After 1975, churches and sects in southern Vietnam found themselves in a difficult situation; they no longer had the right to decide the fate of their own religious facilities.
Due to the harsh land policy of “the winning side,” priests were left without a church, Buddhist monks and nuns lost their pagodas, and the faithful were stripped of places to congregate, pray, and worship.
The rationale for the construction of such locations changed from being based on the necessity of a religion’s expansion to being contingent on the decisions of the government. As such, plots of land formerly owned by religious institutions were left unused, underutilized, and were eventually overgrown with weeds. In fact, some sects had to beg local governments to allocate some space to establish their facilities because they could no longer buy the land themselves.
It is unclear whether the four serious religion-related land problems below are solved by the new Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh in his revised Draft of the Land Law.
1. Religious lands have been requisitioned by the government since 1975
A year after the Chairman of Thua Thien-Hue Provincial People’s Committee declared that the Thuy Tien Lake Water Park would be “revived,” its construction site still remained abandoned and in a dilapidated state. Its lake was virtually dry, wild weeds littered the ground, and so far, no investor has yet been announced.
The plot at Thuy Tien Lake lies on Thien An Hill, which used to be managed by the Thien An Monastery. Following the requisition of this plot by the authorities in 1999, the land was assigned to a State-owned company to be transformed into a fee-paying recreational facility within 40 years. However, in less than 10 years, this project proved to be ineffective and was unable to attract tourists as construction work remained unfinished. The original investor was replaced but the project was discontinued and has long been abandoned.
Approximately 16 kilometers from the Thien An Monastery, right in the heart of Hue City, lies another plot that has forever lost any traces of its history of Catholicism; a monastery, which was more than 100 years old, had been turned into an ordinary building. What used to be a privately-owned high school on land owned by Lasan priests is currently the Hue Conservatory and the Huong River Theater; authorities “borrowed” and took over the school after 1975.
In December 2020, one month after the main priest of the Thi Nghe Parish was delegated by the Archdiocese of Saigon to sue the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee in order to retrieve a primary school, the authorities returnedfive religious facilities which they took after 1975. However, this was too small of a number when we compared it to what the Catholic Church originally surrendered to the state since 1975. In an interview with the Vatican-based Fides News Agency in 2009, Cardinal Pham Minh Man recounted that Saigon alone had lost nearly 400 education, healthcare, charity, and humanitarian facilities after 1975.
For indigenous religions whose voices are practically non-existent, such as Hoa Hao Buddhism  and Caodaism,, and Baha’i , they continued to suffer great injustices in land use, following the Communist takeover of South Vietnam. These organizations have forever lost facilities that they took great pains to establish.
In 2008, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued a directive that permitted the continued use of religious facilities on lands assigned by the State, if the lands were used appropriately and efficiently; local authorities would look at situations on a case-by-case basis and return lands to the sects accordingly.  Nonetheless, this directive had little effect when it came to returning lands to religious organizations.
In 2015, the Ministry of Construction reported that the number of complaints about housing and land-related to religious groups was significantly increasing. Most of the complaints were regarding religion-related plots borrowed or requisitioned by the government.
The land conflict between religious organizations and the government is an important problem as this relates to not only the interests of churches and sects but also to their millions of believers. Religious facilities are not only places of worship but also venues for education, charity, aid, and leisure.
While you are reading this article, the faithful at the An Hoa Parish are still praying day and night and keep hoping that their land will not be allocated to others, divided, or put up for sale.
2. Religious organizations have trouble receiving lands from individuals
Did you know that the Baha’i religion was not recognized by the Vietnamese government after 1975? This religion was only permitted to resume its religious activities in 2008. However, the religious leaders of Baha’i continued to petition the government to assign them a piece of land to build their headquarters, but that petition has not been responded to. 
You may wonder why the Baha’i clergy did not purchase land from one of their followers instead?
This is because the Land Law in Vietnam does not allow such transactions.
Specifically, Article 169, Paragraph 1, Section (g) states that religious organizations are only entitled to receive land use rights via a land assignment by the State in accordance with religion policy, land zoning, and the State’s overall plan.
As such, no matter how large its budget is, it is impossible for the Baha’i religion to buy land to establish its office, even though this religion was already officially recognized by the State. The re-establishment of offices for religions founded before 1975 is something totally alien to the current land policy.
In 2020, Catholic followers at the Dong Dinh Parish, in the Nho Quan District, Ninh Binh Province, reacted sharply in response to how local authorities handled their request to expand their church.
The Dong Dinh Parish had previously petitioned the State to increase the land size of their church. The district-level officials of the Fatherland Front guided them through the procedure to regain their land-use rights so that they could get land allocated to them for the parish.
However, after receiving land donations from parishioners, the commune-level authorities declared that they will construct a dam in the area that will separate the church from the parishioners’ land.
The faithful reacted angrily. They built a steel fence around the land and erected seven statues of saints in protest against the inconsistency of the local authorities.
In 2017, a team that conducted research on laws that affected religions in Vietnam, which included journalist Pham Doan Trang, assessed the prevention of civil transactions of religion-related lands. Their research had found that religious organizations and their followers were given unequal treatment under the law.
3. Religious facilities need a license prior to being given a location
In 2009, the government expelled young monks of the Lang Mai congregation from the Bat Nha Pagoda in Lam Dong Province. Previously, the pagoda concluded that its premises had to be expanded in order to accommodate and support these new monks. However, the State refused to issue the license for the expansion so it was impossible for them to be given more land and recruited more young monks for the Lang Mai congregation.
Lang Mai is a Buddhist sect founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, an internationally-known Vietnamese monk. Despite being a well-known sect overseas, it is not licensed to practice in Vietnam. These aforementioned monks were the first, and also the last, practitioners of this religion in Vietnam.
In southern Vietnam, the religious facilities of Hoa Hao Buddhism are frequently harassed by police when they are just faithful congregate gathered at their temples.  The police are adamant in claiming that some of the sects in Hoa Hao Buddhism are illegal. Sadly, this is also the case for many other independent Caodaism facilities.
The Land Law stipulates that land assignment for religious facilities is based not on the demands of these organizations, but instead on the religion policy, land zoning, and the land-use plans approved by the State.
In “The Collision of Religion And The Vietnamese State,” a report released in May 2021, Aerolyne Reed cites Vo Quoc Hung Thinh’s research for Legal Initiatives for Vietnam regarding Vietnam’s policy on religion. She summarizes Hung Thinh’s main points which allege that Vietnam’s licensing, land assigning, and the construction of religious facilities only fuel personal interests and pave the way for cronyism among the government officials.
Vo Quoc Hung Thinh also claims that most recently approved projects to build pagodas, such as the pagodas of Lung Cu and Bai Dinh, do not purely belong to religious organizations, but are partnerships between some government-approved religious and commercial groups.
Land ownership and the building of religious facilities are closely connected to religious activities. The fact that the government has the right to assign land and grant construction permits sends a very clear message about its power to decide the fate of religious organizations.
4. Delay in handling complaints about religion-related lands
The 2013 Land Law stipulates that land disputes, in which one party is a religious facility or an organization, is handled by the provincial-level chairman of the People’s Committee (Article 203, Paragraph 3, Point b). In case of disagreement with the settlement, a religious organization is entitled to lodge a complaint to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment or bring the case to court in accordance with administrative lawsuit procedures.
In reality, local authorities and the central government deal with complaints about religion-related lands by staying quiet and refusing to respond, prolonging the settlement duration, or sowing discord among the plaintiffs with the aim of trying their patience to the extent that the petitioners eventually abandon the lawsuit.
In early 2000, because the lodged land complaint of the Thien An Monastery was not addressed thoroughly, local authorities started construction on the monastery’s land.  Sadly, this is not the only issue plaguing the Thien An Monastery; the monastery has also been complaining about one of their schools being taken over by the government after 1975.
Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, states that the petitions of religious communities, in general, are not well responded to by administrative agencies or courts in Vietnam.  In many cases, complainants are sent back to their localities to have their complaints re-considered. More often than not, this leads to the prolongment of settlements and to these cases being ignored or forgotten.
In his 2014 report, following his official visit to Vietnam, Heiner Bielefeldt notes that Vietnam – as a country – is legally inefficient in addressing religion-related land disputes.  Furthermore, religious communities that are officially recognized by the State also express their disappointment over ineffective legal procedures.
This article was written in Vietnamese by Nguyen Vu and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on June 7, 2021. The English translation was done by Hoai Huong.
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