Religion Bulletin, May 2021: A Protestant Church Was Accused Of Spreading COVID-19

The pandemic has increasingly obstructed the activities of minority religious organizations.

Religion Bulletin, May 2021: A Protestant Church Was Accused Of Spreading COVID-19
Samples are taken for testing at the alleyway in which the Phuc Hung Missionary Church organizes weekly religious activities. Photo: Doc Lap/Thanh Nien Newspaper.

[Religion 360*]

COVID-19’s effect on religious activities: Criminal proceedings brought against a Protestant church

The May 2021 resurgence of COVID-19 in many provinces and cities around Vietnam has affected religious activities to a large degree.

On May 26, 2021, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) discovered positive cases among the Phuc Hung Missionary Church members. [1]

One day later, Nguyen Duy Tan, head of the municipal Religious Committee, stated that this Protestant church had been permitted to hold religious gatherings at a private residence, with 28 members registered. [2]

According to Tan, the church conducted four sessions in May, all according to proper municipal social distancing guidelines and with 20 participants each; however, the site was possibly limited in space. The source of the outbreak has yet to be confirmed.
Phuc Hung Missionary Church in Go Vap District, HCMC. Photo: Doc Lap/Thanh Nien.

It was not until May 30 that Go Vap district police in HCMC charged the Phuc Hung Missionary Church with “spreading infectious disease.” [3]

Police stated that church members did not properly comply with COVID guidelines and made incomplete declarations.

A day before police initiated criminal proceedings, the HCMC Center for Disease Control accused church representatives of misreporting the actual number of church members. [4] Many church members made no declarations until they showed signs of illness.

The Vietnamese press rapidly reported on the number of infections originating from the Phuc Hung Missionary Church [5], to whom the Ministry of Home Affairs attributed responsibility.

Immediately after announcing criminal proceedings, the Ministry of Home Affairs proposed in a meeting regarding the COVID situation in HCMC that the city suspend the church’s activities, and pending the investigation results, possibly revoke its permit and eliminate its registration. [6]

In addition to the situation involving the Phuc Hung Missionary Church, on May 26, 2021, provincial authorities in Bac Giang coerced an F1 member (someone who has been in contact with a Covid-19 positive person) of the World Mission Society Church of God into a quarantine zone. [7] The media published a video of the authorities using a construction crane to apprehend the individual forcibly.

According to government sources, the woman purposefully avoided making a health declaration and tried to evade quarantine. Authorities stated that the individual was a member of the World Mission Society Church of God and accordingly had differing views on quarantine and health declarations.

The World Mission Society Church of God is a religious group whose activities are not authorized by the state.

At the beginning of May, the Ministry of Home Affairs promulgated an official document on the methods religious organizations should use to prevent and control the spread of COVID. [8] As a result, religious organizations have had to cease gatherings even in locations with zero cases unless the authorities deem a gathering necessary.

On May 28, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs reported that the leaders of 43 religious organizations had vowed to the committee and the Ministry of Home Affairs to comply with disease control and prevention directives. [9] As such, religious organizations have restricted gatherings, declined clergy coming from overseas, practiced social distancing, worn masks, and used disinfectants.

Vietnamese state media accuses the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom of misrepresentation, slander
Articles (left to right) from VOV, People’s Public Security, and the People’s Livelihood criticizing the U.S. State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedom. Photo: screenshots.

More than two weeks after the U.S. State Department announced its annual Report on International Religious Freedom, the Vietnamese state media began publishing a series of articles in response.

Voice of Vietnam’s online newspaper criticized the U.S. State Department, stating that it was using inaccurate information provided by a human rights organization based in the United States, BPSOS (Boat People SOS). The newspaper stated that the United States continued to demonstrate a subjective view of the religious situation in Vietnam and that it was slandering the Vietnamese authorities by accusing them of suppressing religion. [10]

The article stated: “Vietnam rejects the [U.S. State Department’s] one-sided, condemnatory, and subjective approach regarding faith and religion in the country”.

Sharing the VOV’s views, the People’s Public Security Newspaper published an article titled “Exposing the false reports on freedom of belief and religion in Vietnam”. [11]

The newspaper stated that the report’s accusations of repression and strict control of freedom of religion were “slanderous and lacking in objectivity; the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) are taking advantage of issues regarding freedom of faith and religion to disrupt national unity”.

Similarly, the People’s Livelihood Newspaper, belonging to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs, also criticized the U.S. State Department’s report as lacking in objectivity and misrepresenting the situation regarding religious freedom in Vietnam. [12]

The U.S. State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedom was released on May 12, 2021, published annually. [13]

This year’s report contained several accusations regarding the Vietnamese government’s strict control over freedom of religion, its suppression of independent religious organizations, its punishment of religious activists, and its use of laws and administrative procedures to limit freedom of religion. According to the report, religious activities in the Central Highlands and the northern mountainous areas continue to be tightly controlled. Land disputes between religious organizations and the state were highlighted in detail.

The Vietnamese state press’ vehement rebuttal of the United States’ Report on International Religious Freedom has become routine. USCIRF’s previous reports were met with a similar reaction.

[The Government’s Reach]

Religious training institutions must teach history and law according to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs’ curriculum

In January 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs began transferring lectures on Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law to religious training institutions in some provinces and cities, including Hanoi, [14] Nam Dinh, [15] Dong Nai, [16] An Giang, [17] and Bac Lieu. [18]

According to Article 37 of the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion, religious organizations must teach Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law to establish a religious training institution.

In February 2020, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs promulgated the teaching curriculum for these two subjects (Decision 35/QD-TGCP). It required their implementation in religious training institutions (including secondary schools, colleges, institutes, and major seminaries). [19]
The Government Committee for Religious Affairs’ two books on history and law. Photo: Vietnamese Buddhist Church.

Before this, the teaching of the two subjects was implemented by the religious training institutions themselves, with many different reference materials. We have observed large differences between the training objectives of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs and those of several religious training institutions.

In the Government Committee for Religious Affairs’ curriculum, the training objectives of these two subjects are to induce religious leaders to abide by the state’s laws on religion and have them fulfill their obligations to the country.

The Government Committee for Religious Affairs stipulates that all skills learned from studying history are “to serve as applied knowledge […] to live and work responsibly, and to carry out the rights and duties of citizens towards their homeland”.

On the other hand, the training objectives for history at the Buddhism Institute in HCMC are to equip students with historical knowledge, research skills, and historical event analyses. [20]

The Government Committee for Religious Affairs also stipulates how to teach these two subjects to develop compliant attitudes towards the state’s laws on faith and religion.

Controlling the training activities of religious institutions is among the Government Committee for Religious Affairs’ ambitions. Requiring institutions to teach history and law according to their curriculum is a step in that direction.

In January 2021, in an article published in State Organizations Magazine, [21] the vice minister of home affairs and the head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Vu Chien Thang, highlighted one of the functions of the 2021 promulgation: “Review and evaluate the activities of religious training institutions; do not allow ‘unregulated’ training or travel overseas for illicit training”.

Thang also confirmed in the article that in 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs had succeeded in influencing religious organizations to choose church leaders who were close to the government.

Party newspaper praises role of special civil force in controlling religious activities in the highlands

At the end of April 2021, the Vietnamese Communist Party’s online newspaper published articles introducing the state’s special civil force. [22]

According to the newspaper, the special civil force effectively provides information and advises the state in many goals, including controlling religions in the highlands. This civil force is deemed to have the “persons of prestige”.
General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong meets with village elders, chiefs, dignitaries, and persons of prestige who participated in the program “Village Fulcrums” in 2018. Photo: Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs.

According to the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs, “persons of prestige” number 30,247 individuals in 52 provinces and cities in 2020. Provinces with numerous mountainous areas have the highest number of “persons of prestige.” [23]

“Persons of prestige” appear in many of the state’s administrative occupations (the Fatherland Front, police, leaders of the ethnic minority, and religious positions, etc.). [24] Among their tasks is informing the state on noteworthy activities in their communities, including those to do with religion and security and order.

Also, according to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s E-Newspaper, in past years, “persons of prestige” have made important contributions to eliminating false religions and obstructing illicit religious propaganda. [25]

The criteria for choosing “persons of prestige” is stipulated in Decision #12/QD-TTg, issued by the prime minister on March 6, 2018. [26]

According to the document, “persons of prestige” are normally cadres, civil servants, officials, members of the armed forces who have made many contributions and are no longer active, dignitaries, religious functionaries, village elders, heads of lineages, businessmen, professors, researchers, and individuals of economic standing who are respected by the community.

Furthermore, requirements to become a “person of prestige” include consistently executing the state’s laws and regulations and carrying out activities of a communal nature, with notable comprehension of and influence within one’s community.

The series of articles from the Vietnamese Communist Party E-Newspaper reveal that this special civil force will focus on development moving forward. They are seen as a force to help the state control civil activities that might affect national security, especially in mountainous areas.

[Did You Know?]

Protestantism has many independent churches: a perfectly ordinary fact

The recent incident involving the Phuc Hung Missionary Church has raised public concerns about independent religious groups.

Immediately after Vice Minister of Home Affairs, Vu Chien Thang, stated that the Phuc Hung Missionary Church was not a religious organization, newspapers emphasized this detail to attract readers, spreading incomplete information. For example, Thanh Nien Newspaper published the headline: “Breaking: ‘Phuc Hung Missionary Church’ was merely a gathering place, its head was not a pastor.” [27] In the same vein, the Ministry of Health’s news page reposted information from the Family Newspaper with the headline: “SHOCKING: Phuc Hung Missionary Church not a religious organization.” [28]

The press’ incomplete information regarding the Phuc Hung Missionary Church’s type of organisation caused the public to develop unsympathetic views towards Protestant religious groups.

According to the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Protestantism advocates building independent churches with various organizational models, depending on the sect. It could be a centralized model with grassroots churches, like the Protestant Church of Vietnam (Southern branch). [29] Grassroots churches are imbued with the power to manage their own affairs in the spirit of independence, self-sustenance, and self-transmission. In particular, Protestantism does not prevent its followers from joining other sects or splintering off to operate independently.

The HCMC Committee for Religious Affairs reported that the city had 145 groups that operated like the Phuc Hung Missionary Church. These groups were all legally registered with the local authorities as stipulated by the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion.

Vietnam maintains a complex, multi-step process for groups to be recognized as religious organizations. Currently, there are only nine Protestant religious organizations recognized by the state, all of which operate using a centralized model with grassroots churches. [30]

Protestant churches not yet recognized by the state can still operate by registering their places of assembly and religious activities.

In 2018, there were approximately 70 Protestant organizations yet to be recognized as religious organizations by the state due to their failure to meet the requirements set out by the Law on Faith and Religion. [31] These organizations have about 79,000 followers, 75.9 percent of whom are in Binh Phuoc Province, the Central Highlands, and the northern mountainous regions.

Furthermore, the government has deemed illegal some Protestant organizations, such as the Vietnam Church of Christ in the Central Highlands, regularly obstructing their activities and suppressing their members.

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