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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

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

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

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Illustration: Luat Khoa

[Religion 360*]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specific instances of religious suppression in 2020 that USCIRF cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Did You Know?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References:

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

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

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Religion

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

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[Religion Flashpoints]

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

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

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

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

Source: DAK LAK NEWS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another group of Protestants under scrutiny in Phu Yen Province

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Religion 360*]

A Hanoi club accused of spreading superstitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Religion

The Collision Of Religion And The Vietnamese State

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Graphics: Legal Initiatives for Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

Faith and Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith and Red Tape

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

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

However, this process is far from convenient. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith and Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In belief, they find freedom.

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

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

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

But religion will be there to stay.

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