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Religion Bulletin – October 2020: Authorities Forbid Thien An Abbey Clergyman From Returning Home

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Religious activists in Vietnam are paying a heavy price, sometimes putting their lives on the line.

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The former head of Thien An Abbey has been prevented from returning home after traveling to Europe to treat a suspected poisoning. Check out [The Government’s Reach] to find out how the government punishes religious activists. For the first time, figures for the number of Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam are available; see them in [Religion 360*]. In [On This Day], a reminder of how the government installs surveillance cameras in many temples, and how the assault of six Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioners last year remains uninvestigated.

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.


Religion Bulletin, October 2020:

The Government’s Reach: A history of punishing religious activists

Clergyman prevented from returning home to Vietnam after treatment for suspected poisoning

The former head of Thien An Abbey – Father Anthony Nguyen Huyen Duc – is still waiting for the Vietnamese government to allow him to return home.

After a period of leading Thien An Abbey’s resistance against the government’s land reclamation attempts, Father Duc traveled to Europe to seek medical treatment after a suspected poisoning. 

After his second medical treatment in Germany, he returned to Vietnam in September 2019, only to be told by police to return to Europe.  

“Right when I returned to Hanoi, I was questioned by police. High-level officers asked that I return to Europe because they could not ensure my safety or my life if I stayed in Vietnam, that it would be extremely adverse for the Thien An community if I stayed at the abbey,” the organization BPSOS reported, quoting from a letter Father Duc sent to leaders of the Order of St. Benedict. 

On October 16, 2020, the German diocese’s Committee for Justice and Peace sent a letter to Vietnam’s Justice Committee requesting they allow Father Duc to return to Vietnam.

The German committee requested that the Vietnamese government return the abbey’s confiscated property, cease its violence, protect and respect sacred religious objects, and uphold the right to freedom of religion.

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Father Nguyen Huynh Duc’s health conditions after a suspected poisoning. Photo: Good News To [sic] The Poor

BPSOS quoted Father Duc who stated that doctors in Europe also believe he had been poisoned.

Duc believes he was poisoned during the 2016 Lunar New Year at Thien An Abbey, when a person invited him to drink their tea and coffee.

“Right after the person left, I immediately felt sharp pains in my neck and head, aches down to my bones, my jaw became extremely sensitive and teeth came loose, I was unable to walk… a large (3 cm diameter) patch of my hair fell out…. Afterwards, I asked the sitting head Father Bruno for permission to travel to Europe,” BPSOS published, quoting from a letter written by Father Duc in August 2020. 

Father Nguyen Huyen Duc was the head of Thien An Abbey from 2014 to 2017. The abbey is known for its heated and long-running land dispute with Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities.

Thua Thien – Hue Province rejects Father Duc as head of Thien An Abbey

In past years, Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities did not accept Father Duc’s presence at Thien An Abbey.

In December 2017, they requested leaders of the Order of St. Benedict to remove him as head of the abbey.  

The authorities stated that Father Duc had allowed many unauthorized construction projects on disputed land, organized clergy appointments without permission, and obstructed government work.

After the government’s requesting letter, Father Duc took time off to travel to Europe for medical treatment. Leadership of the abbey was passed to another person.

In May 2019, as Father Duc was preparing to resume his position as head of Thien An Abbey, provincial authorities continued to insist that he should not take up the position. 

In a May 2019 document, provincial authorities accused Father Duc of “distorting the situation, and inciting ethnic hatred and opposition against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” while he was getting medical treatment overseas. 

Methods used to suppress religious activists

Religious activists like Father Duc have long endured many forms of harassment and suppression. Below are the systematic methods in which religious activists are suppressed, methods which are sometimes openly carried out by police, and at other times, by anonymous individuals. 

  • Smear tactics

In February 2018, many anonymous pro-state web pages published information alleging that  Father Duc had entered a hotel with a woman. 

According to the Catholic webpage Good News To The Poor, Father Duc’s stay at the hotel occurred in September 2017

Accordingly, Father Duc had arranged to meet with a group of overseas Vietnamese from Canada at the hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. This meeting was facilitated by a woman who was acquainted with both sides.

When Father Duc checked into his hotel room, approximately 100 plainclothes and uniformed police officers poured into the hotel in a prostitution raid. Father Duc was interrogated in a room. Police ultimately forced the woman to sit next to Father Duc and took a picture of them together. 

Rumors intended to smear individuals are regularly posted on anonymous pro-state websites and shared with the public. The source of these rumors is one big question mark. 

There are reasons to believe that Vietnamese police are directly involved. In 2008, after Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Letter #31 spoke of religious freedom and politics in Vietnam, the first students of Hanh’s Plum Village met with difficulties.  

In August 2008, Plum Village students were expelled from Bat Nha Monastery and continuously harassed in a variety of ways. 

During the Bat Nha Monastery affair, the People’s Public Security Daily — the official mouthpiece for police — published an article citing a number of anonymous sources regarding the romantic relationship between Zen Master Nhat Hanh and Nun Chan Khong, as well as the dictatorial way in which Nun Chan Khong controlled Plum Village.

The article was published precisely when Plum Village was receiving public support in the Bat Nha Monastery affair.

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Screenshot of the article published by the People’s Public Security Daily, regarding Nun Chan Khong and Zen Master Nhat Hanh.
  • Assault

According to the webpage Good News To The Poor, in September 2017, a car driving Father Duc’s delegation was purposefully rammed by a pick-up truck after they visited Father Dang Huu Nam – who advocated parishioners sue the company Formosa for polluting the central Vietnamese coast. Father Nam stated that this same pick-up truck had purposefully rammed his vehicle many times.

In October 2019, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were ambushed and attacked by a group of people on the road to An Hoa Temple. These six practitioners were planning to prevent a roof re-tiling at the temple but were attacked before arriving.  A practitioner threatened to cut his own throat and set himself on fire as they were being attacked by unidentified individuals. 

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The six Hoa Hao Buddhists after the night of the assault (Photo: RFA) and the temple roof being re-tiled (Photo: Hoa Hao Buddhist Church).

The individuals who assault religious activists are often unidentified plainclothes people, and police normally do not pursue any kind of investigation after such incidents are reported. 

In December 2015, Father Dang Huu Nam stated with Good News To The Poor that his vehicle was blocked by a group of 20 individuals, who pressured him to get out of the car and then proceeded to surround him and beat him. 

“As the crowd of thugs beat me, the police chief of An Hoa Commune stood by on the side of the road and did nothing,” Father Nam told Good News To The Poor. 

In June 2018, according to a Cali Today article, Mr. Hua Phi, an independent Cao Dai dignitary in Lam Dong, was beaten and his beard shaved. He stated that an individual identifying himself as police brought in dozens of others who entered his residence, “covering his head and beating” him repeatedly. The incident occurred just three days before he was to have a dialogue with the Australian Embassy regarding human rights issues. 

  • Accusations of disturbing public order

Religious activists in Vietnam must be very careful in their conflicts with the authorities.  Five out of six Hoa Hao Buddhists are in jail because of their clash with traffic police in April 2017. 

These six practitioners, four of whom are from the same family, had opposed the traffic police confiscating the vehicles of those arriving at their house for a death anniversary.  The tug-of-war between the two sides quickly turned into a case of disturbing public order and obstruction of officials. 

In recent years, many social activists have been charged with disturbing public order in their conflicts with police.

  • Travel bans

Being prevented from returning home, as discussed at the beginning of the article with the case of Thien An Abbey’s clergyman, is rare. More frequently, religious activists are forbidden from traveling overseas; either the government confiscates their passports or they are not issued one at all. 

In May 2020, Father Nguyen Van Toan was denied the issuance of a passport; he is a frequent and public government critic. 

In February 2020, a Khmer monk named Seun Ty had his passport confiscated for two weeks. Police accused Mr. Seun Ty of violating the Cybersecurity Law.

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Monk Seun Ty has his passport confiscated by Soc Trang province police for two weeks. Photo: VOA.

In 2017 and 2019, authorities refused to allow Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc, head of Song Ngoc parish, to travel overseas. 

The issue of travel bans on religious and social activists remains unresolved. 

Religion 360*

Dien Bien Province continues to pressure residents to give up new religions

From the end of September to the beginning of October 2020, many state newspapers reported on the Gie-sua and Ba Co Do religions “raging in Dien Bien Province”. 

The Voice of Vietnam (VOV) newspaper, a government mouthpiece, stated that in Dien Bien Province, 112 individuals returned to the Gie-sua religion after giving it up previously, while 294 others were currently following the Ba Co Do religion in Muong Nhe district.

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Two so-called “propaganda” sessions regarding heretical religions in Dien Bien Province in 2019 (above) and September 2020. Photo: Dien Bien Phu Daily, People’s Public Security Daily. 

Ms. Nguyen Thanh Huyen, vice-chair of the Public Relations Commission of the Dien Bien Provincial Committee stated that the government would push people who followed unrecognized faiths to give up their religion. 

“A number of mountain villages have regulations and conventions, one of which states that anyone who participates in these religions [Gie-sua, Ba Co Do,…] will not receive [the benefits] of the regime and its policies”, Ms. Huyen stated to VOV. 

Dien Bien provincial authorities reported that the Gie-sua and Ba Co Do religions operate differently from one another but shared the same goal of establishing an autonomous Mong state.

Muong Nhe district police chief Major Vu Van Hung added that authorities were using Protestant dignitaries to push people to give up these “heretic religions”.  

“We’ve organized groups penetrating into households that follow these religions, courting group leaders and putting Protestant dignitaries in influential areas so that villagers will give up their religions. But the most economical method must be us using our resources to prevent unauthorized proselytizing online. Only then will we be effective,” Major Hung stated to VOV. 

Two people in Ca Mau arrested and punished administratively for spreading Falun Gong

Vietnamese police continue to arrest practitioners of Falun Gong for spreading the religion. 

The Ca Mau Daily reported that Ca Mau city police administratively punished two individuals on October 1, 2020 for distributing Falun Gong flyers without permission.

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The Falun Gong flyers that city police confiscated from two arrestees. Photo: Ca Mau Daily

Two individuals with the initials N.T.G and N.T.H were arrested on September 21, 2020 after distributing approximately 65 flyers to parents and students in front of a school’s gate. Police confiscated from the two 177 flyers and 30 books on Falun Gong.

According to statistics from Luat Khoa, at least 66 Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested and administratively punished for spreading the religion since the beginning of 2020.

Lam Dong Province television: More than 8,300 Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam

On October 22, 2020, Lam Dong Radio and Television broadcast a report stating that across the country, there were more than 8,300 Falun Gong practitioners. Lam Dong Province, in particular, has about 110 practitioners.

The news was particularly noteworthy, as up to this point, no one had an accurate count of Falun Gong practitioners in Vietnam. However, Lam Dong Radio and Television did not cite the source of this figure.

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A Falun Gong practitioner during her interview with the Lam Dong Provincial Police. Photo: Luat Khoa Magazine.

According to the report, Lam Dong Province had a number of party members, veterans, and teachers who practiced and spread Falun Gong. Among them was a deputy commune head.

The report stated that spreading the practice in Lam Dong Province was both illegal and harmed the people. 

“Falun Gong is a religion that opposes science, convincing people that you can treat sickness without going to the hospital, it distracts people from finding livelihoods”, Lam Dong Radio’s reporters noted. 

Provincial radio and television stated that those spreading Falun Gong in Lam Dong were being sent materials from other provinces. 

Government Committee for Religious Affairs acknowledges some Cao Dai organizations “operate independently” and “splinter in resistance”

On October 27, 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs acknowledged that there were “Cao Dai organizations that operate independently and splinter in resistance” during a conference on religious management in Ben Tre Province. 

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The Government Committee For Religious Affairs’ Conference on Cao Dai in Ben Tre (Photo on right: Government Committee For Religious Affairs). The unsuccessful seizure of Phu Lam independent temple by the government-supported Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Church in June 2020 (Photo: RFA).

However, the article described the conference without going into detail about the splintering or independent activities of the Cao Dai organizations.

As covered in Luat Khoa’s  September 2020 Religion Bulletin, a number of independent Cao Dai temples are currently being pressured to merge with those temples being recognized by the government.

In recent years, the government has been helping state-recognized temples “take over” independent Cao Dai temples.

Although nearly all independent Cao Dai temples operate in a purely religious manner, the government views their independence as a security risk.

“Familiarizing the law” to religious practitioners 

From the end of September through all of October 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs organized conferences on “advocating the law to religious practitioners” in many locations: Hai PhongKon TumGia Lai, Binh Dinh, and Bac Giang.

These conferences sought to familiarize Vietnam’s practitioners with the state’s strict religious management regulations. Furthermore, conferences in a number of provinces and cities also held exchanges on the teaching of two subjects, Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law, on the premises of religious organizations. 

This is one way in which the state controls the people’s views over religions in Vietnam. Religious practitioners had to pay attention not just to legal regulations but also to the ways state bodies treat them.

Similar conferences are expected to take place across many other provinces and cities. 

On This Day

Government installs camera in front of temple gates

In October 2019, numerous monks raised objections to the government’s installation of a surveillance camera pointing directly at their temple’s front gates. 

In Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province, Venerable Thich Vinh Phuoc stated that authorities had installed a camera in front of Phuoc Buu Temple before he had left for the United States to advocate for religious freedom. 

“It’s been more than just Phuoc Buu Temple; for over a year, they’ve installed many cameras in Xuyen Moc District, as well as the whole Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province,” Venerable Vinh Phuoc told RFA.

The government also installed a surveillance camera at another temple in Ho Chi Minh City.

“Since 2000, there have been many difficulties because Thien Quang Temple refuses to abide by the Buddhist Church of Vietnam (BCV). Their [BCV’s] management has been unbearable, stifling”, Venerable Thich Thien Thuan told RFA regarding the reason for the surveillance cameras.

Also in Ho Chi Minh City is Venerable Thich Khong Tanh. He is temporarily residing at Giac Hoa Temple, which also had surveillance cameras installed. 

“When I asked, they explained that the cameras were simply fulfilling a responsibility to monitor,” Venerable Khong Tanh told RFA. “These surveillance cameras deter democracy allies and friends from coming.”

In recent years, the government has installed surveillance cameras to monitor all kinds of activists. 

These activists have stated that the government wants to monitor who comes and goes from their residences, as well as the activists’ own routines. During special occasions such as visits from foreign delegations, security forces will prevent activists from leaving their homes. 

After a year, police still have not investigated the assault of six Hoa Hao Buddhists

This October marks one year since the roof of Hoa Hao Buddhism’s An Hoa Temple was re-tiled. It also marks one year since six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were beaten on the way to prevent this re-tiling.

The scuffle occurred on October 7, 2019, at the Thuan Giang ferry pier, about 1.7 kilometers away from An Hoa Temple. 

The independent Hoa Hao Buddhists had all along opposed plans to re-tile the An Hoa Temple roof. However, the state-recognized Hoa Hao Buddhist Church moved forward with the plans anyway, ignoring the opposition.

The six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists involved include Vo Van Thanh Liem, Le Thanh Thuc, Nguyen Thanh Tung, Vo Thi Thu Ba, To Van Manh, and Le Thanh Truc. 

Mr. Thanh Liem stated to RFA: “When we arrived at Thuan Giang ferry, there were about 40-50 people blocking us; they beat Mr. To Van Manh, Mr. Le Thanh Thuc, and Nguyen Thi My Trieu, and my granddaughter, Vo Thi Thu Ba, had her phone smashed.  I saw that they were about to beat me so I poured gasoline on myself to threaten self-immolate, attempting to cut my own throat, and they ran off. They used long sticks and beat people so hard that the sticks were smashed to pieces”. 

Today, more than one year after the scuffle, police still have not initiated an investigation into the matter.

Religion

Vietnam Officially Announces National Decline In The Number Of Buddhist Followers, Shocking Its Buddhist Sangha

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Graphics: Luat Khoa Magazine. Photo courtesy: Buddhist demonstration in Saigon in 1963 (left, source: Posterazzi). Buddhist followers at a ceremony at Hoang Phap Pagoda in 2010 (right photo, source: Hoang Phap Pagoda).

According to Vietnam’s official statistics, in 2019, the religion with the largest number of followers in the country is Catholics with 5.9 million people. The number of followers of Buddhism is 4.6 million, ranking second. However, the numbers reported by this census contradict statistics from other state agencies, leading religious leaders and followers in Vietnam to question its accuracy.

The Giac Ngo Newspaper – a Buddhist media – reported that this news “shocked” some monks, and that some  believers “burst into tears” when they heard the news. Many people naturally assumed that Vietnam would have more Buddhists than any other religious group.

However, over the years, followers, monks and as well as senior sangha officials in Vietnam, have gone from one disappointment to another because the number of Buddhists has fallen dramatically in state statistics.

The number of Buddhists in the 2009 Population and Housing Census was 6.8 million, a decrease of about 300,000 compared to 1999. Even so, Buddhism remained the religion with the largest number of followers in Vietnam.

The situation only changed with the 2019 census results.

In that year, the government announced that the number of Buddhists decreased by 30 percent compared to 2009. From 2019, Buddhism has lost its top position in the number of followers in Vietnam according to the State census.

Over the past 50 years, Vietnam’s general population increased, but the number of Buddhist followers decreased

Buddhism – a religion of about 2,000 years of development in Vietnam – now has only 4.6 million followers, accounting for about 4.78 percent of the total population.

Meanwhile, the number of people who claimed to be Buddhist in the Republic of Vietnam (which only consisted of the south of Vietnam and a portion of the center) in 1963 was 9 to 11 million, accounting for 70 percent to 80 percent of the south’s total population as stated in the estimates that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) compiled that year.

The current figure of 4.6 million Buddhists is also less than the number of followers identified by the CIA as active Buddhists in the Republic of Vietnam in 1974, which was about 5-6 million.

After 1975, the vibrant religious culture in the south suffered a period of “government watch” for more than 15 years. During that time period, major religions were restricted in their practices and the smaller religions were completely banned.

According to State Magazine, a research journal of the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the first two censuses of 1979 and 1989, Vietnam did not record the number of religious followers.

By the early 1990s, Vietnam began to officially recognize the religions that were previously popular in the South but which were banned after 1975, such as Hoa Hao and Cao Dai Buddhism. In 1999, the government started to keep statistics on the number of religious followers in the country.

Nevertheless, as more statistics were completed, it was observed that the number of Buddhist followers were reported as having fallen. Throughout the three censuses (in 1999, 2009, and 2019), the number of Buddhists decreased by 35 percent while the national population increased by about 26 percent

Graphics from Luat Khoa Magazine based on the data sources below.

The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha refutes the state figures, but also does not publicize its own membership numbers

Looking back, in 2012, the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam opined about the number of Buddhists in Vietnam after the 2009 census results were published.

Although Most Venerable Thich Bao Nghiem, vice chairman of the board of directors and head of the Board of the Dharma Preaching of the Central Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, acknowledged the 2009 census is quite “large, serious, and objective,” he also said at the time: “The statistical results …. about Buddhism are not accurate for many different reasons.” He explained that in Vietnam, apart from those who claim to follow other religions, the rest are really “followers of Buddhism, who love Buddhism and are influenced by Buddhism”. If one accepts Thich Bao Nghiem’s reasoning, then the number of followers of Buddhism in Vietnam could have been about 78 million in 2009 – which is the number we get when we subtract all people who declared themselves to have a different religion than Buddhism from the national population at that time.

However, in 2019, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha was again surprised when the State census stated that the number of Buddhist followers declined further and that Buddhism was no longer the religion with the most followers in Vietnam.

Despite this continuing disappointment, over the years, the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha – with nearly 40 years of operation and the only state-recognized Buddhist organization in the country – still has not published the number of its own followers. The only official figure for Buddhists in Vietnam comes from state statistics.

Meanwhile, other religions have tallied and announced the numbers of their own followers. For example, in 2018, the Vietnam Catholic Bishops’ Council announced that the whole country had about 7 million Catholics (Vietnam’s state statistics put the number at just about 5.86 million). Overseas branches of Hoa Hao Buddhism also stated that there were about 3 million Hoa Hao Buddhists in 2010 (state statistics in 2009 said just 1.3 million).

Figures for the number of Buddhist followers from other state agencies are also inconsistent

Unable or unwilling to declare the number of its own Buddhist believers, the Buddhist Sangha currently uses statistics from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

Accordingly, the Sangha often uses the estimate given by Tran Thi Minh Nga that she used when she wrote an article in 2014 on the website of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Nga said that up to June 2010, Buddhism had had about 10 million followers in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the number of Buddhists in 2009 announced by the General Statistics Office was only 6.8 million.

Nga did not cite the data source that she mentioned in her article at that time. In 2014, she was the deputy director of the Buddhist Department of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs. Currently, she is serving as the deputy head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

In a report on religious freedom in Vietnam in 2019, the US Department of State also used data from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, which in January 2018 stated that about 14.9 percent of the total population was Buddhist. If applying this ratio to the total population in 2019, the number of Buddhists would have been about 14.3 million.

According to Associate Professor Hoang Thu Huong of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, the National University of Hanoi, Buddhist monks believe that Buddhists must include both 1) those believers who take refuge in the Three Jewels or Triple Gem (also known as the “Three Refuges”), and also 2) those who identify themselves as being influenced under Buddhism. Dr. Huong also said that because the criteria for inclined towards Buddhism could not be included in statistics survey questions, and that could be why the number of Buddhist followers differs among different state agencies.

However, during the period of the Republic of Vietnam, the CIA recorded both of these statistics, including active believers (possibly including the Three Refuges) and self-proclaimed and sympathetic Buddhists.


(*) Data sources for the chart listed above.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 18, 2021. The translation was done by Luu Ly.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin, December 2020: Falun Gong Encounters Troubles With The Authorities

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Kon Tum provincial police formally express the government’s position on Falun Gong.

To our readers:

In 2020, we began to publish monthly bulletins on religion in Vietnamese on Luat Khoa and in English on The Vietnamese in order to record events affecting freedom of religion and faith in Vietnam.

In addition to these religion bulletins, Luat Khoa also regularly publishes articles on freedom of religion and it has also created an English-language database on the same topic.

Luat Khoa’s efforts in 2020 on freedom of religion remain modest. To prepare content for 2021, we hope readers will contribute suggestions for religious topics at tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org


[Religion 360*]

Authorities accuse Falun Gong of intending to establish an opposition political force

In December 2020, provincial and municipal authorities continued to block the spread of Falun Gong.

Police and the state-run press have asked citizens not to spread Falun Gong, not to share information regarding the religion on social media, and to report to police anyone “propagandizing” the religion.

Information drawn from the state press indicates that in 2020, the authorities confiscated materials to spread Falun Gong from at least 71 people.

These people were normally stopped as they were individually handing out flyers and gifting keychains and books. No reports indicate that these people spread Falun Gong in any organized manner.

Provincial and municipal authorities have consistently blocked the spread of Falun Gong by citing that the state had yet to permit the distribution of the religion’s flyers.  

However, in December 2020, Kon Tum provincial police took this policy one step further in expressing the government’s position on Falun Gong.

Kon Tum provincial police stated that Falun Gong uses its focus on health and exercise as a cover to lure people into joining the religion. They also accused Falun Gong adherents of asking the government for legal recognition in order to form an opposition political force in Vietnam.

Below are the cities and provinces that have investigated and confiscated materials from Falun Gong practitioners in December 2020.

Hai Duong Province: Keychains with propaganda content confiscated from two people 

According to VTC Newspaper, Thanh Mien district police in Hai Duong Province investigated a 61-year-old woman for promoting  Falun Gong among students on December 2, 2020. 

The woman was investigated by police for handing out keychains containing a link to a Falun Gong website for students. Police confiscated 190 of the woman’s keychains.

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Confiscated keychains containing messages promoting Falun Gong. Photo: Hai Duong Newspaper.

Also in Hai Duong Province, police confiscated 10 greeting cards and 24 keychains belonging to a 26-year-old woman who was handing out materials promoting Falun Gong on December 23, 2020.

Quang Ninh: Falun Gong books and flyers confiscated prior to distribution

On December 29, 2020, Tien Yen district police in Quang Ninh Province reported that they had requested a woman turn in Falun Gong materials that she was storing at her residence. Police confiscated 40 books, 6 flyers, and 10 keychains containing Falun Gong content from the woman.

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Photo: Quang Ninh provincial police.

The items were confiscated for containing material promoting Falun Gong, a religion not yet permitted by the state.

Bac Ninh Province: Two Falun Gong students prevented from proselytizing by police

A number of unsourced photographs and videos shared on social media showed two Falun Gong students in Bac Ninh encountering difficulties with police on the night of December 22, 2020. 

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Photo: Vietnamese History Forum.

According to the photographs and video, a man and a woman dressed in Santa costumes on the occasion of Christmas spread Falun Gong materials in a public area. 

The police officer in the clip stated that a number of Catholics were “upset” at the pair’s actions and reported them. Police ordered the two to the police station for questioning.

State journalists have yet to report on this case.


Head of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism’s Central Oversight Committee prevented from attending prayer ceremony

On December 15-16, 2020, Can Tho city police prevented Mr. Nguyen Van Dien, head of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism’s Central Oversight Committee, from attending a prayer ceremony.

According to the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism, on the afternoon of December 15, 2020, a group of plainclothes individuals from Can Tho city police arrived at Dien’s residence to demand that he not attend an important prayer ceremony at its temple.

On the morning of December 16, 2020, police continued to demand that a driver not take Dien to the ceremony.

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Two Can Tho city police officers sit opposite Dien. Photo: Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism.

The organization’s website stated that police stopped Dien by using COVID-19 and the ban on assemblies as a pretense. However, only Dien was prevented from attending the ceremony. Moreover, other ceremonies in the area were allowed to carry on as normal.

Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism is not recognized by the state. Members of this organization are regularly obstructed at gatherings and events.


Ho Chi Minh City authorities return five religious properties to the Saigon Archdiocese

According to the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee website, municipal authorities  “gifted” five religious properties to the Saigon Archdiocese on December 21, 2020. The reason for this “gift” was not provided.

The Saigon Archdiocese confirmed the return of the religious properties belonging to five parishes: Tan Lap Parish, Cong Thanh Parish (District 2), Tan My Parish (Hoc Mon), Tan Hiep Parish (Hoc Mon), and Binh An Parish (District 8).

The Archdiocese website confirmed that the government had “returned” the properties to them. 

According to Archbishop Nguyen Nang’s statement during a meeting, these were religious properties that the parishes had lent to the state after 1975 to serve as schools. He stated further that the archdiocese was “delighted to receive back the properties, in order to provide necessary services for parishioners” and that he hoped the other properties would also be returned if the city was able to build new schools.

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A meeting between the Saigon Archdiocese and the Ho Chi Minh City authorities on December 2t, 2020.  Photo: Saigon Archdiocese.

After 1975, Catholic organizations in southern Vietnam lent many properties to the state for educational purposes.

To this day, the number of properties lent has not been precisely established. Conflicts between the state and the Catholic church continue to occur.


Thien An Abbey’s shrine to the Virgin Mary vandalized

In December 2020, the area around Thien An Abbey that was dedicated as the shrine to the Virgin Mary (Thua Thien – Hue Province) was trespassed upon by strangers many times.

The monks stated that many stone benches and greenery in the area were vandalized and that the grounds of the shrine were sullied with dirt. The abbey has reported the incident to the authorities, but the area around the shrine continues to be vandalized. 

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Pictures of the vandalized shrine were taken by Thien An Abbey.

For more than 20 years, Thien An Abbey has been in limbo due to a land dispute between the abbey and local residents and Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities.

Events indicate that the authorities and local households have teamed up in their land disputes with the abbey.


Government prevents the Unified Buddhist Sangha from distributing free aid

According to the Unified Buddhist Sangha, Huong Tra commune authorities in Thua Thien – Hue Province prevented the church from distributing free aid to flood victims at the end of December 2020.

Afterwards, authorities confiscated all gift vouchers and prevented residents from coming to Long Quang Monastery to receive free aid. 

The reason authorities gave for the obstruction was that as the Unified Buddhist Sangha was not recognized by the state, and therefore distributing free aid was illegal.


[On This Day]

Letter from the House of Representatives on freedom of religion in Vietnam

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Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Edward R. Royce, and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Daniel J. Kritenbrink. Photo: CFUS News (left), AFP (right).

In December 2017, Mr. Edward R. Royce, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, sent a letter to Mr.  Daniel J. Kritenbrink, US ambassador to Vietnam, to express his concerns about freedom of religion in the country.

In the letter, Royce expressed his concerns about the new Law on Faith and Religion, which was set to go into effect on January 1, 2018.

“I fear that this new law will form the basis for continued mistreatment of those who seek to practice their faith in Vietnam,” he wrote.

Royce’s fears have become a reality. 

In the past three years, state organizations have taken advantage of the law’s nebulous regulations to control religious activities.

Most recently, the Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern branch) had to postpone its clerical congress for not sufficiently meeting the requirements of the Law on Faith and Religion. Specifically, they had not sent the roster of candidates to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs prior to the congress.

Royce’s fears about the Vietnamese government using ambiguous national security concerns as pretext to suppress religious activities also proved to be true. 

In a number of areas in the northwest, authorities have tightly controlled religious activities. The Protestant Church of Christ in the Central Highlands is even seen as a threat to national security. 


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

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Religion

Religion Bulletin, November 2020: The Saigon Archdiocese Sues The Ho Chi Minh City Authorities

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The municipal government is being sued for borrowing a church’s school and not returning it, along with other news.

You’re reading the November 2020 Religion Bulletin.

Religion 360* includes noteworthy stories such as: the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee recently being sued by the Saigon Archdiocese, the Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern region) being unable to hold its congress due to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs’ desire to check the church’s roster of candidates, and state media implicitly confirming that the committee limits proselytizing activities in areas of Dien Bien Province.

On This Day highlights the story of Hoang Duc Oanh, the bishop of Kon Tum Diocese, who was repeatedly prevented from holding mass at parishioners’ residences. Did You Know introduces  the case of the “Barnyard” Protestant Church. 

[Religion 360*]

More than 40 years after Thi Nghe Parish lent the school to the state, usage rights of the Phuoc An – Thi Nghe Private School today belong to Phu Dong Elementary School. Photo: Ho Chi Minh City Office of Education – Training.

The Saigon Archdiocese sues the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, demands the return of the Phuoc An – Thi Nghe School

On November 30, 2020, the Saigon Archdiocese granted Father Phero Nguyen Thanh Tung, head of Thi Nghe parish, the authority to file suit against the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee for granting usage rights of two of the church’s school grounds to another entity. 

The suit was sent to the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court.

Prior to 1975, these two school grounds were the site of the Phuoc An – Thi Nghe Private School, managed by Thi Nghe Parish.

After 1975, the parish executed a form handing the two school grounds over to the state for use as a public school, today known as Phu Dong Elementary School, at 22B Xo Viet Nghe Tinh St., 19th Ward, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City.

However, in July 2020, the Binh Thanh District People’s Committee notified Thi Nghe Parish that the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee granted Phu Dong Elementary School the usage rights to these two school grounds in 2013.

After receiving the notice, the parish stated that although it lent the schools to the state, it still owned them outright, based on a 1975 agreement between the Ho Chi Minh City Office of Education and the Vietnamese Catholic Education Contact Committee. 

In the lawsuit, the parish proposed that the court strike down the decision granting usage rights of the two school grounds to Phu Dong Elementary School and re-confirm the parish’s ownership of them.

We will continue to provide updates regarding this case.

The Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern region) postpones its congress due to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs’ demand to see the church’s roster of candidates

Photo: The Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern region).

On November 25, 2020, the Greater Federation of the Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern region) postponed its congress of the clergy due to a lack of a permit from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

Afterwards, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs requested the church abide by Article 34 of the Law on Faith and Religion. According to the article, a church must provide the Government Committee for Religious Affairs the roster of candidates for the clergy. Only when this roster is approved by the government committee can the congress can be organized.

The church stated that its clergy selections, organized according to its own constitution, were always recognized by the state, that it had always tended the list of winning candidates to the government after the selections. 

Currently, the church still has not received any word regarding the upcoming congress.

This case reveals the extent to which the Law on Faith and Religion (2016) exercises control over religious organizations. The state does not treat religious organizations in Vietnam as civil entities. Recently, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs even sought to control the religious activities of Vietnamese residing overseas.

Did the government establish no-proselytizing zones in Muong Nhe District? 

Public Security agents advising residents not to follow new religions. Photo: VOV.

Throughout the past year, state journalists have regularly reported on the religious situation in the northwest, a treacherous, mountain area populated by local ethnic minorities.

In a Voice of Vietnam (VOV) web article published November 20, 2020 on religious activities in the Muong Nhe District of Dien Bien Province, an ethnic minority villager stated: “I studied to become a pastor in Ho Chi Minh City, so I understand religion. I only propagate among groups (religious activities) permitted by the state; if the state does not grant permission, then I won’t propagate.”

In the same article, Mr. Vui Van Nguyen, chairman of the Muong Nhe District People’s Committee, stated that the authorities were closely monitoring “18 groups yet to receive permission to conduct religious activities.” The government sends cadres and police down to the groups regularly to ascertain their histories and activities. 

Furthermore, the religious groups must register their syllabi every year.  Religious activities such as Christmas and Lunar New Year must receive government permission.

The article reveals that the government seems to be establishing areas in which it limits the transmission of religion, applying rather strict controls over Muong Nhe District.

The northwest region is an area religious activists have difficulty accessing, partly due to the government’s strict controls, but also partly due to the religious community’s relative isolation from activists. News of religious conflicts in the area rarely made it to the general public.

German parliamentarian sponsors Hoa Hao Buddhist currently serving prison sentence 

German parliamentarian Martin Patzelt and Hoa Hao Buddhist Bui Van Tham. Photo: WELT (left), RFA (right).

On November 26th, 2020, German parliamentarian Martin Patzelt announced that he was sponsoring a Hoa Hao Buddhist prisoner of conscience, Bui Van Tham, 3), currently serving a six-year prison sentence.

Tham was arrested in June 2017, and he was later sentenced to six years in prison for disturbing public order and obstruction of officials. Five others were sentenced in the same case, including Tham’s parents and older sister. Currently, Tham’s father and sister are still serving their sentences.

Martin stated to the RFA that he sought to galvanize prisoners of conscience with this sponsorship and that he also hoped that his action might improve the  treatment of people behind bars. He said further that he hoped his  act would also show the Vietnamese government that the international community was carefully following Hanoi’s incarceration of prisoners of conscience. 

Tham’s case began on April 19, 2017, when police prevented individuals from attending a death anniversary at Tham’s residence. Traffic police handed out administrative fines and confiscated the vehicles of those in attendance. Immediately afterwards, Tham’s family along with two other practitioners organized a protest directly in traffic to oppose the authorities’ suppression of religion. 

Using traffic police to obstruct religious practitioners from congregating is a well-worn government tactic. Tham’s family is one of many Hoa Hao Buddhist families who have been oppressed in An Giang Province. Prior to this case, Tham and his father had previously served time in jail for allegedly disturbing public order. 

Prisoner of conscience in the case of the “Bia Son Public Justice Council” released early

Ms. Do Thi Hong (left), who was released early, and Mr. Le Trong Cu, another defendant in the case.  Photo: People’s Public Security Daily.

On November 2t, 2020, the human rights organization BPSOS reported  that a practitioner of the An Dan religion, Do Thi Hong, 63, was released four years and three months early from prison. In 2013, Hong was sentenced to 13 years in prison for allegedly acting to overthrow the state.

According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, Hong was charged with this crime after participating in the Bia Son Public Justice Council, an organization that the government stated was using religious activities and ecological travel to overthrow the state. However, state journalists did not specify Hong’s role in the case. 

Before he was held in pre-trial detention, Mr. Nguyen Thai Binh, another defendant in the case, told RFA that the Bia Son Public Justice Council was simply a religious organization where its members also had a travel business. Binh was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Twenty others were sentenced in the same case; one was given probation, 18 were sentenced from 12 to 17 years in prison, and the last was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

[On This Day]

Authorities prevent Bishop Hoang Duc Oanh of Kon Tum Diocese from holding mass at parishioners’ residences

Bishop Hoang Duc Oanh when he served as the Bishop at Kon Tum Diocese.  Photo: Kon Tum Diocese.

In November 2010, Hoang Duc Oanh, bishop of Kon Tum Diocese, relayed the story of how Gia Lai provincial authorities prevented him from holding mass at parishioners’ residences. 

The story could very well have taken place hundreds of years ago, when Catholicism was ruthlessly persecuted in Vietnam.  

In September 2010, Bishop Hoang Duc Oanh sent a letter to the chairman of the Gia Lai Province People’s Committee recounting how provincial police harassed parishioners.

After a mass was held at the house of a Kon Chro District resident, police invited the resident in for questioning several days in a row. Police forced this individual to sign a form acknowledging illegal assembly and pledging to no longer allow mass to be held in his residence. In K’Bang district, the bishop stated that residents were so terrified that no one dared to offer their house for mass.

In the letter, the bishop also requested the authorities allow the construction of a church in each district so that residents would have a place to practice their faith.

After two months of no response regarding the construction of churches, Bishop Oanh continued to travel to say masses. After mass was over at a residence in Kon Chro District, police arrived to issue a warning to the homeowner. Police issued reprimand reports to the next two houses. Upon arriving in K’Bang district, Bishop Oanh’s 16-member entourage was blocked by civil defense, who awaited further instructions from commune authorities. After receiving no response from commune authorities, the entire entourage returned home.

The next day, two families that had organized the mass were invited in for questioning by the Commune People’s Committee. They were accused of illegally holding a mass and had to sign forms promising not to repeat the offense.

The Central Highlands is among the most religiously restrictive areas in Vietnam.  Bishop Oanh stated that there were districts in the area called “white districts”, where there was no religion; anyone who chose to live or work in the area either had to give up their religion or practice no religion at all.

[Did You Know] 

Case of the “Barnyard” Protestant Church

Ten years ago, in the 28th Ward of Binh Thanh District (Ho Chi Minh City), there was a Protestant church that operated in a dilapidated shed, a shed that was once a barnyard. 

The founder of the church was a tailor who had unjustly lost his land. In turn, he helped others sue for their land, and he even served two years in prison after he was charged with insulting the district chairman in 2004.

In 2007, he founded a Protestant church in a friend’s barnyard. The barnyard was also the place he, his disabled wife, and their son stayed after their home was cleared away by the authorities.

That man was Pastor Duong Kim Khai of the Vietnamese Mennonite Church. After operating the church for three years, the number of attendees grew to about 20. Pastor Khai even established the “Barnyard” Protestant Church in Ben Tre Province. Many of this church’s attendees were residents who had unjustly lost their land.

In 2010, the church was rocked by an event that nearly destroyed it.

A religious gathering at the “Barnyard” Protestant Church. Photo: VPEF.

In August 2010, Pastor Khai was arrested and charged with “acting to overthrow the people’s government.” In May 2011, Khai was tried along with six others, including four who belonged to his church in Ben Tre Province.

Afterwards, Khai and two other defendants were accused of participating in Viet Tan, an overseas political party which has been categorized as a terrorist group and banned in Vietnam. Viet Tan, at that time, also subsequently confirmed this fact.

The preliminary trial in Ben Tre Province sentenced Khai to six years in prison. Three of the other six defendants were sentenced to five, seven, and eight years. The remaining three were sentenced to two years in prison for the same crime of “acting to overthrow the people’s government”.

Lawyer Huynh Van Dong, who defended Khai and the other defendants, stated that none of his clients violated either Vietnamese law or international law. 

After the initial trial, Dong was expelled from the Dak Lak Lawyers Association for not respecting the tribunal, not paying dues, and not participating in trials assigned by the association.  

The initial trial was virtually closed to the public. Victims of injustice and practitioners of the “Barnyard” Protestant Church had police show up on their doorstep and demand they not come to the trial. Security was tight around the courthouse. The American diplomatic mission from its embassy in Vietnam requested to attend the trial but was denied permission.

In August 2011, during the appellate trial in Ho Chi Minh City, Pastor Khai’s sentence was reduced to five years in prison.

Pastor Khai completed his sentence in August 2015. His wife had passed away three years before. The barnyard no longer remained, and he and his son were forced to stay at the house of a fellow pastor.

Pastor Duong Kim Khai before and after serving his sentence. He left prison in 2015. Photo: RFI (left), Dan Luan (right).

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