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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.

Human Rights

2020: 10 Religious Problems That The Vietnamese Government Doesn’t Want You To Know About

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Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine.

Vietnam makes no progress with freedom of religion, which remains tightly controlled. 

Vietnam is among countries with the greatest diversity of religions, but it is also among those that suppress freedom of religion most heavily.

In 2020, ethnic Thuong in the Central Highlands, Hoa Hao Buddhists, independent Cao Dai practitioners, and followers of new religions in the northwest all had to pay the price for exercising their freedom of religion.  


1. No place for new religions

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Muong Nhe District police in Dien Bien Province urge residents not to follow new religions. Photo: Dienbientv.vn.

Vietnam possesses a great diversity of religions, but the government is quite strict with new ones.

Recently, a woman introduced me to Phap Mon Dieu Am. She advised me to eat vegetarian and call a phone number to receive “messages that will be imprinted on your heart”. 

Phap Mon Dieu Am is a new religion, and the Vietnamese government prohibits spreading it. 

Authorities worry that new religions will destabilize security and spur anti-government activities. All new religions are referred to generally as “heresies.” 

In the northwest region, especially Dien Bien Province, two new religions have sprouted, known as the Gie Sua and the Ba Co Do religions. 

The province has initiated criminal proceedings against three people for “acting to overthrow the people’s administration” and “harboring criminals” in relation to the Gie Sua religion. 

Dien Bien police also acknowledged that it has pressured residents to sign forms giving up their new religions.

“We went from house to house, explaining things to the residents and asking them to sign pledges giving up the Gie Sua religion, to not believe in the propaganda about establishing “the Mong Kingdom,” Major Vu Van Hanh told the Dien Bien Phu Paper in February 2020.

“As of today, the Na Co Sa border defense post has gotten 55 households/325 individuals to sign pledges giving up their heresies”, he said. 

Despite the government’s threats, other new religions continue to silently operate across the country. 

The Government Committee For Religious Affairs stated in 2015 that there were approximately 60 instances of new religions in Vietnam. 

And yet, throughout Vietnam, people could sometimes unexpectedly hear information about these strange, new religions like Phap Mon Dieu Am, Thanh Hai Vo Thuong Su, Gie Sua, Ba Co Do, Hoang Thien Long, Phap Mon Di Lac, Buu Toa Tam Giao, or Hoi Thanh Duc Chua Troi Me…

2. Ethnic Thuong living under strict religious policies

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Two of the three ethnic Ba-Na individuals arrested on March 19, 2020 for practicing the Ha Mon religion. Photo: Tran Hieu. 

Since 1975, the Thuong ethnic group has been beleaguered as they have never been in their history.

After the government forced them to give up their traditional faiths, many converted to Catholicism and Protestantism. However, the Thuong have not been able to escape government harassment and are not allowed to freely organize their religious activities. 

Peaceful civil activities such as gatherings and protests are all seen as linked to heresies. 

Dega Protestantism, Ha Mon, and the Protestant Church of Christ are all seen as heresies that mislead the masses.

In March 2020, three Ba Na followers of the Ha Mon religion that had absconded into the jungle for seven years were arrested on suspicion of spreading anti-state propaganda.  In June, rather than being charged, the three underwent criticism sessions before the people.

In July, another ethnic Thuong underwent a public criticism session for illegally crossing the border to Cambodia many times, propagating “heresy”, and distorting state policies.

Thuong refugees in Thailand have stated that members of their ethnic group from the Central Highlands escape across the Vietnamese border every month. Currently, there are a little over 500 Thuong refugees in Thailand.

3. Interfering in the internal affairs of religious organizations

The arms of the state reach deep into the internal affairs of religions.

In June 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs ordered the Tien Thien Cao Dai Temple to “create regulations for active dignitaries and functionaries, as well as regulations to resolve letters of petition and grievance, and the selection of dignitaries to be applied to its followers”. These regulations should be the internal matters that the religious organizations voluntarily manage, but the government is directing them to comply with specific instructions.

In Phu Yen Province, local authorities and the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Great Temple, Vietnam’s largest Cao Dai organization, tried to take over the independent Phu Lam Cao Dai temple in June 2020.

In a conference marking 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion, “the church of churches,” i.e. the Government Committee For Religious Affairs, stated that it will increase its research to study more closely the Cao Dai religion and to manage this religion, preventing it from further splintering and having internal conflicts between the religion’s own organizations. 

In June 2020, the Diocese of Vinh decided to retire Dang Huu Nam, a clergyman well-known for his civil society activities.  After the decision, the People’s Daily and many anonymous pro-government web pages stated that the removal was well-deserved because of Nam’s anti-government activities.

4. Arresting Falun Gong practitioners

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The two women arrested by Ha Tinh Province police at the beginning of April 2020 for illegally spreading Falun Gong. Photo: Kiem Sat Newspaper.

As of October 2020, at least 66 Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested and punished administratively for storing or distributing flyers regarding the religion. You may yourself see in public spaces a number of people practicing Falun Gong, numbers which are growing by the day in Vietnam.

However, distributing flyers or practicing Falun Gong with others at home are considered violations of the law.  In Quang Tri, a high school principle was harshly disciplined for inviting a large number of people to his home to practice Falun Gong.

In July 2020, police arrested 28 people for attending a lecture on Falun Gong at a residence in Ha Tinh Province.

Local authorities state that spreading Falun Gong violates the law because the religion has yet to be recognized by the state.

But Falun Gong practitioners disagree with this.

“Our connections are very loose,” a Falun Gong practitioner stated in an interview with Luat Khoa. “We don’t organize into associations or anything like Catholicism or Buddhism.”

LIV, the organization that manages Luat Khoa magazine, has archived information regarding Falun Gong practitioners that have been arrested. This list is a part of a database on freedom of religion in Vietnam, which can be found at: https://www.liv.ngo/data/

Readers can also check out a number of other Luat Khoa articles to find out more about the Falun Gong: Is practicing Falun Gong legal?…, and our Religion Bulletins from MayJune, and September.

5. Controlling publishing

Arrested Falun Gong practitioners have been administratively punished based on a decree regarding publishing. Specifically, they were punished for distributing flyers without government approval.

Publication policies are particularly strict when it comes to religion or politics.

In 2012, the government stipulated that the borrowing or gifting of publications between citizens requires government permission.

The Government Committee For Religious Affairs manages the Religion Publishing House and is the department in charge of censorship for religious publications. 

Control of publishing certainly exercises a heavy influence on the development of religions, and it is impossible to avoid the idea that the government censors with a heavy hand to purposefully limit this development.

6. Punishing individuals

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Venerable Thich Quang Do.  Photo: AFP.

In February 2020, Vietnam’s longest imprisoned monk Venerable Thich Quang Do passed away. 

Before 1975, Venerable Quang Do actively mobilized for the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. After 1975, he continued to lead this delegation, despite fierce government suppression that continued until his death.

Many other religious dignitaries remain subject to the government’s control and punishment.  

In January 2020, the head of Song Ngoc Parish Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc stated that he was banned from holding mass beginning in August 2019. Father Thuc is widely known by the public for his civil society activities among central Vietnamese fishermen after the Formosa environmental disaster. Between 2017 and 2019, the government banned him from traveling overseas twice.  

In February 2020, a Khmer monk named Seun Ty had his passport confiscated for two weeks, with the government threatening that he had violated Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law. In May 2020, authorities refused to issue a passport to Nguyen Van Toan, a clergyman that often publicly criticized the government. 

After issuing complaints about discriminatory treatment, including instances of torture, families of a number of imprisoned religious activists stated that they had lost touch with their loved ones behind bars.

The government disapproves of religious activists linking with diplomatic missions of their own accord. 

The authorities ordered four religious activists in the Central Highlands, Pastors Nguyen Ngoc Khanh, Y Kuan E Ban, Y Quy Bdap, and Y Khen Bdap to come in for questioning after they met with an American delegation regarding religious freedom. 

7. Obstructing freedom of association

In 2020, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church continued to operate without legal recognition. As in previous years, members of the group were prevented by police from conducting ceremonies at their headquarters in March and July.

A number of members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam stated that the government interfered in the February 2020 funeral of Venerable Thich Quang Do, stripping them of the right to manage the event. The attempted seizure of the Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple also demonstrates that the government does not accept the idea of practitioners there operating independently.

8. Seizing property and possessions

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St. Joseph School, which is part of the Da Minh Tam Hiep Parish, is currently a medical facility within the Dong Nai General Hospital. Photo: The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Siena Tam Hiep.

The government has moved from seizing religious properties after 1975 to now “re-appropriating” them.

In 2020, Thi Nghe Parish in Ho Chi Minh City and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Siena Tam Hiep in Dong Nai Province stated that the usage rights for two schools that the government previously borrowed were quietly transferred to state entities.

Policies from 2003 related to land and properties of religious organizations  helped local authorities gain usage rights over religious properties  that they were “borrowing.”

Currently, religious organizations do not have the legal grounds to demand their properties back if the government refuses to return them. 

Religious organizations that possess large pieces of land can also become targets of harassment. 

In Thua Thien – Hue Province, Thien An Abbey and provincial authorities are in conflict over the abbey’s land and property. The abbey’s 107 hectares of land has been continually chipped away by the government since 1975, without notification nor compensation. 

In June 2020, Thien An Abbey’s forests were attacked by individuals who cut down trees and sawed deeply into the roots of many conifers.

On August 13, 2020, an area household mobilized a group of men to hammer down stakes and put up barbed wire on a part of Thien An Abbey’s land.

Another problem is that religious organizations are not allowed to sell or purchase land and must wait on the government to provide it.

In Ninh Binh Province, members of the Dong Dinh Parish were extremely upset when local authorities refused to give their land to their church. After the parishioners had donated the land to the government to pass to the church in accordance with the law, commune cadres announced that they would not turn the land over to the church but instead, would build a flood-prevention dyke between the current church land and the land parishioners had given to the government.

9. Religious organizations hit with reprisals

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Letters police sent to members of Phu Lam Temple inviting them in for questioning. Photo: Cao Dai Orthodox Preservation.

In August 2020, a crowd that included residents and commune cadres protested for two days on land disputed by Thien An Abbey, local households, and the government.  The crowd hung up banners and used loudspeakers to decry the monks “taking their land.” 

In Phu Yen Province, after supporting the unsuccessful takeover of Phu Lam Temple, provincial authorities invited five members of the temple in for questioning. Authorities threatened these members, telling them that they had to accept the government’s takeover order.

In 2020, Central Highland provincial authorities accused the Protestant Church of Christ of using religious activities to incite people to oppose the government. Many members of this church were taken in for interrogation. 

10. Controlling the press

The Vietnamese government maintains a monopoly over all official media. With regard to religious issues, Vietnam’s journalists present information according to government instruction. In February 2020, Tuoi Tre Newspaper had to remove an article about Venerable Thich Quang Do’s career.

In June 2020, many publications simultaneously posted articles rejecting accusations in a 2019 international report regarding religion issued by the United States. In August 2020, the monks of Thien An Abbey issued a rebuttal to a report by Thua Thien – Hue Radio and Television, stating that it was untruthful and smeared the monks. 

In recent years, all official newspapers in Vietnam have criticized the Falun Gong movement and its ‘impropriety.” These publications have only conveyed government views rather than the views of its adherents.

Two Catholic webpages, Good News To The Poor and VietCatholic, remain blocked in Vietnam, as are many press organizations that speak up for religious freedom, such as VOA, RFA, BBC, RFI, and Luat Khoa Magazine.

There are no private television or radio stations that operate freely in Vietnam.

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Religion

Religion Bulletin – September 2020: The Fate Of Independent Cao Dai Temples

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The September 2020 Religion Bulletin focuses on the Cao Dai religion, with information on the seizures of independent Cao Dai temples in [The Government’s Reach]; the assault on the Phu My Cao Dai Temple practitioners eight years ago in [On This Day]; and we introduce the Cao Dai sects that are exempt from having to join one unified organization in [Did You Know?][Religion 360°] brings you information regarding the arrests and punishment endured by Falun Gong practitioners, along with other news.If you have any suggestions or would like to contribute reports to the Religion Bulletin, please email us at: tongiao@luatkhoa.org or editor@thevietnamese.org

Religion Bulletin, September 2020:

The Government’s Reach

The fate of independent Cao Dai temples

After a period of peaceful practice, Cao Dai practitioners are now facing harassment from state-backed Cao Dai groups who are attempting to take over their temples.

The case of Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple 

Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple is located in Cluster 5 of Phu Lam Township, in the city of Tuy Hoa, Phu Yen Province. This temple was built in 1964 and restored in 1999. 

The authorities assert that this temple is under the management of the Tay Ninh Holy See of the Cao Dai Great Temple*, the largest Cao Dai organization recognized by the state (in 1997) and also known as “Sect 1997”.

Phu Lam Temple overseer Cao Van Minh states that he and temple practitioners simply want to follow their own religious orthodoxy and that they do not accept the leadership of Sect 1997.

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Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple. Photo: Thanhthatcaodai.

However, the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Great Temple stated that the Phu Lam Temple falls under its management and sent people to take over the temple with the backing of local authorities. 

How did the forceful seizure of Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple transpire? 

June 18, 2020:

Event 1: Overseer Cao Van Minh was invited to the Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee one morning for questioning; the committee firmly requested him to be there at 8:30 AM sharp.

Event 2: Local cadres and a group of the followers of the Tay Ninh Holy See, on orders from the Tay Ninh Holy See of the Cao Dai Great Temple, arrived to take over Phu Lam Temple.

Event 3: Overseer Nguyen Ha of Nhon Ly Cao Dai Temple, another independent temple in Binh Dinh Province, arrived to support fellow practitioners at Phu Lam Temple.

Event 4: A group of Phu Lam practitioners opposed the (Holy See’s) take-over order and closed the gates. The two sides engaged in heated arguments over the order. 

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Sect 1997 followers arrive at Phu Lam Temple. Photo: RFA.

July 28, 2020:

Son Thanh Dong Commune police (Phu Yen Province) invited Mr. Truong Minh Le, a Phu Lam Temple follower, in for questioning on July 30, 2020 regarding the public disturbance on June 18, 2020.  

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The invitation letter from the police sent to Mr. Truong Minh Le. Photo: Cao Dai Orthodox Preservation.

July 30, 2020

Son Thanh Dong Commune police (Phu Yen Province) continued to invite Phu Lam Temple practitioners in for questioning on August 4, 2020 regarding the public disturbance on June 18, 2020, including Mr. Huynh Tan Luc, Ms. Doan Thi Mieu, and Ms. Tran Thi Hong.

It seems that no practitioners of Sect 1997 were called in for questioning regarding the disturbance.

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Invitation letters from the police sent to Huynh Tan Luc, Doan Thi Mieu, and Tran Thi Hong. Photo: Cao Dai Orthodox Preservation.

August 20, 2020

Overseer Nguyen Ha and fellow practitioner Nguyen Van Danh were invited in for questioning on August 21, 2020 by Quy Nhon city and Binh Dinh provincial police regarding their “religious activities.”

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Invitation letters from the police sent to Nguyen Ha and Nguyen Van Danh. Photo: Cao Dai Orthodox Preservation.

August 21, 2020:

Danh relayed that he was asked by police if he had accompanied Ha to Phu Lam Temple.  Danh confirmed that he did not, and the interrogation moved to whether he had accepted gifts from a supply delegation – a charity event carried out by Hua Phi, a Cao Dai follower, whom authorities view as anti-state and who is also joint chairman of the Interfaith Council of Vietnam. 

Ha said that police warned him not to come to Phu Lam Temple again, during Sect 1997’s next take-over attempt. Police also questioned him regarding his relationship with Hua Phi and the Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, a member of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Interfaith Council of Vietnam.

September 1, 2020:

Cao Van Minh receives an invitation letter from the Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee to come in for questioning on September 3, 2020. 

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The invitation letter from the Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee sent Cao Van Minh to support Sect 1997’s takeover of Phu Lam Temple. Photo: Cao Dai Orthodox Preservation.

September 3, 2020:

Cao Van Minh arrives at the Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee for questioning with Tuy Hoa City representatives (from the Fatherland Front, Women’s Association, and Office of the Interior) and Phu Dong Ward People’s Committee representatives. 

The authorities state that Minh should accept the Holy See’s take-over order. Minh asserts that he will not organize any welcoming or acceptance of Sect 1997’s take-over order. Minh also asserts that his followers did not disturb public order on June 18, 2020, when Sect 1997 came to take over their temple.  

The interrogation

Below is an excerpt from Nguyen Ha’s interrogation on August 21, 2020, as relayed by him personally:

Binh Dinh Province police: Did you enter Phu Lam Temple in Phu Yen Province recently?

Nguyen Ha: Yes.

Police: To do what?
Nguyen Ha: I came to emotionally support fellow practitioners, protect their beliefs and to close the gates to prevent a number of heretics from entering.

Police: Are you aware that the Tay Ninh Cao Dai Great Temple ordered Mr. Pham Xuan Thanh to Phu Lam Temple to administer it? 

Nguyen Ha: Yes, that’s Thanh’s business. It has nothing to do with us.

Police: Thanh is recognized by the state, unlike what you all are doing.

Nguyen Ha: Whether the state recognizes us or not is the state’s business; I and fellow practitioners simply want to preserve the original teachings that God has laid out. The current Cao Dai religious organization, with state intervention, has destroyed the original teachings. 

Police: If in the future, the Great Temple puts forth someone else to administer Phu Lam Temple, would you still come to support temple practitioners? 

Nguyen Ha: Yes, I would.

Police: Who is Mr. [Hua] Phi to you?
Nguyen Ha: Mr. Phi and I are fellow practitioners who seek to protect the original teachings. 

Police: Have you and Phi established any organization?

Nguyen Ha: We have not established any organization, only the Khoi Nhan Sanh Cao Dai Religious Committee to visit fellow practitioners around the country who have maintained the faith and to share among ourselves the difficulties of our spiritual practice. We also remind them to preserve the original teachings of Duc Chi Ton, and to not be swayed.

Police: Were you aware of Abott [Thich] Khong Tanh’s life history when you allowed him to come to Nhon Ly Temple to distribute presents for people?

Nguyen Ha: Venerable Thich Khong Tanh and I are fellow religious dignitaries; if he arrives at my temple, then naturally, I have to receive him.

Police: Are you aware of whether his life history is good or bad?

Nguyen Ha: Whether it’s good or bad is your business with him. As for me, I know he is a good person, which is why I have connected across religions with him. He always comes to Nhon Ly Temple with open arms, handing out presents for our older individuals both in and outside the temple. It is an act of great generosity, nothing unseemly for you all to oppose. 

Police: Mr. Khong Tanh opposes the state…

Nguyen Ha: As soon as anyone disobeys the state, even if that person or their acts are good, it all becomes bad; you even try to accuse them of being anti-state so you can frame them. But if a person listens to the state, even if they are actually bad, they remain a “good person”.

Look at Pham Xuan Thanh [who was sent to take-over Phu Lam Temple] for example. Do you check to see what kind of practitioner he is before you appoint or promote him? This is how religious values are lost. And then you force us to accept your decisions; what is the meaning of this?

Police: Do you participate in the Interfaith Council of Vietnam?
Nguyen Ha: No.

Police: You do not participate now, but will you join in the future?
Nguyen Ha: Whether I participate or not is my business.

Police: We’re letting you know, if you enter Phu Lam Temple again and police handle you roughly, we won’t be able to help you. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Nguyen Ha: This whole time you’ve only helped those carrying out your orders; when have I ever needed your help?

The drive to eliminate all independent Cao Dai temples

Phu Lam Temple is one of a number of Cao Dai temples standing separate from Sect 1997. These independent temples assert that the state has interfered with religious practices and that they thus desire to operate independently. 

When the religion was first established in 1926, Cao Dai practitioners all belonged to the Tay Ninh Holy See, but later in the 1930s and 1940s, the Cao Dai reigion splintered into different sects. 

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The Tay Ninh Holy See, headquarters of the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Church. Photo: Vashikaran Rajendrasingh.

After 1975, the Cao Dai religion was forbidden to operate until the end of the 1980s. From 1995, the government began to recognize Cao Dai temples as religious organizations. Today, there are approximately 10 Cao Dai organizations that are legally recognized as temples. Besides these, there are approximately 20 other Cao Dai organizations that legally operate but are not considered as temples.

In recent years, independent temples such as Phu Lam Temple have been pressured by the authorities and other churches to “reunite” and return to the administration of the churches from which they splintered. The purpose of this coercion is to control religious activities, what the state refers to as “reorganizing and regulating” religious activities. Currently, there are no precise numbers on how many temples have refused to “reunite”. In 2007, the Government Committee on Religious Affairs stated that the Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai Temple had 40 temples that had not reunited.

According to Mr. Cam Sinh, a Cao Dai practitioner of the Overseas Tay Ninh Holy See, beginning in 2013, the Vietnamese government enacted Resolution 92/2012/NĐ-CP regarding the Implementation of the 2004 Law on Faith, which led to many temple seizures and consolidations with state-recognized Cao Dai temples.

In 2012, Ms. Nguyen Bach Phung, a Cao Dai practitioner well-known for actively fighting for the independence of temples, stated that the government was interfering in the internal affairs of the Cao Dai religion and causing conflicts. 

“This matter [of disputes has] occurred in many places, including Long Binh Temple in Go Cong, An Ninh Tay Temple in Long An Province, Phu My Temple in Binh Dinh Province, and An Nhon Temple. The state caused difficulties for practitioners when they went from house to house to pressure our people to join the state-approved Chuong Quan Council, Tuy Phuoc Temple in Binh Dinh, Phu Suong Temple in Phu Yen…”. Ms. Bach Phung stated that in a number of places, conflicts broke out between members of Cao Dai temples and independent temples.

Mr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, director of the organization Boat People SOS, stated that since 1997, the Vietnamese government has helped Sect 1997 “occupy” approximately 300 Cao Dai temples. 

The take-over of these independent temples regularly met with opposition from the affected practitioners, opposition which police then used to frame practitioners for disturbing public order. 

Religion 360°

Summarizing 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion

On September 18, 2020, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs organized a conference to summarize 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion.

Attending the conference were cadres from the relevant central committees and cadres from the 35 provinces that have Cao Dai practitioners, totaling approximately 200 cadres altogether. 

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The conference was held by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs regarding 25 years of managing the Cao Dai religion. Photo: Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

The Committee said that the state’s achievements in managing the Cao Dai religion had allowed Cao Dai establishments to renovate and build structures, practitioners to actively participate in charitable and purely religious activities, and prompted the majority of dignitaries, their activities, and Cao Dao practitioners to abide by the law.

The Committee also acknowledged that some Cao Dai dignitaries were moving to separate from state-recognized temples and religious bodies, that some temples were facing conflicts, and that a number of religious activities violated the Law on Faith and Religion.

The former head of the Committee, and currently deputy minister of the Ministry of the Interior, Mr. Vu Chien Thang, stated that in the future, the government needed to instruct state-recognized temples on the appointment of overseas Cao Dai dignitaries, increase research on Cao Dai management methods, and coordinate with other branches, such as propaganda, public relations, the Fatherland Front, the army, and the police to address the “complicated issues related to Cao Dai activities”.

Cam My District, Dong Nai Province, prosecutes 6 Falun Gong proselytizers

The Dong Nai Province People’s Committee news website reported that Cam My District recently prosecuted 6 Falun Gong practitioners for illegally spreading the faith.

This news website also stated that these individuals would completely cover their faces when entering people’s homes in the district to promote Falun Gong. These individuals had been previously warned to cease their proselytizing activities and not drag others into the faith. 

Cam My District authorities stated that the Falun Gong movement was not yet recognized as a “faith or religious organization” and thus proselytizing activities were illegal.  

The city of Hai Phong suppresses Falun Gong proselytizing activities

According to the People’s Public Security Newspaper, Hai Phong city authorities were closely monitoring groups of Falun Gong practitioners. The article stated that Hai Phong City Police Department had confirmed more than 10 groups, with approximately 160 individuals “practicing Falun Gong”. 

The article said that from the beginning of 2020 until now, the Hai Phong City Police Department had prosecuted seven cases related to “mobilizing and illegally spreading the Falun Gong movement.” 

Readers can find more details regarding the arrest and prosecution of Falun Gong proselytizers in our data regarding freedom of religion: https://airtable.com/shrYIDdMrohUbQztF

Eleven years of “struggle” to eliminate the Ha Mon religion in Mang Yang District, Gia Lai Province

In September 2020, the Mang Yang District People’s Committee of Gia Lai Province summarized the results of 11 years of struggle to eliminate the “Ha Mon heresy” that began in 2009.

According to the summary, the district prosecuted 10 individuals who followed the Ha Mon religion for disrupting national unity. Furthermore, authorities arrested 71 individuals, “campaigned to voluntarily turn in” 55 individuals who absconded to the jungle, and eliminated 15 groups with more than 242 followers of the Ha Mon religion.

According to the Vietnamese authorities, the Ha Mon religion operates in all of the Central Highland provinces and that Mang Yang District was merely one of many areas in which the religion operated. The authorities assert that the Ha Mon religion is heretical and is being used by members of FULRO to oppose the Vietnamese state. 

The government’s “war” against the Thuong ethnic minority’s religious freedom in the Central Highlands is currently directed at three religious groups: Dega Protestantism, the Ha Mon religion, and the Protestant Church of Christ.  

Pastor A Dao released from prison early

On September 18, 2020, Vietnamese authorities released early from prison Pastor A Dao, who had served four years of his five-year sentence for organizing illegal border crossings.

State journalists did not report on Pastor A Dao’s early release. 

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Pastor A Dao. Photo: Unknown.

Mr. A Dao, 39, is a well-known pastor among the ethnic Thuong refugees in Thailand. He was arrested on August 18, 2016 after returning home from a religious conference in East Timor. After he was arrested, he was held incommunicado for five days. Vietnamese police accused him of organizing illegal border crossings to Thailand for ethnic Thuong. Police stated that he coordinated with Mr. A Ga, a Protestant pastor, and at the time, a refugee in Thailand.  Mr. A Dao rejected the government’s accusations. 

On August 28, 2017, the Gia Lai Province People’s Court sentenced Pastor A Dao to five years in prison for organizing illegal border crossings. In January 2018, Mr. A Ga was arrested by Thai police and was extradited back to Vietnam, but the United States intervened and gave him and his family political asylum in the United States.

On This Day

Phu My Cao Dai Temple practitioners assaulted during a seizure in September 2012

For years, practitioners of independent Cao Dai temples have lived in fear, under pressure from both the government and other Cao Dai churches to “consolidate”. 

On September 16, 2012, Phu My Cao Dai Temple practitioners in Binh Dinh Province publicly denounced the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Church (Sect 1997), accusing it of hiring thugs to attack them in their own temple. Mr. Nguyen Huu Khanh reported to RFA that a total of six practitioners of the Phu My Temple were assaulted that day.

“Because practitioners here follow the Chon Truyen Orthodoxy, and not the Chuong Quan Council – that is, they don’t follow “state-run” Cao Dai organization –, they [Sect 1997] came to seize our personal property and the temple of the Bao Thu Chon Truyen. They’re using the Chuong Quan Council, which is backed by the government, to break in to our temple”, Mr. Khanh stated as he explained why and how Phu My Temple practitioners were attacked. 

Local police were on the scene during the scuffle but did not intervene and did not initiate an investigation or press charges. 

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People sent by Sect 1997 assault Phu My Temple practitioners. Photo: DVOV/BPSOS.

Mr. Nguyen Ha, an independent Cao Dai practitioner and staunch defender of independent churches, stated that previously Phu My Temple had been under the administration of Sect 1997’s Chuong Quan Council, but after seeing that it was controlled by the government, the temple seceded, suffering the consequences.

Regarding the scuffle, the person who was in charge of Cao Dai affairs in the Government Committee for Religious Affairs stated to RFA: “They must resolve their own religion’s internal matters. The state merely guarantees order and security for them to carry out their religious protocols”.

Did You Know?

The Cao Dai religion in Vietnam has a number of different religious organizations, many of which are recognized by the state

Among religions in Vietnam, the Cao Dai religion appears exempt from having to organize a “unified” structure, as other religions must do. 

Currently, the Cao Dai religion has approximately 10 religious organizations recognized by the state. 

Meanwhile, within Hoa Hao Buddhism there exists many religious organizations but the state only recognizes one. Buddhism also has two sects; the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam was established in 1964 and operates to this day, but the government only recognizes the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam established in 1981.

Not only are there 10 religious organizations recognized by the government but there are approximately 20 other Cao Dai organizations that operate legally and independent: Thuong De Cao Dai, Cao Thuong Temple, Nam Thanh Temple, Pho Thong Giao Ly Dai Dao Institution, Lien Hoa Cuu Cung Thien Dao Path of Study, Tan Minh Quang Temple, Huynh Quang Sac Temple, Thien Truoc Temple, and the Bau Sen Temple.

These Cao Dai temples and organizations historically branched out because of disagreements over religious practices. However, despite the splintering, the state and its temples are pressuring (independent) temples to return to their original church.

Below is information regarding the Cao Dai religious organizations and temples recognized by the Vietnamese government:

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The Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Temple, headquarters of the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Church. Photo: Vashikaran Rajendrasingh.

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Tay Ninh Cao Dai Holy See  

Year established: 1926
Current headquarters: Tay Ninh Holy See, Pham Ho Phap Highway, Long Hoa Ward, Hoa Thanh Township, Tay Ninh Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1997
Number of practitioners: 1,510,000 (2011)

This is the earliest established, as well as the largest, Cao Dai organization today. The Cao Dai organizations that have emerged afterwards are all the result of internal disputes and splintering from the original Tay Ninh Holy See in the 1930s and 1940s.

After 1975, the Tay Ninh Cao Dai Holy See  was seen as “heretical” and due to previous anti-communist activities, was forced to shut down. It was not until 1997 that the authorities officially recognized this organization. To this day, independent Cao Dai practitioners refer to it as “state-run Cao Dai”, to indicate that the entire organization is completely controlled by the state. 

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The Ben Tre Holy See of the Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai. Photo: Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai

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Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai 

Year established: 1934
Current headquarters: Ben Tre Holy See, 100c Truong Dinh, 6th Ward, Ben Tre Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1997
Number of practitioners: 971,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 258 (2011)

The Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai split from the Tay Ninh Holy See in 1934, and then split further into the Ban Chinh Ben Tre Cao Dai and Ban Chinh Do Thanh Cao Dai. In 1994, these two blocs reunited to form the Ban Chinh Dao Cao Dai. The Vietnamese state recognized this organization in 1997.

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Chau Minh Holy See of Tien Thien Cao Dai. Photo: hvcd thuongtaothanh/Youtube.

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Tien Thien Cao Dai

Year established: after 1930
Current headquarters: Chau Minh Holy See, T884 Road, Tien Thuy, Chau Thanh, Ben Tre Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1995
Number of practitioners: 79,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 132 (2011)

Tien Thien Cao Dai was established in My Tho after two dignitaries, Mr. Le Van Lich and Mr. Nguyen Huu Chinh, were ejected from Tay Ninh Cao Dai. After a period of changes, the Tien Thien Cao Dai split into two sects in 1963, Tien Thien Minh Duc and Tien Thien Chau Minh. In 1995, these two sects were “made whole again”, taking the name Tien Thien Cao Dai and receiving recognition from the Vietnamese government. 

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Chon Ly Cao Dai Holy See. Photo: Chon Ly Cao Dai.

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Chon Ly Cao Dai

Year established: 1931
Current headquarters: Chon Ly Cao Dai Holy See, 193 Nguyen Trung Truc, My An Hamlet, My Phong Commune, My Tho City, Tien Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 2000
Number of practitioners: 7,000 (2011), 14,000 (2017)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 33 (2011)

This is the earliest sect to separate from Tay Ninh Cao Dai. Due to a disagreement, Mr. Nguyen Van Ca, who at the time was equivalent to an archbishop in the Catholic church, returned to My Tho to practice his own religion. In 1932, he established the Minh Ly Dao Cao Dai, which he later changed to the Minh Chon Ly Cao Dai or Chon Ly Cao Dai. 

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Ngoc Sac Holy See of the Minh Chon Dao Cao Dai. Photo: Huynh Lam.

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Minh Chon Dao Cao Dai 

Year established: 1934
Current headquarters: Ngoc Sac Holy See, Xom So Hamlet, Ho Thi Ky Commune, Thoi Binh District, Ca Mau Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1996
Number of practitioners: 30,500 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 49 (2011)

Minh Chon Dao Cao Dai was established by Mr. Tran Dao Quang after he split from Chon Ly Cao Dai over differences in religious practices. Quang, along with others, practiced independently in Bac Lieu, then founded Minh Chon Dao Cao Dai in 1934.  

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Ngoc Kinh Holy See of Bach Y Lien Doan Chon Ly Cao Dai. Photo: Bach Y Lien Doan Chon Ly Cao Dai.

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Bach Y Lien Doan Chon Ly Cao Dai 

Year established: 1936
Current headquarters: Ngoc Kinh Holy See, #675, Hoa An Hamlet, Mong Tho Commune, Chau Thanh District, Kien Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1998
Number of practitioners: 4,500 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 13 (2011)

When they saw that religious practices had deviated from the original forms, a number of Chon Ly Cao Dai practitioners broke off and established a separate sect called Bach Y Lien Doan Chon Ly Cao Dai. The phrase “Bach Y,” which means white clothes in Vietnamese, stems from the fact that dignitaries of this sect all wear white. 

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Hoang Dao Heavenly Temple of Binh Duc Viet Nam Cao Dai.  Photo: Viet Nam Cao Dai/Youtube.

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Binh Duc Viet Nam Cao Dai 

Year established: 1960 (predecessor was Viet Nam Cao Dai)
Current headquarters: Hoang Dao Heavenly Temple, Cho Hamlet, Area 4, Binh Duc Commune, Chau Thanh District, Tien Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 2011
Number of practitioners: 7,000
Number of temples directly administered: 9 (2011)

Viet Nam Cao Dai originally splintered from Chon Ly Cao Dai. At the beginning, Mr. Nguyen Van Nam and others split from Chon Ly Cao Dai and practiced separately in a place called Ben Tranh, after which they returned to Binh Duc Commune in My Tho Province to found Viet Nam Cao Dai – the Central Church in 1960. The majority of practitioners at the headquarters in Ben Tranh moved to the headquarters in Binh Duc, hence the two names Ben Tranh Viet Nam Cao Dai and Binh Duc Viet Nam Cao Dai. The Vietnamese government recognized the Binh Duc Viet Nam Cao Dai in 2011. Viet Nam Cao Dai has produced its own holy texts.

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Trung Hung Temple of Truyen Giao Cao Dai. Photo: Daderot.

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Truyen Giao Cao Dai

Year established: 1939
Current headquarters: Trung Hung Temple, 63 Hai Phong, Thach Thang Ward, Hai Chau District, Da Nang City
Year recognized, post-1975: 1996
Number of practitioners: 47,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 124 (2011)

Truyen Giao Cao Dai mainly operates in central Vietnam. This sect was preceded by the Trung Ky Temple, established after efforts by the Tay Ninh Church to bring the religion to Vietnam’s central region. In 1956, after inaugurating Trung Hung Temple, the sect changed its name to Truyen Giao Cao Dai.

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The Central Holy See of Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai. Photo: Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai Church/Facebook.

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Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai

Year established: 1937
Current headquarters: Central Holy See, An Thai Hamlet, Tam Quan Township, Hoai Nhon District, Binh Dinh Province. 
Year recognized, post-1975: 2000
Number of practitioners: 9,000 (2011)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 33 (2011)

Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai took shape after a number of dissatisfied practitioners from Tay Ninh Cao Dai returned to Saigon to practice at Cau Kho Cao Dai Temple. In 1937, the Cau Kho Cao Dai sect, Viet Quang Center Church, was established. It is more commonly known as Cau Kho Tam Quan Cao Dai. 

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The Long Chau Holy See of the Chieu Minh Long Chau Cao Dai. Photo: Thanhthatcaodai.org.

10/10

Cao Dai Chieu Minh Long Chau 

Year established: 1956
Current headquarters: Long Chau Holy See, Thanh Loi Hamlet, Tan Phu Thanh Commune, Chau Thanh A District, Hau Giang Province.
Year recognized, post-1975: 1996
Number of practitioners: 5,500 (2005)
Number of temples and shrines directly administered: 19

Chieu Minh Long Chau Cao Dai was established by followers of Chieu Minh Cao Dai, a sect founded by Mr. Ngo Van Chieu and based on practices to escape the mortal realm. The organizational structure of Chieu Minh Long Chau Cao Dai is simpler and looser than other sects. 

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Land Rights

Thien An Abbey – 45 Years Under The Government’s Fist

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Photo source: Thien An Abbey. Graphic: Luat Khoa.

“Thien An” means “heavenly peace”, but the Catholic monks here have never lived in peace.

In the 45 years since Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, the monks of Thien An Abbey have only known hard labor and study, and resistance against forces hell-bent on taking their land by any and all means. 

Thien An Hill today is no longer covered by sweeping pine forests; under the government’s fist, the trees have all withered away. The authorities have coercively taken the land by using thugs. The monks defend themselves using the only weapon they have: prayer. 

Once sacred and picturesque, the area has now become anything but. How did this come to pass?

Thien An Abbey is born on Thien An Hill

1940 – 1943: The abbey comes into existence

In 1940, Father Romain Guilauma, a French missionary, purchased a piece of land on today’s Thien An Hill. The place resembled a miniature Da Lat and was only about 10 km away from the center of Hue. Father Guilauma built a thatched cottage on the land to receive monks from the Order of Saint Benedict. The land is currently situated in Cu Chanh Village, Thua Thien – Hue Province.

Antonin-Fernand Drapier, the French Resident Superior of the Holy See, said a celebratory mass upon the opening of the abbey on June 10, 1940. The abbey was given the name “Thien An”, meaning “heavenly peace”. 

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From 1940 to 1943, monks studied under the thatched roof of this cottage. They also dug lakes and planted orange groves. Source: Thien An Abbey.

1943 – 1965: Digging Lake Thuy Tien, planting pine forests 

During this time, monks expanded the abbey’s footprint, building structures, cultivating the land, and raising livestock to achieve self-sufficiency.

The abbey built a chapel and a three-story building with 28 rooms in 1943. In 1956, the abbey began construction on a second three-story building, with 38 rooms on the upper two floors.  

The pine forests on Thien An Hill were almost certainly planted by monks during this time period. Furthermore, according to the Hue Festival, monks also dug two large lakes (Upper and Lower Thuy Tien), which provided water for the entire area.

From then on, these lakes and pine forests became one of Hue’s hidden getaways and the area began to be referred to as Thien An – Lake Thuy Tien.

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Archbishop Philipphe Nguyen Kim Dien blessed the church cellar and the stone altars in 1965. Source: Thien An Abbey.

1965 – 1975: Re-issuing a copy of  the “parcel map”

In 1969, Abbot Thomas Chau Van Dang asked the Thua Thien provincial Land Office (under the Republic of  Vietnam) to reissue “copies of relevant land registers and maps”, lost after the violent Tet Offensive in 1968.

The abbey stated that the Land Office provided it with “a copy of the parcel map”, that showed an area of 107 hectares.

According to the map, abbey land bordered Upper Duong Xuan Village to the north, Bang Lang and Kim Son villages to the south, Minh Manh Road to the east, and Bara Dam and Cu Chanh villages to the west.

Monks have stated that these 107 hectares of land are predominantly pine forests, punctuated by a fish farm, a dam, an elementary school, an orphanage, Duc Me (Mother Mary) Hill, and Thanh Gia (Cross) Hill. 

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Monks of Thien An Abbey in 1966. Source: Ngy Thanh/PBase.

Four decades of unrest

1975 – 2000: Abbey land is turned into an amusement park and private villas are also built on the site

After the Communist victory in 1975, religious establishments no longer had a voice. They had to follow the orders of the revolutionary government, no matter how backwards these orders were. 

In January 1976, the head of Hue’s Office of Agriculture and Forestry asked the abbey to “cede” a school it no longer used to house workers. The office began using the school before the abbey had agreed to cede the property.

Afterwards, the abbey said, the government garrisoned troops on abbey land and asked the monks to hand over its dispensary, orphanage, and one hectare of land. The abbey faced with no choice and had to agree. A fish pond was also later requisitioned. 

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The front (above) and back (below) of the abbey’s elementary school before 1975. Source: Thien An Abbey.

The land dispute over Thien An Hill took on another layer of complexity when the central government became involved. 

In November 1999, the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province recommended that the government confiscate Thien An Hill to construct an amusement park. A month after, Vietnam’s prime minister decided to take over more than 49 hectares of the abbey’s land and rent it to the Ancient Capital Hue Travel Company (a state-run business) to build the Thuy Tien Lake and Thien An Hill Amusement Park.

In the process of confiscating the abbey’s land, monks stated, the government wrongly used an order for uncultivated land, which meant the government could confiscate lands without providing the abbey with any compensation or advance notification; as such, the abbey was neither compensated nor notified that the land had been taken. 

The abbey petitioned the government regarding the wrongful confiscation of the land, stating that the government lacked jurisdiction according to the Land Law at the time.

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Source: Thien An Abbey.

Also in 1999, Boi Tran Villa, a restaurant and an exhibition hall for an individual, Ms. Phan Thi Van’s paintings, was constructed. The abbey said that the villa’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove, which the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold.  

The forestry school later became the Tien Phong Forestry Company, owned by the People’s Committee of Thua Thien – Hue Province.

2000 – 2010: The state “does not recognize” the 107 hectares of abbey land

Before the abbey’s petition was even addressed, the Thuy Tien Lake amusement park opened in 2001, with more than 70 billion dong (US$3million) in investment. 

In 2002, Vietnam’s State Inspector General addressed the abbey’s petition, responding that: “The State does not recognize Thien An Abbey’s land usage rights for the 107 hectares of land and pine forest on Thien An Hill.” 

What’s even more strange is that while the State Inspector General pointed out that “the entirety of the land and pine forest on Thien An Hill” had been given to the Tien Phong Forestry School in 1976, the abbey was completely unaware of this.

The abbey continued to oppose the Inspector General’s conclusion through more of its petitions to the government, stating that such conclusion did not focus on resolving the abbey’s disagreement according to the prime minister’s decision. 

The Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park had begun admitting people from the public in the middle of 2004. However, by 2008, it was suffering heavy losses. The provincial People’s Committee later allowed another company to lease the amusement park. 

In December 2008, the government issued a directive for provinces and cities to review and return to religious organizations all properties that were not being used effectively; however, none of Thien An Abbey’s properties were returned. 

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A corner of the Thuy Tien Lake \Amusement Park, abandoned after only a few years of operation. Souce: Lolivi.

2010 – 2015: Another villa in the “special-use forest”

The government designated Thien An Hill a “special-use forest” but continued to build villas within it.

In 2010, the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat was constructed. The business venture was pursued by another individual, Ms. Ta Thi Ngoc Thao, aiming to provide a space for rest, meditation, and Zen study. The abbey stated that the retreat’s land was previously the abbey’s orange grove that the Tien Phong Forestry School had partitioned off and sold. 

In 2011, the Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park was closed down due to unprofitability.

Thien An Abbey reported that in 2013, the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee issued papers certifying Tien Phong Forestry Company’s land usage rights, which included a number of the abbey’s structures, including an internal road, a chapel, a dormitory, and a building that the Hue Office of Agriculture and Forestry had borrowed since 1976.

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Cat Tuong Quan Retreat seen from above. Source: Tripadvisor.

2015 – 2017: Conflict escalates, a statue of Jesus smashed 

From the beginning of 2015, peace was shattered on Thien An Hill as the gentle lands became anything but.

The abbey said that beginning in January 2015, the government proposed multiple times that the abbey accept a measly 18 hectares of land so that their claims would be entered into the official registry. The abbey refused.

In May 2015, monks discovered that a statue of Jesus belonging to the abbey had been smashed and scattered in the wilderness. 

At the beginning of 2016, a group that included police, cadres, employees of the Tien Phong Forestry Company, and reporters entered the abbey to investigate the chopping down of numerous pine trees. Afterwards, the monks were rounded up by investigators allegedly for the crime of deforestation. The monks stated that an article in the Vietnam Law Newspaper slandered the abbey, falsely accusing it of deforestation and obstructing officials

In March 2016, a statue of Jesus that had just been put up was pulled down by a group of women, civil defense officers, and cadres mobilized by the government.

In the middle of 2016, the abbey reported that the Thuy Bang commune authorities led about 200 individuals accompanied by a large excavator to halt road construction linking the abbey to a partially-completed garden. The Thuy Bang Commune People’s Committee afterwards issued the abbey a form stating that it had trespassed on special-use forest land by constructing this road.

In March 2017, authorities continued to mobilize people to prevent the abbey from leveling land in areas the abbey claimed. 

That same month, unknown persons carved large V’s into numerous pine trees near the abbey’s dam, causing them to slowly wither and die.

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Many of the abbey’s pine trees had deep V’s etched into their bark, causing them to slowly die. Source: Thien An Abbey.

In May 2017, the government continued to allow numerous individuals to arrive at the abbey and disrupt renovation work on the abbey’s claimed land. 

At the end of June 2017, a statue of Jesus and the Holy Cross was resurrected only for the government to pull it down again. A number of monks were injured in the incident, but were unable to get to the hospital for treatment because police had set up traffic barriers blocking exit from the abbey. 

After that scuffle, the provincial People’s Committee met with abbey representatives, but the conflict remained unresolved. The committee stated that the prime minister’s statement in 1999 and the State Inspector General’s decision in 2002 were “faultless and should remain as is”. 

***

On July 25, 2017, the abbey reported that the provincial People’s Committee had responded to a number of the abbey’s grievances regarding the piney hill:

First, the abbey’s school building was demolished according to the government’s 1976 Decision 188/CP because the school was a “remnant of land possession and colonial exploitation…”

Second, the land which the Cat Tuong Quan Retreat sat on originally belonged to the Tien Phong Forestry School, which transferred it to a residential household in 1984; this entity then passed it onto another household, which then passed it onto the retreat. 

Third, the owner of the Boi Tran Villa purchased land for his/her villa by combining purchases from two different households: one from the household that passed the land to the Cat Tuong Quan retreat and the rest from another household.

Fourth, regarding another household that was supposedly using abbey land, the committee stated that this household was sitting on land that the forestry school had granted to the family in 1984 to start a garden and build a house.

The abbey argued that the committee’s explanations were not convincing, especially since land survey records remain conspicuously missing.

***

On December 18, 2017, commune authorities blocked monks from setting up a Christmas welcome gate on an internal road leading into the abbey. 

Approximately one week later, the abbey reported that Phan Ngoc Tho, the vice-chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee, proposed that the Order of Saint Benedict and the Provincial Vietnamese Order of Saint Benedict no longer designate Father Nguyen Huyen Duc as the abbey superior and that he should be transferred out of the province. 

2018: Year of repeated forest fires 

In January 2018, Thuy Bang commune police asked the abbey to provide a list of individuals who resided at the abbey in any form to help with on-site corroboration.

At the beginning of March 2018, after monks felled a tree to prevent a fire, police and traffic officers, forest management, and government cadres all joined forces to obstruct the felling, ultimately confiscating the pine tree. After this event, five incidences of forest fire occurred one after the other. 

On March 4, 2018, a portion of the abbey’s claimed pine forest caught fire. After the fire, four other forest fires occurred on May 10, May 22, May 23, and July 4, 2018.  The abbey claimed that the fires destroyed about 8 hectares of pine trees that were about 60 years old.

The landscape of the fire on July 4, 2018, taken from the Abbey’s bell tower.

In June 2018, Phan Ngoc Tho became the chairman of the Thua Thien – Hue Province People’s Committee after his predecessor retired early.

On July 18, 2018, the abbey reported that a group of employees from the Tien Phong Forestry Company had entered the burned land on July 4 to plant pine trees but were stopped by the abbey.

In December 2018, the abbey continued to demand the Tien Phong Forestry Company return the school it had borrowed from the abbey. 

2019 – 2020: Strains continue to worsen

On the night of April 19, 2019, about three hectares of old pine trees that had grown for more than 60 years burned completely. According to the abbey, Tien Phong Forestry Company regularly claims that it manages the land but it did nothing to stop the burning.

The fire happened on April 19, 2019. Source: Thien An Abbey Facebook.

The abbey reported that this fire and the previous five fires were ignored by firefighters and that the government, which has released no public information about the events, failed to carry out an investigation into the damage.

In May 2020, Thua Thien – Hue provincial authorities announced that they would transform the dilapidated Thuy Tien Lake Amusement Park into a “cultural park to serve the community, a state-of-the-art creative space, a sculpture garden.”

About a month afterwards,  approximately one hectare of the abbey’s pine forest was hacked to pieces. Many large pine trees were sawed into, leaving deep scars that would kill the trees slowly without felling them.

In July 2020, the abbey continued to send official documents asking for the return of the elementary school that the Tien Phong Forestry School borrowed from the abbey.  

***

Over three consecutive days, from August 10-12, 2020,  when the entirety of Thua Thien – Hue Province was on-guard against COVID-19, a crowd of approximately 40 people held up signs and shouted over loudspeakers at the site of a toppled statue of Jesus, demanding the abbots halt their work and return the land to them.

Abbots recognized these individuals as committee cadres, members of the Thuy Bang commune women’s association, and familiar security and surveillance officers. 

Protests of this nature cannot be organized without the backing of local authorities. The ongoing dispute between the abbey and the government continues to escalate with no prospects of good results. We will continue to update the latest developments of this dispute in the coming months. 

Protest against Thien An Abbey on August 10, 2020. Source: Thien An Abbey Facebook.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and previously published on Luat Khoa Magazine. The translation is done by Will Nguyen.

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