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Religion Bulletin, January 2021: Criticism Session In The Dark Of Night

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The Protestant Church of Christ faces threat of heavy government repression.

Five ethnic Thuong, pictured left, endured a government criticism session in front of residents on the night of January 15, 2021. Photo: MSFJ News.

[The Government’s Reach]

Phu Yen provincial authorities suppress the Protestant Church of Christ: Criticism session in the dark of night

Three years ago, an ethnic Thuong from the Central Highlands was arrested by Thai police. He expected to be deported back to Vietnam according to an extradition order from Vietnamese police. The man was named A Ga, and he was a follower of the Protestant Church of Christ.

When he was arrested in Thailand, A Ga had been a refugee in Bangkok for six years with his wife and children. He lived in an area with hundreds of ethnic Thuong refugees who had fled the Central Highlands. Similar to A Ga, a significant number of them were wanted by Vietnamese police for organizing illegal border crossings. A large portion of these crossings were for their own family members, with the remaining consisting of fellow Protestants.

While in a Thai prison, A Ga prayed to avoid deportation to Vietnam. Three months later, he was sitting on a plane with his wife and children; the destination was not Vietnam, but rather, the Philippines. The US State Department had intervened in his case. After they spent a period of time in the Philippines, A Ga’s family was resettled in the U.S.

On January 15, 2021, A Ga’s name appeared during a government criticism session of five ethnic Thuong in Ia Lam Commune, Song Hinh District, Phu Yen Province. 

Video source: MSFJ News.

In the darkness, his name echoed along with those of five other ethnic Thuong standing in front of police, local leaders, and villagers. The scene resembled a trial. Villagers were forced to sit and listen to the government’s charges against the five for participating in the Protestant Church of Christ.

The five simultaneously criticized were Mr. Nay Y Blang, Mr. Nay Y Loi, Mr. Ksor Y Blang, Mr. Hwing Y Nuk, and Mr. Ro Da. Police stated that there were two other ethnic Thuong who were also subject to criticism but were not present at the meeting.

“Unauthorized prayers”

At the start of the criticism session, the authorities stated that the five named individuals had taken advantage of ethnic and religious issues to disrupt national unity, conspired to participate in the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, better known by its acronym FULRO, and distorted the policies of the party and the state.

However, the government failed to present any evidence showing how the five had violated the law as charged.

Mr. Nay Y Blang, 50, was accused by the government of holding a key role in the activities of the Protestant Church of Christ in Phu Yen Province.

Authorities asserted that Y Blang disrupted stability, security, and order by allowing his home to be used for public religious activities. Blang was said to have connected with former inmate friends—members of FULRO—and locals to participate in the Protestant Church of Christ, where they listened to A Ga and others overseas spread false propaganda about a lack of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. 

Blang was also accused of organizing “unauthorized prayers,” including a service on August 19, 2020 to mark the “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief,” an international holiday designated by the United Nations. Even Blang’s sharing of pictures of church activities was deemed by the government to be illegal. 

Pressured to renounce the church

Pastor A Dao, a member of the Protestant Church of Christ’s Management Board, told RFA that the five members were pressured to renounce the church during the criticism session.

“The government forced them to renounce the Protestant Church of Christ, declaring that the state could not accept opposition; they were made to sign paperwork renouncing the church. But a number of our brothers remained resolute,” A Dao stated to RFA.

RFA quoted Mr. Y Krek Bya, who described the criticism sessions as lasting from 6 pm to past 9 pm; Bya stated that the sessions failed to get all five people to publicly declare their abandonment of the church.

“When the session let out, they said that if the men refused to renounce the church, and if protests broke out in any form, then the men would be imprisoned, where they would be met with a heavy hand or even killed,” Bya told RFA.

“Criticism before the people”

Criticism sessions related to religion and conducted in front of residents have been known in the Central Highlands since the 2000s. That was when religious movements combined with the struggle for human rights began to bloom in the region. 

During these sessions, authorities would bring residents in to witness and listen to the “improper activities” of those being criticized. The objective was to force those such people to cease their religious activities and to discourage anyone else from participating in activities not supported by the state.

These criticism sessions are seldom covered in the state press. The clip of the criticism session above was surreptitiously recorded by a resident.

On one rare occasion, on July 4, 2020, Gia Lai provincial police reported their criticism session of a 50-year-old ethnic Thuong. The subject of the criticism was Mr. Puih Hong, a resident of Ia Grang Commune in Ia Grai District, Gia Lai Province. Authorities asserted that he had crossed the border to Cambodia many times and that he had misrepresented policies in Vietnam regarding religion and national unity.

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Mr. Puih Hong standing before residents and the authorities during a criticism session organized by the government on July 4, 2020. Photo: Gia Lai provincial police.

Currently, Vietnamese law does not contain any regulations related to public criticism sessions. The state, however, most likely considers such sessions as a type of propaganda tool that it can use to convey the law to the people. 

International organizations have long considered criticism sessions to be an affront to human dignity.

The precarious fate of the Protestant Church of Christ

For religious organizations in Vietnam, it is not enough that their activities be purely religious. These groups must also express full support for state policies to receive permission to operate.

Before he became a refugee in Thailand, A Ga had on many occasions submitted forms to his commune people’s committee to register religious activities, only to be uniformly rejected.

The Law on Faith and Religion contains a regulation regarding “the registration of organized religious activities,” but it also contains another regulation that denies permission to anyone violating Article 5.

Article 5 of the Law on Faith and Religion stipulates behaviors that are forbidden. In Paragraph 4 of the article, subsection ‘a’ forbids actions that “violate national defense, security, national sovereignty, order, societal safety, the environment,” while subsection ‘d’ forbids “ethnic divisions; religious divides, including between those who follow a religion and those who do not, and between those of different faiths and religions.”

There are no specific definitions for “violations of national defense, security, order, societal safety” and “ethnic divisions, religious divides.” These regulations become useful barriers the government can use to forbid religious activities it does not agree with. 

The Protestant Church of Christ was established in 2006. In 2016, the church announced that it had more than 1,500 members.

The Protestant Church of Christ has been suppressed by the government for more than a decade. However, the organization is not spoken of in the state press nearly as much as those religious groups described as anti-government, such as Dega Protestantism, and the Ha Mon religion.

Recently, as the above religions have been nearly wiped out, the Protestant Church of Christ appears to be the government’s next target. 

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A member of the Protestant Church of Christ being interrogated by police.  Photo: Security TV.

In July 2020, Security TV, an information channel run by the Ministry of Public Security, aired a report accusing the Protestant Church of Christ of using overseas funds to oppose the Vietnamese governments. 

Colonel Nguyen The Luc, deputy director of Dak Lak provincial police, stated that the anti-government religious activities in the Central Highlands had both been found in the Dega Protestantism and the Protestant Church of Christ.

The government stated that the church had 27 operating locations in five provinces and cities (Kon Tum, Dak Lak, Binh Phuoc, Lam Dong, and Tra Vinh). Phu Yen is likely a newer area for the group.

The Protestant Church of Christ includes both native and overseas members; among them are former prisoners that remain under government watch, as well as current refugees in Thailand. With members having such diverse origins, and a government haunted by enormous protests in the Central Highlands during the 2000s, this religious organization will undoubtedly face heavy-handed suppression. 

[Religion 360*]

Pledges to “voluntarily renounce false religions” in Dien Bien

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Half of a form “pledging voluntary renouncement of false religion” in Dien Bien Province.  Photo: Dien Bien Phu Newspaper. 

A report by the Dien Bien Phu Newspaper, a publication run by the provincial government, revealed portions of a form requesting that residents pledge not to follow religions unrecognized by the state.

The article stated that troops at the Nam Ke border defense post, in Muong Nhe District of Dien Bien Province, had advocated that residents not practice illegal religions. Signing “pledges to voluntarily renounce false religions” was one of the many solutions advocated in the effort to convince people not to practice such religions.

The photograph above shows that the pledges come pre-written by the government; the person signing the pledge merely has to sign his or her  name, declare that they are renouncing the false religion, and agree to carry out the government’s requests.

The article confirms that the government continues to actively block the spread of new religions in Dien Bien Province.

Commemorative banner at Phuoc Buu Temple spray-painted black

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A banner belonging to the Phuoc Buu Temple was spray-painted black. Photo: Phuoc Buu’s Facebook page.

On January 18, 2021, Phuoc Buu Temple’s Facebook page posted a photograph of a temple banner that was spray-painted black. The temple is located in Xuyen Moc District of Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province. The temple belongs to the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam.

Printed on the banner was: “Paying respectful remembrance – mourning the late Venerable Thich Thanh Tinh, Sangha member of the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam.”

A large X was spray-painted in the middle of the banner, and the word “unified” was completely obscured. 

The Phuoc Buu Temple is regularly harassed by local authorities for following the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam. In 2019, the government set up cameras pointing straight at the temple gates to monitor the temple’s religious activities.

Vietnam has 8,000 Falun Gong practitioners, with 600 locations of practice

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Falun Gong practitioners in Hanoi in 2018. Photo: Southeast Asia Globe.

On January 19, 2021, in a live seminar on new religions in Vietnam, Ms. Nguyen Thi Dieu Thuy, a cadre from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, confirmed that currently in Vietnam there are approximately 8,000 Falun Gong practitioners, with 600 locations of practice in the country’s cities and provinces.

In the same seminar, Assistant Professor Ngo Duc Thao, deputy chairman of the Advisory Council on Ethnicity and Religion (belonging to the Fatherland Front Central Committee), stated that new religions that desired permission to operate must help the state achieve socialism and national unity and must proselytize according to Vietnamese law.

Thao also stated that Vietnam would be hard-pressed to recognize Falun Gong, as the religion had a political past in which it demanded democracy and human rights in China.

In past years, numerous Falun Gong practitioners have been prevented by police from spreading the religion in many provinces and cities.

Hanoi police demand to see man’s family separation form to recognize him as a Buddhist

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The article in Giac Ngo Newspaper regarding police demanding to see an individual’s family separation form to confirm his declaration as a Buddhist. Photo: Screenshot.

On January 22, 2021, journalist Chu Minh Khoi of Giac Ngo Newspaper publicly expressed doubts regarding the official number of Buddhists in Vietnam.

The issue started when the author arrived at the Police Department’s Office of Administration and Social Order in Hanoi to request a re-issue of his ID card indicating his religious affiliation. The cadre there requested that Khoi present his family separation acknowledgement to prove he was a Buddhist, as he had written on his reissuance application.

Khoi explained that he was not separated from his family (as a monk or nun would be), but that he was a Buddhist (in practice). He also stated that he had a certificate confirming his refuge, practicing in a home provided for by a temple. He wanted to put his religion as Buddhist on his new ID.

According to Khoi, the cadre however responded: “Seeing that your head isn’t shaved and that you aren’t wearing a robe obviously means you haven’t separated from your family! But, your certificate confirming your refuge doesn’t verify your status as a Buddhist. You have to have the family separation acknowledgment issued by the Buddhist Church of Vietnam.”

A number of Giac Ngo’s readers confirmed that they were also asked by police to provide their family separation acknowledgements to confirm their Buddhist status if they wanted to put it down as their religion on their ID.

Luat Khoa sought to verify this information with a number of other Buddhists. However, individuals that the magazine spoke to stated that their local authorities accepted their declarations as Buddhists without any need for a family separation acknowledgement.

Police in different provinces and cities appear to apply different standards towards religious declarations. Many people suspect that the state’s count of Buddhist followers is inaccurate because of these inconsistent standards.

According to data from the first census that recorded the number of religious practitioners in 1999, Vietnam had 7.1 million Buddhists. In 2019, the General Bureau of Statistics announced that the number of Buddhists had dropped to 4.6 million. As such, Buddhism is no longer the largest religion in Vietnam. 

[On This Day]

Law on Faith and Religion: three years in effect

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The Vietnamese National Assembly as it passed the Law on Faith and Religion in 2016. Photo: National Assembly Newspaper.

On January 1, 2018, the new Law on Faith and Religion took effect. The law was passed by the National Assembly in 2016, replacing Legal Directive 21/2004/PL-UBTVQH11 and Decree 92/2012/NĐ-CP regarding religion.

Contradicting the state’s declaration that the law would protect and enact freedom of religion, the Law on Faith and Religion has in reality become a tool for the government to stifle religious activities in Vietnam. 

After three years of enforcement, unrecognized religious organizations remain unable to pass through the government’s filter. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, though it has been in operation longer than the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, is still seen as an illegal organization.

New religions in the northwest and the Central Highlands are unable to register organized religious activities due to the regulations.

The government is growing ever more obvious in its discriminatory treatment. It appears religious organizations are divided into two categories: positive (absolute support for state policies), and negative (conducting purely religious activities, fighting for human rights, or operating free from state control).  

Religious organizations are still banned from providing education to the public, such as running schools and universities. Many religions have participated in public education in the south before 1975 and the north before 1954. Nowadays, these religious organizations are banned from running schools.

The government maintains complete decision-making power over land belonging to religious organizations, including construction on and renovation of religious grounds. 

Education within religious organizations also faces interference. Two subjects, history and Vietnamese law, must be taught according to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs’ syllabus.

Regulations within this law allow the government to easily interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations. For example, in 2020, a representative of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs demanded that the Tien Thien Cao Dai Church carry out instructions as if they were internally issued: “Establish regulations for public dignitaries and rankings; establish regulations to resolve complaints and grievances; elect dignitaries of adequate standards for the Church’s Upper House, Standing Committee, and Lower House”. Another example of government interference includes the land dispute with the Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple in Phu Yen province.

The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion and the process by which the law is enforced reveal that the government sees these religious organizations more as state bodies than as civil ones.

Politics

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

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

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


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

“A spiritual heavenly revolution.

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

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

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

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

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Photo: Hochiminh.vn.

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

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

2. The overuse of joss paper and objects;

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

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

5. The invalidity of rituals of spiritual possession;

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

7. Disrespect for heroic martyrs; and

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

The religious texts of the Peace Society state:

“In the twenty-first century

The first Vietnamese Buddha was born.”

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

“Do not worship foreign gods

We worship our own Buddha in our country.”

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

“Vietnam is the eldest son of the Emperor.

Born first in the Earthly world.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from being  invaded, in heaven and on earth.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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

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

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


“The nation of Vietnam will stand forever

with Jade Buddha – Chí Minh – Ái Quốc”

(A quote from a 2010 prayer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How was the “Way of Uncle Ho” formed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

From politicians to gods

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

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

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued)

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Religion

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

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

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

Religion Bulletin, February 2021:

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

[Religion 360*]

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

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

Germany takes this year’s congressional hearing particularly seriously. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[On This Day]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[Did You Know?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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