the policies have limited government interference, but some are overbearing. And there are others that even have cadres announcing white zones which means there are no religions in that locality at all”. 

[On This Day]

The imprisonment of a Khmer temple’s former head and the Khmer Krom Movement

At the end of July 2010, Tra Vinh provincial police imprisoned Thach Sophon, the former head of a Khmer temple, after investigating him for a case that occurred in April 2010. 

Thach Sophon was arrested July 29, 2010, two days after he left the priesthood. The government stated that his arrest stemmed from an incident in April of that same year, in which the temple he headed held a suspected burglar in captivity for a night before bringing him to police. More than a month after his arrest, he was  still not  allowed to see his family or any lawyers. 

According to RFA, the human rights group Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), which advocates for the rights of Khmer living in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, raised objections to Thach Sophon’s detention. The federation stated that he was arrested because the government suspected he was linked to the Khmer Krom movement. In 2006, the federation said, a disciple of his was accused of anti-state propaganda but was able to escape to Thailand before being detained. Another disciple confirmed that Thach Sophon had been monitored by the authorities since 2005.

In September 2010, Thach Sophon was sentenced to nine months of probation for illegally detaining another person. 

These events pushed many human rights groups to suspect that the authorities intentionally arrested Thach Sophon to interrogate him about the Khmer Krom movement. When this proved unsuccessful, they framed him with a case that occurred three months earlier.  

The Khmer Krom Movement

The Khmer Krom movement picked up strength during the 2000s and still operates, though it no longer draws as much attention. It is a movement that peacefully advocates for the rights of local Khmer living in Vietnam, including Khmer monks. Many Khmer Krom organizations participate in the movement, but the predominant one is the The Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF), whose website is currently blocked in Vietnam.

The Khmer Krom movement advocates for human rights in Vietnam for the Khmer ethnicity, including their freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the press, land rights. It also includes medical right, the environment, and local culture.

However, the Vietnamese authorities still see the movement as a seditious one that unites Cambodian citizens and Khmer living in the Mekong Delta against the government. In August 2010, Vietnam requested that Cambodia resolutely shut down this movement. In 2014, many large protests broke out demanding human rights for Khmer living in Vietnam. 

The temporary confiscation of a Khmer monk’s passport after an alleged violation of the Cybersecurity Law in February 2020

In February 2020, Long Phu district police in the province of Soc Trang interrogated a 36-year-old Khmer monk of Cambodian citizenship named Seun Ty, confiscating his passport for two weeks.

“They interrogated me and pressured me to confess to violating Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law after I shared a Radio Free Asia (RFA) interview with Mr. Tran Manrinh, a representative of KKF,” Seun Ty told Voice of America. ‘They used this action to accuse me of violating the Cybersecurity Law.”

Long Phu district police had threatened to bar him from entering Vietnam or fine him 30 million dong (US$1,298). After human rights organizations forcefully spoke up, his passport was returned after two weeks. 

Politics

Ho Chi Minh – From Political Monument To God Of Prayers – Part 2

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The religious teaching documents of the "Way of Ho Chi Minh as the Jade Buddha". Photo: phatgiao.org.vn.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Vo Van Quan and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on February 1, 2021. 


The religion Way of Uncle Ho aims to start a spiritual revolution in order to save the nation from foreign enemies, both past and present. This revolution also aspires to harmonize the balance between the worlds found in this religion’s metaphysical framework. These worlds include the Heavenly realm, the Buddha’s realm, the Earthly realm, and the Yin realm.

“A spiritual heavenly revolution.

Replace the old, change to the new. This religion will bring the people and our country up and we will no longer be slaves of others.

From now on there will be a new order. By the law of God, by the demand of our ancestors.”

According to the teachings of this religion, the Heavenly realm rules over the other three realms. However, the blasphemous behavior, attitude, and way of worship in the Earthly realm destabilizes the harmony of the other worlds.

This religion espouses that, because of Ho Chi Minh’s achievements, the purity of his soul, and his moral conduct on earth, his soul was “elected” to become the leader of the Heavenly Palace upon passing away. Henceforth, he leads the spiritual revolution which claims to promote the right path to reach heaven in the material world.

https://2xjs7y10oiyz26vqxu2hok6y-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/image-1024x812.jpeg
Photo: Hochiminh.vn.

In Chapter 4 of “New Religions and State’s Response to Religious Diversification in Contemporary Vietnam,” the author Hoang Van Chung summarizes the eight issues that this revolution wants to address:

1. A mistaken understanding of the origins of the Vietnamese people and the their neglect of ancestor worship;

2. The overuse of joss paper and objects;

3. The incorrect performance of traditional rituals to the Mother Goddess;

4. A mistake in dating the death anniversary of Ho Chi Minh;

5. The invalidity of rituals of spiritual possession;

6. The pervasive worship of foreign spirits and gods, such as the Indian Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Chinese spiritual figures (Guan Yin or Bodhisattva);

7. Disrespect for heroic martyrs; and

8. Making mistakes in medical diagnosis and the treatment of illnesses caused by spiritual entities.

The religious texts of the Peace Society state:

“In the twenty-first century

The first Vietnamese Buddha was born.”

Monism has since become the motto of Ho Chi Minh’s religion. This religion states that the Vietnamese people can only worship the Vietnamese Buddha: “Uncle Ho.” Worship of any other foreign power also goes against their tenets and beliefs.

“Do not worship foreign gods

We worship our own Buddha in our country.”

Most importantly, Vietnam is seen as the leader of the entire revolutionary process that determines the future of mankind; this demonstrates a somewhat extreme form of nationalism.

“Vietnam is the eldest son of the Emperor.

Born first in the Earthly world.”

If people disobey the Jade Buddha’s commands, natural disasters, epidemics, wars, and social disorder will befall human society. This punishment is therefore not limited to  just one nation or to one group of people, but extends to the entire world. 

What is the Way of Uncle Ho’s religious practice?

The Ho Chi Minh religion has its own form of exorcism and this practice, in general, is very popular in the north. However, Madam Xoan believed that those who perform this act, if they come from the Mother Goddess religion or other popular sects, would often lose their cognitive abilities. On the contrary, Madam Xoan claimed she was a disciple of the Jade Buddha, so she could hear and preach the voice of the Jade Buddha without losing her reason.

As for worship, adherents of this religion are guided to worship Ho Chi Minh at home.

These worshipers have an altar that includes a statue or photo of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist Party’s version of the Vietnamese flag, and a bowl of incense. This altar should also be higher than all other altars in the house. Each day believers are required to offer fresh flowers, cakes, or fruits. Prayer is optional, but burning joss paper and other objects is prohibited. Their holidays also follow the official Vietnamese national holiday calendar which somewhat shows the religion takes a political stance.

One of the Ho Chi Minh Shrines in Ben Tre. Photo: The Vietnamese.

With respect to mass religious gatherings, the Peace Society spends most of its time performing activities such as the annual ancestral worship ceremony, which obviously includes Ho Chi Minh and the martyrs. They also provide magic spells and incantations.

It is also quite interesting to note that the Way of Uncle Ho has a very high anti-Chinese sentiment.

According to the leaders of the Peace Society, evil spirits are the wandering souls of the Chinese invaders who died years ago. They still haunt Vietnam, harm the people’s health, and negatively influence the future of the nation.

“Don’t listen to evil spirits. In the past, they were the enemy who deceived us and harmed us.

They admired evil and always wanted to invade our country.”

When the Hai Duong 981 drilling rig entered Vietnamese territorial waters in 2014, Madam Xoan and 400 other followers gathered, prayed, and condemned the behavior of the enemy in the north, the Chinese.

“I pray to Uncle Ho, he will pour out the safe water

[…] So that he could protect our sovereignty over seas and islands

from being  invaded, in heaven and on earth.”


Madam Xoan has repeatedly tried to register this religion with the Vietnamese government, but the answer from officials is usually to wait for a decision from their superiors. She is also believed to have close connections with more than 30 figures in the central government, including scientists working in state agencies, ministry officials, and intellectuals interested in studying and learning about this religion.

According to research estimates, there are believed to be more than 10,000 official followers of the Way of Uncle Ho, and major ceremonies take place with more or less a thousand believers in attendance. This is a significant figure if you consider the fact that other domestic religions are slowly dying.

In addition, although not officially recognized, the followers of Ho Chi Minh’s religions, such as the Jade Buddha, receive approval from the government, along with the ability to exercise their freedom of religion easier than others. 

However, these were the study’s conclusions up to the time of publication (2017). 

In more recent times, the Way of Uncle Ho as the Jade Buddha has also fallen under the close scrutiny of local authorities. For example, the People’s Public Security newspaper published an article that claimed the Way of Uncle Ho had used Ho Chi Minh’s image with “misguided claims,” such as alleging that it “received Uncle Ho’s blessings” and its leaders offered some medicinal leaves to cure all diseases of the people. The authorities of some provinces, such as Vinh Phuc, also warned that this religion was an act of “illegal” religious activities. 

The Vietnamese government is now in a dilemma. Should it maintain the treatment of Uncle Ho as a well-loved political figure and expect all Vietnamese citizens to continue worshiping his life? Or will the authorities rein in the Way of Uncle Ho and other cults and illegal religions involving Ho Chi Minh, and deal with these religious activities as it has often dealt with other different religions in the country? Only time will tell us how the authoritarian government of Vietnam will act on this issue. 

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Politics

Ho Chi Minh – From Political Monument To God Of Prayers – Part 1

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The religious teaching documents of the "Way of Ho Chi Minh as the Jade Buddha". Photo: phatgiao.org.vn.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Vo Van Quan and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on January 31, 2021.


“The nation of Vietnam will stand forever

with Jade Buddha – Chí Minh – Ái Quốc”

(A quote from a 2010 prayer)

The process of globalization in Vietnam has made major religions such as Buddhism and Christianity overshadow the silent development of local belief systems. However, overlooking them would be a mistake.

In a certain sense, these domestic religions most accurately and clearly reflect the dynamics of religious beliefs among the masses, and they can also show some of the implications of development in Vietnam’s societal relationships.

The religion called “Way of Ho Chi Minh as the Jade Buddha” (referred to as the Way of Uncle Ho in this article) is one significant example we can use to learn about how religion is practiced or how it is imbibed by the Vietnamese people. Up till now, there has not been an official study, or even an official government statement, on this strange and peculiar religion.

In the development framework of the research program “Boundaries of Religious Freedom: Regulating Religion in Diverse Societies,” Dr. Hoang Van Chung gives us a clearer and deeper look at the development of Ho Chi Minh’s religion in Chapter 4 of “New Religions and the State’s Response to Religious Diversification in Contemporary Vietnam.”

Dr. Chung is currently the head of the Department for Research on Policy and Law on Religion at the Institute for Religious Studies, under the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences. He obtained his Ph.D. in Sociology from La Trobe University (Australia) in 2014, and was a scholar with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (Singapore).

It is important to note that even though his book was published in 2017, the accompanying data in the study of Ho Chi Minh City was collected from 2011 to 2012. Therefore, there is a gap between the information provided by the author and the present state of this religion.

Một hình ảnh được cho là điện thờ Hồ Chí Minh của tín đồ đạo Hồ Chí Minh. Ảnh: Blog Tìm tòi và Lượm lặt.
Ho Chi Minh statue is worshipped at the Ho Chi Minh Shrine. Photo: Search and Gathering Blog.

How was the “Way of Uncle Ho” formed?

According to a research by Dr. Chung published in 2016, a Madam Xoan founded the Way of Uncle Ho at the Peace Shrine (now called the Peace Temple) on January 1, 2001.

Madam Xoan, 73, experienced a miserable childhood in Nam Dinh Province. She lost her mother at a young age, had to live with her father and stepmother, and began working at the age of just 15. She also attempted suicide many times. At the age of 19, she married a notary public and had four children.

Everything changed when she became seriously ill just before she turned 30. It was reported that Xoan was unconscious and that the pain she felt in one finger was so intense that it had to be completely amputated.

Meanwhile, doctors could not find the reason for her illness nor determine the cause of the disease. One day while she was waiting to be treated in Hanoi, she heard a strange voice telling her that she was not sick but that this was just a test to see if she was qualified to serve a higher purpose. This voice also affirmed that Mrs. Xoan had spiritual inclinations.

She immediately quit her factory job and became a humble merchant buying and selling joss paper. During the next 5 years, Mrs. Xoan continued to be guided by this voice and her financial situation gradually improved. By the time she was able to clearly hear and fully communicate with this voice, she gave up her small business to study the supernatural.

In 1989, Mrs. Xoan heard the voice again commending her for being the first person chosen by the Heavenly Palace to complete her assigned mission.

From politicians to gods

Since the 2000s, the stories of individuals who have achieved great success and have become rich for relying on the help of Ho Chi Minh’s Jade Buddha have been compiled by the Peace Society of Heavenly Mediums (the religious leaders of the religion “Way of Uncle Ho”). These stories were then spread among the followers of this belief system.

For instance, there is also a similar story about an entrepreneur who worked in the construction industry. The story claims that he became very rich because of his obedience to “Uncle Ho.” To show his sincerity, he donated 200 million dong to the Peace Temple. This amount was then used to upgrade and renovate  this place of worship.

Ho Chi Minh’s image has come a long way in the last century, morphing from a simple politician who was close to the people, to a god capable of interfering in and controlling the lives, happiness, and success of everyone who lives on Earth.

What happened?

Tổng Bí thư, Chủ tịch nước Nguyễn Phú Trọng dâng hương cúng bái Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh tại Hà Nội năm 2019. Ảnh: TTXVN.
General Secretary cum State President Nguyen Phu Trong offers incense to worship President Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi in 2019. Photo: VNA.
Đoàn đại biểu của Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam và người dân Cao Bằng dâng hương, dâng hoa tại Đền thờ Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh tại Cao Bằng. Ảnh: pacbo.vn.
The delegation of the VCP and the people of Cao Bang offer incense and flowers at the Ho Chi Minh Temple in Cao Bang. Photo: pacbo.vn.

Clearly, the deification of Ho Chi Minh did not begin with Vietnamese civilians.

Dr. Chung’s research indicated that numerous other studies have linked Ho Chi Minh’s death with the Vietnam Communist Party’s (VCP) own propaganda campaign. The State has intervened in directing or encouraging the remembrances of Ho Chi Minh. This has turned a mere ritual into the worship of the late leader.

Dr. Chung also concluded that many other researchers also pointed out that the VCP had a very clear goal of building a cult of personality around Ho Chi Minh. From promoting Uncle Ho’s supposed divine moral qualities to building up various myths about him, the VCP wants to make this version of Ho Chi Minh the formal history.

However, the most interesting point that Dr. Chung stated was that the VCP only expected to limit this phenomenon about Uncle Ho as a personal cult within the realms of the “ancestor worship” belief model. By doing that, the VCP wanted to connect the history of Vietnam’s national democracy movement and its communist movement, leading it to national success in the future. Once they establish this basis, the VCP, a political conglomerate founded by Uncle Ho, would have solidified more of its legitimacy.

The author emphasizes that the goals of the VCP and the desires of the masses in worshiping Ho Chi Minh are different.

The VCP’s model of worship of Ho Chi Minh is considered less religious and less superstitious. Therefore, Dr. Chung asserts that the religions associated with this political leader, such as the Way of Uncle Ho as the Jade Buddha, were “undesirable consequences” of state policy. The government’s efforts regarding the remaking of Ho Chi Minh’s image, if compared to people’s beliefs, are heterogeneous.

There are a lot of questions for Dr. Chung when he stated this argument.

It is because in Vietnam, we are seeing a common phenomenon that state agencies regularly promote the worship of Uncle Ho. The government placed Ho Chi Minh statues and photographs in many temples in the north of Vietnam, and offered incense to commemorate Ho Chi Minh during big national holidays, and the like. 

If we follow Dr. Chung’s reasoning and assumption that the state did not want, or at least did not foresee, the formation of a religion centered around Ho Chi Minh, I think his argument is a bit unpersuasive.

In the context that the Vietnamese economy had just opened up and the practice of worship had just reformed since the 1990s, the nature of the people’s curiosity and experimentation for new religions and beliefs is obviously evident. Therefore, it is fairly certain to foresee that the people will eagerly want to join a new religion like the Way of Uncle Ho as the Jade Buddha if it is offered.

(To be continued)

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Religion

Religion Bulletin, February 2021: German Parliament To Hold Hearing On Religious Freedom In Vietnam

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A police colonel takes charge of religion as the German Parliament takes note of Vietnam. 

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The German Parliament expects to have a hearing on religious freedom in Vietnam on April 14, 2021. Left: Markus Grubel, German Federal Government Commissioner for Global Freedom of Religion (Source: Janine Schmitz/photothek.net). Right: Police prepare to demolish a funeral home belonging to the Duong Van Minh religion in 2013. (Source: Youtube Thanh Phạm, as cited by BPSOS).

Religion Bulletin, February 2021:

  • [Religion 360*]
    • German Parliament to release report on religious freedom in Vietnam and other countries
    • Family asks for intervention as prisoner of conscience Phan Van Thu’s health deteriorates
    • Dak Lak provincial police prevent members of the Protestant Church of Christ from conducting religious activities
    • An ethnic Thuong Protestant is arrested as he takes his child to school
    • Deputy head of the Internal Security Bureau becomes deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs 
  • [On This Day]
    • 12 proposals Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh made to the Vietnamese government regarding Buddhism and religious freedom
  • [Did You Know?]
    • The Hmong Duong Van Minh religion under the government’s hand

[Religion 360*]

German Parliament will hold a hearing on religious freedom in Vietnam and other countries

In past years, Vietnam has encountered a number of issues with Germany. There may be one more to add to the pile as the German Parliament prepares to release a report on international religious freedom April 14, 2021. The report details the dire situation regarding religious freedom in Vietnam. 

Germany takes this year’s congressional hearing particularly seriously. 

In a press release on the report on international religious freedom in 2020, Dr. Gerd Müller, German development minister, stated: “In countries where no progress is made on this over long periods, we do not simply continue our government-to-government cooperation but, instead, shift our focus to strengthening civil society and supporting the humanitarian work carried out by the churches [in those countries].”

Dr. Müller used Myanmar as an example to demonstrate that Germany keeps its word. He stated that Germany had cut off ties with the Myanmar government, transferring direct aid to Muslim Rohingya refugees who had fled to Bangladesh to escape the Myanmar Army’s ethnic genocide.

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Dr. Gerd Müller, German development minister. Photo: AFP.

For decades, international organizations have stated that the Vietnamese government has not made any noteworthy improvements on religious freedom.

The report on international religious freedom was ratified by the German cabinet on October 28, 2020. In it, Vietnam was accused of engaging in serious and systematic suppression of religious practitioners, including those of the Duong Van Minh religion in the northeast, Protestants in the Central Highlands, and those of the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Catholic religions, who seek independence in their activities.

The report also stated that the Catholic Church in Vietnam had faced difficulties for years due to ambiguous laws and regulations, established to manage the non-profit and charitable activities of religious communities.

The fact that religious practitioners faced heavy punishment was also highlighted by the report’s confirmation that followers continued to endure multiple forms of violence. 

Family asks for intervention as prisoner of conscience Phan Van Thu’s health deteriorates

Prisoner of conscience Phan Van Thu, 73, who received the heaviest sentence in the case of the Bia Son Public Justice Council, is currently suffering health setbacks and is in dire need of medical care.

Thu’s wife, Vo Thi Thanh Thuy, stated that ever since he transferred prisons in 2017, his health has steadily declined. Thu had a history of illness before he was arrested in 2012, including: diabetes, heart failure, high blood pressure, and rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors have confirmed Thu is in need of regular medical treatment at a hospital.

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 Phan Van Thu in 2013. Photo: Free Journalists Club.

In an official form sent to Gia Trung Prison in Binh Dinh Province requesting medical care for her husband, Phan Van Thu’s wife recalled that he had to go to the emergency room while serving his sentence in 2018.

She requested that the prison give him a complete check-up as soon as possible, along with a specific treatment plan.

The case of the Bia Son Public Justice Council went to trial for the first time in February 2013 and is most likely the religious freedom-related case with the highest number of defendants in the history of Vietnamese law. Twenty-two members of this council received heavy sentences, from 10 years to life in prison. Phan Van Thu, who led the organization, received a life sentence.

According to state media, the court convicted the members of acting to overthrow the people’s government. One member asserted, on the contrary, that their activities were strictly religious in nature.

Dak Lak provincial police prevent members of the Protestant Church of Christ from conducting religious activities

What would you do if you wanted to conduct religious activities legally, but the commune authorities refused to accept your registration form? According to the Ethnic Thuong for Justice webpage, on February 20, 2021, members of the Protestant Church of Christ in Dak Lak Province were forbidden by police from conducting religious activities. 

In a one-minute and thirty-second video posted on social media, two police officers are seen filling out a form citing church members’ “unlawful religious activities”.

According to the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion, individuals who seek to organize religious assemblies must register with commune authorities. Religious groups who gather without registering are seen by police as being in violation of the law.  

However, authorities openly discriminate against the Protestant Church of Christ. A member of the church stated that commune authorities refused to issue a permit for their religious gathering. 

An ethnic Thuong Protestant is arrested as he takes his child to school

The webpage Ethnic Thuong for Justice reported that an ethnic Thuong Protestant was suddenly arrested by police as he was taking his child to school on February 26, 2021.

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Y Thinh Nie holding a self-made banner celebrating International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2020. Photo: Ethnic Thuong for Justice.

The arrested individual is reportedly Y Thinh Nie, 42, a resident of Drai Si Highland Village, Ea Tar Commune, Cu Mgar District, in Dak Lak Province. 

Two days prior to his arrest, police had arrived at his residence to invite him to the station for questioning. He refused citing a lack of paperwork. 

The webpage also reported that Nie’s arrest had to do with his taking pictures to mark the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief (August 22, 2020) and International Human Rights Day (December 10, 2020). 

Deputy head of the Internal Security Bureau becomes deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs

On February 3, 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs added a new deputy head. However, all state channels which reported on the assumption of office avoided discussing the cadre’s background. 

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Nguyen Tien Trong, the new deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, (left) receives his appointment. Photo: Ministry of the Interior.

The new deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA) is police colonel Nguyen Tien Trong. Before being appointed to the GCRA, Trong was deputy head of the Ministry of Public Security’s Internal Security Bureau.

The Internal Security Bureau is the bureau responsible for combatting alleged reactionaries, terrorists, and threats to security, including those of a religious nature. 

As with other leaders of the GCRA, there were not many details on Trong’s background. GCRA simply reported that Trong is an ethnic Kinh, non-religious, from Bac Giang, and a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in security reconnaissance. GCRA did not disclose Trong’s previous positions and work units.


[On This Day]

12 proposals Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh made to the Vietnamese government regarding Buddhism and religious freedom

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Thich Nhat Hanh and the followers at Plum Village held a procession along Hoan Kiem Lake in 2005. Photo: PVCEB.

In February 2010, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh – one of a number of monks highly respected by the Vietnamese public – issued 12 proposals to the government on the millennial anniversary of Hanoi.

Among these 12 proposals two were related to freedom of religion.

First, he petitioned the government to grant prisoners amnesty, including those prisoners who were charged just because they were “contributing ideas of improvement to the government; calling for pluralism, multiple political parties, and multiple churches; and calling for freedom of religion and freedom of speech.” 

Second, he asked that Buddhist dignitaries both in- and outside the country to combine forces to “establish a single, private Buddhist church, one that stands completely outside of politics.”

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was forbidden from returning home to Vietnam after an anti-war advocacy tour he conducted in 1966. It was not until 2005 that he was permitted to return. After returning home, his books began to be published in Vietnam, with the exception of those that touched upon freedom of religion or politics. 

On his return home, Hanh has made proposals to the Vietnamese government to enact political and religious reforms that he felt were necessary, but to this day, the authorities continue to use strict policies to control religion. According to human rights organization The 88 Project, the Vietnamese government currently holds approximately 73 individuals as prisoner for their religious activities and for fighting for religious freedom. 


[Did You Know?]

The Hmong’s Duong Van Minh religion under the government’s hand

In March 2014, an ethnic Hmong named Hoang Van Sang was sentenced by the Yen Son District People’s Court, Tuyen Quang Province, to 18 months in prison, in accordance with Article 2258 of the Penal Code, for abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.

Tran Thu Nam, Sang’s defense attorney, uniformly rejected the court’s decision, stating that Sang could not be convicted according to Article 258 based on the activities he conducted with a number of other Hmong. 

According to Nam, Sang and a number of other Hmong practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion had agreed to pool money to build a morgue. Sang took on responsibility for purchasing the construction materials. For merely doing that, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. 

A week after Sang’s trial, another trial involving three ethnic Hmong practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion began in Ham Yen District, Tuyen Quang Province.

According to RFA, that morning, police blocked intersections connecting the court to villages with Duong Van Minh practitioners. But police were unable to block all unpaved paths to the court; approximately 150 ethnic Hmong took a shortcut in the four-hour preceding to protest the trial. 

Similar to Sang, the three defendants were also convicted according to Article 258, with each receiving a different sentence: 24 months, 18 months, and 15 months in prison, respectively.

Six years have passed and ethnic Hmong still resolutely follow the Duong Van Minh religion, despite the government’s heavy-handed oppression of the group.

According to the German Foreign Ministry, in October 2018, practitioners of the Ha Mon religion in 68 residential neighborhoods issued an SOS to the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States. 

A report by the US State Department on religion stated that in 2019, Vietnamese police used electric rods and automatic rifles to attack a group of Duong Van Minh practitioners who were organizing festivities for Tet. The incident occurred in Na Heng Hamlet, Nam Quang Commune, Bao Lam District, Cao Bang Province.  

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 Duong Van Minh, founder of the religion which carries his name. Photo taken in 2015 in Hanoi. Source: JB Nguyen Huu Vinh.

According to the overseas Vietnamese-language press (RFINguoi Viet), the Duong Van Minh religion appeared during the 1980s. Its main objective is to make  Hmong faith customs surrounding funerals and marriages more progressive and hygienic. The religion was founded by Mr. Duong Van Minh, who currently resides in Tuyen Quang Province.

Important in the religion is the construction of small housing structures that are used as “funeral homes.” In these structures are a number of items, including holy crosses and wooden toads and swallows that are used during ceremonies.

These structures have been destroyed by the Vietnamese authorities for being built without a permit and for propagating a “false religion.” The government and state media both assert that the Duong Van Minh religion is a false one, arguing that the religion discourages people from work and study, disrupts traditional customs, and leads people to form groups that disobey the government’s religious and social policies. 

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Police destroy a “funeral home” belonging to the Duong Van Minh religion in 2013. (Source: Youtube Thanh Phạm, as cited by BPSOS).

Practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion, however, have told the overseas media that they work to alter the rituals by which they worship the dead. 

A 2020 radio report by the People’s Ministry of Public Security Communications Bureau stated that there were approximately 8,000 ethnic Hmong practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion, in four provinces (Tuyen Quang, Bac Can, Cao Bang, and Thai Nguyen).

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