Religion Bulletin, June 2021: The Vietnamese Buddhist Church Fiercely Guards Its Merit Donations

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Photo: Vietnamese Buddhists (left), Financial Times. Photo processing: Luat Khoa.

[Religion 360*]

Buddhists, Vietnamese Buddhist Church oppose Ministry of Finance’s draft circular on merit donations

The Ministry of Finance’s draft circular, published on April 28, 2021, and related to the management of merit donations, has met unexpected and fierce opposition from Buddhists and the Vietnamese Buddhist Church (VBC). [1]

The draft is intended to guide the management of income and expenditures, funds for organizing festivals, merit donations, and sponsorships for religious relics.

The two most disputed parts of the draft have to do with merit donations, specifically (1) the ban on private ownership of merit donations and (2) interference in financial management matters (mandating those religious organizations to open accounts, regulate income and expenditure items, and requiring that organizations submit reports to the state regarding financial matters related to merit donations).

Many Buddhists have given feedback on the draft directly on the Ministry of Finance’s webpage. [2] They assert that donations, funds, and property contribute to places of worship and monasteries is their right. They do not consent to allow any third party to interfere in using and managing such contributions.

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A temple-goer deposits money into a merit donation bin. Photo: VBC.

The VBC’s Management Board reported that the Ministry of Finance did not consult them before issuing the draft.

In a petition on June 17, 2021, the VBC stated that the draft’s contents were unconstitutional, illegal, and did not protect ownership rights. Furthermore, the draft “does not [even] guarantee the equality of all religions before the law” by using the phrase “merit donations,” which is a term common only in Buddhism. [3]

The VBC asserted that merit donations were the private property of churches and the monasteries belonging to those churches.

The church recommended that the state eliminate the entirety of its regulations on income, expenditures, and merit donations, or at the very least, clarify the rules on merit donations, while also vowing not to manage such donations, which belong to the VBC’s organizations, religious institutions, and monasteries.

In a meeting with the Government Committee for Religious Affairs on June 30, the Ministry of Finance stated that its draft was under the provisions of relevant legislation and that it did not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations and institutions. [4]

Online conference held on mechanisms for management and use of land for religious purposes

On June 3, in a meeting with the Central Economic Committee and the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs reported that land issues were becoming more complicated by the day and that new policies were needed. [5]

According to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs’ report, the 2013 Land Law still contained numerous issues and inadequacies regarding religious organizations and land management. Among them were questions surrounding the land allocation process, the issuance of land usage rights certificates, the usage of land for welfare activities, the construction of spiritual tourism areas, and the resolution of land conflicts.

The report conceded that current land policies “are not going to resolve religious land issues and that because the tendency of religion is towards development, the land demand for religious purposes is real.”

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A clash related to a land dispute at Thien An Abbey in 2017. Photo: Thien An Abbey.

According to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, there are approximately 29,801 religious institutions today, increasing 5,801 since 2008; however, the reserve of land for religious purposes has not increased.

The 2016 Law on Faith and Religion and the 2013 Land Law are both in their final stages. This is an opportunity to reform land policy for religious organizations.

Land policies are among the greatest sources of conflict when it comes to religious freedom in Vietnam. Although there have been many changes in land policy, the government still maintains discriminatory practices against religious organizations.

See more: Four land issues that have caused injustices for religious organizations.

Anniversary of the founding of Hoa Hao Buddhism: Police continue to set up security checkpoints at temple headquarters

On June 26, Le Quang Hien, a dignitary of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, reported that police continued to set up security checkpoints as they have every year, to prevent people from reaching temple headquarters at Long Xa Commune (Cho Moi Suburban District, An Giang Province) for the anniversary of the religion’s founding. [6]

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Pictures were taken of the checkpoints in front of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism headquarters. Photo: Le Quang Hien’s Facebook profile.

There has yet to be any report on the police harassment that Pure Hoa Hao Buddhists have faced.

Police set up checkpoints at the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism headquarters regularly during the religion’s major holidays to prevent followers from gathering.

Security forces regularly obstruct religious activities at churches and independent Hoa Hao Buddhist institutions and followers’ private residences. The government sees these groups as illegal religious organizations and therefore does not permit them to conduct religious gatherings.

Tuyen Quang provincial police: Mobilizing people not to follow the “heretical” Duong Van Minh religion

At the beginning of June 2021, Tuyen Quang provincial police reported that they had made a concerted effort to convince 80 Hmong households in Cao Duong Hamlet, Yen Thuan Commune, Ham Yen Suburban District not to follow the “heretical” Duong Van Minh religion. [7]

Provincial police stated that Vietnam respected freedom of faith and religion but would deal harshly with fanatical activities, those that threaten national security, and those who incite the masses to oppose the socialist government.

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A meeting in which residents are discouraged from following “false religions”. Photo: Tuyen Quang provincial police.

The Duong Van Minh religion came into existence in the 1980s, mainly aiming to reform the Hmong people’s traditional rituals progressively.

The religion regularly appears in international reports on religious freedom in Vietnam; followers have been harassed and attacked by police, receiving jail sentences, and their religious grounds have been dismantled.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom, the Duong Van Minh religion leaders reported that the authorities had permitted them to use some “don houses” to store funeral supplies. [8] “Don house” is a term used to describe one of the religion’s several sites of practice that the government was once determined to demolish. More than 19 of these houses were dismantled in 2019.

However, the article by Tuyen Quang provincial police reveals that the government firmly opposes the Duong Van Minh religion. The article calls the religion a “false” one, a hostile force, and an illegal organization that is determined to prevent residents from participating in this religion.

This approach is applied to the Duong Van Minh religion and the many new religions that are currently surging across Vietnam.

BPSOS: Parishioners of Con Dau Parish finally live in peace after 10 years of struggle

After 10 years of agonizing struggle, the parishioners of Con Dau Parish (Da Nang) have been permitted by the government to live in peace in the area surrounding the church, as they’ve desired. [9]

The human rights organization BPSOS (Boat People SOS) reported that at the beginning of the year, the authorities set aside 170 lots of land surrounding the church to house those who had fought, allowing them to live in peace as they had desired. Approximately 100 lots of land were distributed to 50 households.

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A strip of houses is being constructed for parishioners around the Con Dau Church, May 21, 2021. Photo: Mach Song Media.

The Con Dau Parish uprising occurred in 2010 when the Da Nang municipal authorities were determined to clear 4 hamlets in Hoa Xuan Commune, Cam Le District, which included the Con Dau Catholic village, to construct an ecological travel zone. [10]

The clearance decision was not agreed upon by parishioners, who disputed details of both compensation and relocation, leading to a conflict between hundreds of households and the government.

Throughout 10 years of petitions, the government organized numerous episodes of suppression and coercion, causing many to flee the border as refugees. Violent clashes with police have led some residents to suffer injuries and jail sentences, while others lived in perpetual states of unrest.

In 2017, municipal authorities finally agreed to repurpose the area around Con Dau Church into a resettlement area for parish households. [11]

A group of individuals arrested in relation to a “false religion” and “defaming the government”

At the beginning of June 2021, the Kinh Mon Township (Hai Duong Province) website reported that the Ministry of Public Security had arrested a group allegedly believed to be practicing a false religion and defaming leaders, the party, and the state. [12]

The article stated that the group was arrested under Article 331 of the Penal Code – abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State and the legal rights and interests of organizations and individuals. However, the article did not specify how many were arrested or their identities.

The article reported that the group had the name “Pháph môn cần khaii vữngh trụ luậth làm trính tâm” (roughly “the Dharma discipline needs to establish the rule of law at its heart firmly”), created and controlled by a Facebook account named “Mẹ Báich Nhiên.” The page included spiritual activities such as group initiation, worship, and prayers.

In particular, members were alleged to have used many social media accounts (Facebook and YouTube) to spread video clips criticizing leaders, the party, and the state; in these clips, members would write the government’s crimes on pieces of paper and then shred them with scissors or knives, sprinkle salt on photographs, or cast curses.

The Ministry of Public Security website has yet to announce the arrests formally.

New religions are thriving in Vietnam in many different forms. These groups normally operate through social media or under the radar to avoid government interference.

[Did You Know?]

What are “strange religions”? How many “strange religions” does Vietnam have?

In June 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs reported that as of April 2021, Vietnam had 85 “strange religions.” [13]

These “strange religions” are also called “false religions,” the two terms the government reserves for religious groups and organizations that operate “illegally.”

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Materials related to the Supreme Master Ching Hai religious sect, which the government considers a “false religion.” Photo: People’s Public Security Newspaper.

They could be religious organizations that spread to Vietnam from overseas, such as Supreme Master Ching Hai or the World Mission Society Church of God, or they could be homegrown, like the Vietnam Protestant Church of Christ in the Central Highlands or the Duong Van Minh religion in the northern mountainous regions.

These “strange religions” are but one part of new religious phenomena appearing in Vietnam, which the authorities see negatively.

The Vietnamese government has yet to define what a “false” or “strange religion” is. Reasons used to punish these groups are often subjectively applied.

The government and the press propagandize against “strange religions” in lockstep, based on the following four primary characteristics:

First, these groups’ religious activities are conducted surreptitiously and are unregistered by the local authorities. The government portrays this secrecy as an evasion of the law to carry out deceptive and harmful acts. In actuality, groups and organizations are seen as “false religions” cannot register their religious activities with local authorities. They must operate secretly to avoid police repression.

Second, the government sees these groups’ activities as flimsy or intentionally destructive to national traditions, most common among them being the non-worship of ancestors. In addition, their activities are seen as affecting security and order, with their “illegal” gatherings and “anti-state” behavior.

Third, to deny the legitimacy of these “strange religions,” the government propagandizes that these groups and organizations borrow, combine, and modify the doctrines of orthodox religions and claim them as their own rather than create their own.

Fourth, the government and the press vigorously spread propaganda on the negative consequences of participating in new religions and have effectively caused the public to develop a negative view. The most common method is using an exceptional case to stress the severe consequences of participating on health, wealth, and spirit.

In summary, the Vietnamese government does not see religious activities as civil ones. In their eyes, religious organizations walk the line between civil and political groups; they have a responsibility to help the state maintain security and order and mobilize the people to implement policies. As such, all religious activities must be conducted openly and under government supervision (which is why they don’t allow religious activities to be conducted in private residences).

People participating in new religions is not a recent phenomenon. Hoa Hao Buddhism and Cao Daiism were both completely new religions at the beginning of the 20th Century.

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