On the evening of January 15, 2021, five Montagnard Protestants stood in the courtyard of the headquarters of the People's Committee of Ea Lam Commune, Song Hinh District, Phu Yen Province. Under flickering electric lights, a government official read aloud their alleged illegal religious activities in front of a large crowd of other Montagnards.
2021 had begun this way for members of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ. According to Vietnamese government procedures, this church was once allowed to register for religious activities. Still, it was later denied permission and accused by the state of engaging in unlawful religious activities. 
In October 2021, a woman who practiced Falun Gong – a meditation exercise widespread in 63 provinces and cities with about 600 exercise spots – was fined 12.5 million Vietnam dong for distributing the spiritual movement's materials at a marketplace.  
Whether you are a follower of a state-recognized religion or otherwise, you risk being suppressed by the Vietnamese government if your religious activities are considered outside the permitted scope. In other words, the government is now the only religious association of all religions – giving itself the right to interfere in all religious activities in Vietnam.
The five religious issues in 2021 listed below are what the Vietnamese authorities have been trying to hide from the public views.
1. New Religions Struggle to Flourish and Grow
In March 2021, Major General Sung Thin Co, deputy commander of Military Region 2 and a member of the National Assembly of Ha Giang Province urged his peers to reconsider the prohibition of the Duong Van Minh religion in the northern mountainous provinces. He said that this religion had only changed its funeral customs and that it was not taking any actions against the government.
The Duong Van Minh religion is one of at least 85 "strange religions" operating in Vietnam. In September 2021, the Hanoi Religious Affairs Committee said that many new religious groups had spread via social networks. Currently, the state does not allow any new religions to operate. 
Throughout 2021, Falun Gong adherents were regularly fined by the government for spreading their beliefs. Likewise, the government also dispersed several gatherings of the World Mission Society Church of God. Adherents of the International Association for Buddhist Meditation Master Ruma (Pháp môn Diệu âm) and several other religions also had to conduct their practices in the form of conferences and travel tours to avoid the ever-watchful eye of the state. The government even forced people to sign commitment forms to renounce religions in the mountainous areas. 
Under Vietnam's Constitution, people have the right to freedom of religion and thought. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese government believes that it has the right to decide what religions are suitable for the people and which religions need to be restrained.
The state's repressive propaganda activities have led citizens to lack objective knowledge about new belief systems. To make matters worse, several local authorities also spread false information about the nature of some new religions, which causes their disciples to suffer discrimination from the community.
In contrast, East Asian countries, such as Taiwan and Japan, have allowed new religions to operate freely. Although some faiths have harmful activities, this does not mean that all new religions should be prohibited. 
Establishing a new religion is an inevitable and inescapable social development. The government needs to recognize this declaration from the Constitution: "Everyone shall enjoy the freedom of belief and religion; he or she can follow any religion or follow none."
2. The Politicizing of Religious Practices
The 2016 Law on Belief and Religion allows the Vietnamese government to interfere with religious organizations; the state must approve everything a religious organization does.
In January 2021, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Vu Chien Thang stated that the ministry had "exchanged and guided" the religious organizations to elect religious leaders closely connected with the government.  At the same time, the government confirmed that there were Communist Party members who were secretly assigned to religious organizations. 
In 2021, the Vietnamese Government Committee for Religious Affairs imitated the religious control initiative of China. This committee donated thousands of national flags to religious organizations and requested that these be flown at their facilities. One of the objectives of this plan was "to capture the thoughts and attitudes of dignitaries, officials, monks, and believers. of religions and representatives of faith facilities." 
The state also forces religious organizations to indoctrinate their followers in Vietnamese history and laws - under the Government Committee for Religious Affairs curriculum, commands Khmer monks and Buddhists to oversee security and order in Soc Trang Province, and rigidly control the use of religious lands. All these highlights the fact that the Vietnamese government does not allow religious organizations to operate independently.
Government intervention has also resulted in a bias against certain religious groups. Many religious organizations, such as the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, the only Buddhist organization recognized by the state, are given a priority, which gives them a monopoly on spiritual practices.
In general, if religious organizations want to operate legally, they have to accept government intervention at all levels of their religious practices. Such governance results in the politicizing of religions and turns faith into an instrument of the state to control society.
3. A Pervasive Religious Surveillance System
Did you know that the Vietnam Farmers' Union, the Veterans Association of Vietnam, and the Vietnam Women's Union were also assigned secret missions by the state to control religious practices? 
The Vietnam Farmers' Union and the Vietnam Women's Union were ordered to spy on their members who had dissident ideas on ethnic and religious issues. The Veterans Association of Vietnam was also given the task of "enlisting reputable people in ethnic groups, [and] religious dignitaries to serve national defense and security missions."
In addition, the state used a force called "reputable people" to provide information and to advise the state on local issues, with the goal of controlling religions in mountainous areas. 
The Government Committee for Religious Affairs also collaborated with the State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese to monitor the religious activities of Vietnamese residing abroad. 
These forces, together with the religious security police and religious boards from the provincial and district levels in 63 provinces and cities, have created a massive surveillance system that spies on Vietnamese citizens. The operating budget of this apparatus is not small. In 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs was granted more than 68 billion dong while 63 provincial religious committees were granted about 1-5 billion dong. 
4. The Stifling of the Charitable Activities of Religious Organizations
Since 1975, the Vietnamese government has deterred people from receiving benefits from the acts of charity of religious organizations. This is a deliberate decision of the state. A report by the United Nations Development Programme said that the state's wariness regarding political motives and trends has prevented religious organizations from participating in delivering health and education services. 
Currently, religious organizations are still discouraged from participating in non-public services. 
If you see religious organizations in Vietnam engaging in charitable activities today, these events are much less organized and are significantly less professional than before 1975.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, religious groups have proven that they can assist the public in social relief and patient care. They can do even better if the state allows them to operate healthcare facilities and other social services professionally and are granted the protection of the law.
In most nations, religious organizations are encouraged and incentivized for doing charitable activities and providing social services to the public. Sadly, this has not happened in Vietnam in nearly 50 years.
5. Using State-controlled Media to Dictate the Ruling Narrative
In October 2021, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism issued a directive to publish 10 propaganda reports to combat cult activities. These were broadcast on the numerous platforms of the state news agency, VNEWS. 
In November 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs affirmed that the press was one of the state's leading means to fight against "extreme new religious phenomena and illegal cults." 
If you pay attention, you will also notice that the state press simultaneously publishes one-sided reports on religions in all its media channels. This news reflects the government's views instead of providing critical, multi-dimensional, and independent facts or analyses.
The press has become another means of the state's "soft" repression in religious matters. One-sided reporting on these issues has conditioned the mindset of the populace and made them support the state's suppression of religion.
The people are denied the opportunity to form their own opinions on religious issues. And without the opportunity to speak, the followers of new religions are viewed by the public with suspicion and apprehension.
Religion is one of the pillars of a united, tolerant, and sustainable nation. It supports the growth and development of civilization by fulfilling the existential needs of its populace far better than any other part of society. However, the five religious issues above show that the state is trying to chip away at religion in an attempt to control the faith and beliefs of its people.
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This article was written in Vietnamese by Thai Thanh and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on December 25, 2021. The English translation was done by Lee Nguyen.
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