We know you and your loved ones may be experiencing difficult days as the pandemic rages on. We hope you all remain safe and healthy.
As all of Vietnam faces down the fourth wave of COVID-19, religious activities, as with other activities involving gatherings of people, carry the risk of spreading disease. This fact has caused the public to become more or less averse to religion.
We should not forget that religious organizations have been a sizeable resource in helping the community through difficult times.
Over the past few weeks, Ho Chi Minh City has faced a crisis in social welfare, and religious organizations have stepped up to support the people. However, compared to other countries in the region and with the south before 1975, religious, philanthropic activities nowadays encounter many obstacles.
This July, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs organized a seminar on religious organizations’ resources and their relationship to social welfare. When will these religious organizations be able to conduct charity independently and without hindrance?
The Government’s Reach
The Government Committee for Religious Affairs discusses religious resources in the realm of social welfare
On July 13, 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs convened a seminar with some researchers, religious dignitaries, and representatives of central ministries and branches to take stock of the resources religious organizations possess for social welfare and philanthropic activities. 
The seminar was organized as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) faced a severe social welfare crisis due to the government’s tightening of social distancing guidelines to contain a COVID-19 outbreak.
The Government Committee for Religious Affairs stated that the seminar aimed to evaluate the ability of religious organizations to function as independent entities in charity and social welfare activities.
Nguyen Anh Chuc, deputy head of the committee, stated that these religious organizations’ activities were still unorganized and spontaneous.
“Because of this, there needs to be a clear and transparent legal corridor in social welfare work, as well as increased coordination between the Fatherland Front and religious organizations,” Chuc declared.
After 1975, social welfare and philanthropic activities conducted by religions were disrupted. Many facilities, such as schools, hospitals, relief organizations, and orphanages, were confiscated by the government and banned from operating.
Today, religious organizations are allowed to operate in preschool education (kindergarten) and vocational training, but only to a minimal degree. They have not yet been allowed to resume general education activities.
For nearly five decades, the government has asserted that religious organizations must focus strictly on religion and help the state implement policies establishing national unity. This view has led to policies that precisely control the participation of religious organizations in other areas.
Article 55 of the 2016 Law on Faith and Religion permits religious organizations “to participate in educational, training, medical, social welfare, philanthropic, and humanitarian activities in accordance with relevant laws.”
However, the 2016 law and other codes and legal documents do not regulate specific charitable and social welfare activities, nor the level or conditions of participation for religious organizations. The legal recognition of religious organizations is still minimal, and they are not allowed to set up their organizations for charitable activities.
Furthermore, the state strictly controls the resources of religious organizations in charity and social welfare activities. For example, religions seeking to fundraise domestically or accept foreign aid must undergo very complicated procedures.
In reality, charity and humanitarian activities are the core values of many religions. Currently, religious organizations still maintain a few charitable activities but only on a small scale. Current policy does not allow them to operate on a larger or more professional scale, as before 1975.
Central Propaganda Department issues instructions for propaganda regarding ethnic groups and religions
The articles you read and the television programs you watch about religion may be part of a state propaganda campaign.
On July 19, 2021, the Central Propaganda Department issued guidelines for state agencies and press organizations on propaganda about ethnicity and religion. 
According to the guidelines, propaganda about ethnic groups and religions will focus on cadres, party members, and residents in areas deemed “complicated and sensitive” (remote, upland, and border areas with many religious practitioners). The substance of the propaganda will include the state’s policies and achievements in matters of religion and ethnicity and its rebuttals to the accusations of independent press and human rights organizations regarding religious and ethnic issues.
The propaganda will be issued comprehensively overall mass media, in newspapers, on social media, in the streets, and even during religious sessions.
The guidelines also state the Ministry of Information and Communication has the task of controlling mass media on ethnic and religious issues and must strictly punish those who provide incendiary or false information.
The Ministry of Education and Training is responsible for inserting propaganda on ethnicity and religion into the educational curriculum at every level of study.
The guidelines assert that it is necessary to fight against and criticize activities that “propagate false religions, incite practitioners to oppose the regime, […] practice superstitions, […] and distort the truth on democracy, ethnic equality, and freedom of belief and religion in Vietnam.”
The Vietnamese government maintains complete control over ethnic and religious affairs. Upland areas with large ethnic minority populations are subject to more stringent rules than urban areas. Even though the government recognizes the religious activities of ethnic minorities, they must be reported and are closely monitored.
Risk of COVID-19 infection for prisoners of conscience in prisons and temporary detention centers
According to The 88 Project, Vietnam currently holds in its custody 179 prisoners of conscience. Another 37 are in temporary detention, waiting to be tried for “crimes” related to their political activities or freedom of speech. Among those serving their sentences or in temporary detention, 59 cases have to do with freedom of religion. 
As COVID-19 rapidly spreads across many locations, prisons and temporary detention centers also face a high risk of infections. The most recent example involves an outbreak among detainees at the Chi Hoa Detention Center in HCMC; on July 7, 2021, the HCMC Department of Health reported 81 cases of COVID-19 there, including 45 cadres and 36 inmates. 
Before that, on the evening of July 6, the press had reported a prison riot at the same detention center.  According to information provided by the government, the riot was caused by an inmate who created a scene while the detention center was conducting COVID-19 screening. The press reported that riot police were mobilized to the detention center to handle the disturbance and that people in the surrounding area heard gunshots coming from the detention center.
On July 7, some inmates were transferred to the T30 Detention Center in Cu Chi Suburban District to implement social distancing.  However, the authorities have not released any further information on the COVID-19 situation at the Chi Hoa Detention Center.
The government has stated that prisons and detention centers across the country were strictly implementing COVID-19 prevention measures.  Nonetheless, the disease has spread throughout Hanoi, HCMC, and the Mekong Delta, bringing with it concerns of infection in areas of dense incarceration, particularly given that more than 500 suspected cases of infection were discovered at the Bo La Drug Rehabilitation Facility in Binh Duong Province at the end of July 2021. 
The government has not made any announcements on vaccinating criminals or prisoners. Currently, all temporary detention centers and prisons have stopped inmate visitations.
More than 1,000 practitioners, monks, and nuns volunteer to look after COVID-19 patients in Ho Chi Minh City
As of July 20, 2021, more than 1,000 practitioners, monks, and nuns of Buddhism, Catholicism, and Protestantism have volunteered to serve at field hospitals in HCMC.  This number continues to grow.
On July 22, about 300 more volunteers of different religions set out to COVID-19 treatment hospitals in the city of Thu Duc to support patient care.
Before this, the Vietnamese Fatherland Front Committee in HCMC had called on “all classes of people, religious organizations, and compatriots” to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,  marking a rare occasion where the government officially sought the support of religious organizations.
The COVID-19 pandemic still rages in HCMC. The current number of infected persons has exceeded 100,000 and continues to increase. According to the Ministry of Health, as of August 6, 2021, more than 2,000 people have died.
You may not have heard of the activities of new religions, but that does not mean these religions don’t exist. New religions are developing all over Vietnam. Before judging their activities, we should first understand how they suffer daily harassment from the state and the press.
7 Falun Gong practitioners punished for gathering during lockdown
On July 7, 2021, Tuoi Tre News reported that seven Falun Gong practitioners were administratively punished by the authorities of Tan Hung Commune, Cai Be Suburban District, Tien Giang Province, for gathering while the province was implementing social distancing. 
According to the article, on June 24, 2021, six people gathered at a household in the commune to practice Falun Gong together. Each person was fined 7.5 million dong ($328) for violating local pandemic regulations.
The sanction of this Falun Gong group was not an isolated incident. In 2020, when pandemic regulations were not applicable, the government continuously banned this group from operating and sanctioned them for various other reasons. 
Local authorities and the press heavily condemn the Falun Gong movement, and they have seen it as a “false religion” that gravely affects people’s health. However, the religion has developed across many provinces and cities, and many practitioners claim that they benefit from its practice.
Since the beginning of 2021, the government’s obstruction of Falun Gong activities has not appeared in media as much as in 2020. Reasons may include the government’s increased propaganda activities hindering the religion’s practice and the complications surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the end of May 2021, the press heavily covered the case of infections at the Phuc Hung Missionary Church in HCMC. On May 29, 2021, Go Vap District police issued a decision to move ahead with prosecution for the crime of “spreading a dangerous and infectious disease to others.”  As of the end of July 2021, police have not released more information about this case.
Chairman of Mang Yang Suburban District, Gia Lai Province: no followers of the Ha Mon religion remain
If you’ve been following previous religious news, you’re probably familiar with the fact that the government considers the Ha Mon religion in the Central Highlands a “false” one. The religion is currently facing extinction in Gia Lai Province.
In July 2021, a Mang Yang Suburban District representative told Dan Vietnewspaper that the district no longer had anyone who followed the Ha Mon religion. According to Le Trong, chairman of the suburban district’s People’s Committee, “those who were lured and deceived into following the false Ha Mon religion were educated and mobilized to return to their families” and received local support “to reintegrate into the community.” 
Trong also revealed how the government propagandizes and mobilizes, including “evaluating impoverished and borderline-impoverished households.”
According to Trong, villagers will “evaluate impoverished and borderline-impoverished households (those who previously followed the false religion in particular, and the entire population in general)” according to the principles of democracy and fairness. From there, the locality will come up with “suitable approaches,” such as bank loans and participation in agricultural expansion programs and models, etc.
The statement indicates that the Mang Yang Suburban District government has used the household poverty line to force families to give up the Ha Mon religion. This act is contrary to official regulations.  The household poverty line is based on per capita income and deprivation in accessing essential social services.
Over the years, many Central Highland Montagnards who belong to unrecognized religious groups have attested that the local authorities punish them economically by not approving impoverished household designations and bank loan applications, stripping them of social welfare benefits, or refusing to provide administrative services such as ID card provisions and marriage registrations.
The Mang Yang Suburban District People’s Committee chairman has also stated that the government has encouraged the children of families who follow the Ha Mon religion to continue going to school.
Several witnesses have told Luat Khoa that local authorities in the Central Highlands increase tuition fees for families who belong to unrecognized religious groups as a form of punishment.
In July 2021, the People’s Army Newspaper also reported that “the Ha Mon religion no longer existed on Gia Lai land.”  The Ha Mon religion uses Catholic teachings as life precepts; practitioners do not go to church but practice rituals at home. In 2011, the religion had 1,357 followers in Mang Yang Suburban District.
New religions in Dak Nong
The Dak Nong News reported that the province saw numerous activities carried out by new religions and that provincial authorities were tackling these religious groups. 
Religious activities considered illegal in the province include “building structures for the purpose of unauthorized religious activities; improperly using the name of the ‘Vietnamese Protestant Church’ for associations and groups, and causing difficulties in the state’s management of religion.”
The newspaper cited two cases in the Dak Nia Commune, Gia Nghia Suburban District, accused of conducting for-profit religious activities but did not provide any evidence. In both cases, it was alleged that temples were built without government permission.
Furthermore, the provincial Religious Affairs Committee reported that land was being illegally donated and transferred to build religious facilities, that religious activities were being self-organized without the participation of a state-recognized sangha, and that group religious activities were unregistered with local authorities.
People following new religions are becoming increasingly common in Vietnam. However, it is challenging for these religions to meet the strict government requirements for recognition according to the Law on Faith and Religion.
Tuyen Quang police: alerting the people not to follow “religion seeking to firmly establish the rule of law at its heart”
After Hai Duong Province, Tuyen Quang provincial police also alerted people to the activities of the “religion seeking to establish the rule of law at its heart firmly.” 
Police reported that the religion attracted participants through live videos on social media, including content that criticized political, social, and religious situations.
Like Hai Duong provincial police, Tuyen Quang provincial police on social media urged people not to listen to the shared information and invitations to join the religion. Police claim the religion’s statements violate state laws, propagate superstitions, and take advantage of beliefs for personal gain.
“Subjects of the ‘religion seeking to establish the rule of law at its heart’ firmly have taken advantage of the right to freedom, democracy, and freedom of speech, as well as taken advantage of belief and religion to operate illegally,” the Capital Security Newspaper said, citing the announcement by Tuyen Quang provincial police.
Information on this religion has been removed from popular social media platforms in Vietnam, such as Youtube and Facebook.
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