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

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

You’re reading the November 2020 Religion Bulletin.

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

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

[Religion 360*]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will continue to provide updates regarding this case.

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

Photo: The Vietnamese Protestant Church (Southern region).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

German parliamentarian sponsors Hoa Hao Buddhist currently serving prison sentence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[On This Day]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Did You Know]

Case of the “Barnyard” Protestant Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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