Religion Bulletin, July 2022: Authorities Ramp up Repression of Independent Protestant Groups, Bring Tinh That Bong Lai Case to Trial

The United States sees six members of Tinh That Bong Lai as victims of religious repression.

Religion Bulletin, July 2022: Authorities Ramp up Repression of Independent Protestant Groups, Bring Tinh That Bong Lai Case to Trial

[The Government's Reach]

Six members of Tinh That Bong Lai were sentenced to more than 23 years in prison; the United States lists them as victims of religious repression

On July 20 and 21, 2022, the People's Court of Duc Hoa District (Long An Province) resumed the preliminary trial of six members of Tinh That Bong Lai after an adjournment at the end of June 2022.

The six individuals were prosecuted under Article 331 of the Penal Code: abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State or the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and individuals.

The court announced sentencing as follows: [1]

  • Le Tung Van, 90, 5 years imprisonment
  • Le Thanh Hoan Nguyen, 32, Le Thanh Nhat Nguyen, 31, and Le Thanh Trung Duong, 27: four years imprisonment
  • Le Thanh Nhi Nguyen, 24: three and a half  years imprisonment
  • Cao Thị Cuc, 62: three years imprisonment
Tinh That Bong Lai members during their July 2022 preliminary trial. Photo: TTXVN.

The six were accused of making and posting on social media five clips and an article with false content that misrepresented and insulted Duc Hoa district police, the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha, and the Venerable Thich Nhat Tu, disturbing the local order and security. [2]

At the start of the trial, the defense requested a trial postponement on suspicion of missing evidence and petitioned a summoning of witnesses. However, the court rejected the moves. [3] Le Tung Van was accused of being the mastermind, with the rest of the members as accomplices. Van has denied the allegation. [4]

The case has received widespread public attention. In contrast to earlier State media reporting of unfounded rumors that members were being investigated for incest, the public has now begun to condemn the government's lack of transparency in the case.

Following the trial, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom added the six members to its list of global victims of religious and faith-based repression. [5] The list includes 76 people in Vietnam.

Several observers from independent religious groups told VOA that the sentence was not fair to Tinh That Bong Lai. [6]

Tinh That Bong Lai is a Buddhist establishment that operates openly, but the government refuses to register it as a religious organization in Vietnam. The Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha has repeatedly pressured the government to shut down this group.

Since 1981, the government has cultivated the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha as the only state-recognized Buddhist organization. All Buddhist establishments must become sangha members if they want to operate openly.

Independent Cao Dai practitioner interrogated by police at Tan Son Nhat Airport

On July 22, 2022, Nguyen Xuan Mai, a practitioner of the "Cao Dai Chon Truyen 1926" ["1926 True-form Cao Dai"] religion, was interrogated for more than six hours at Tan Son Nhat Airport. [7]

"Cao Dai Chon Truyen 1926" is an independent Cao Dai organization unregistered with and unmanaged by the Vietnamese government.

Mai told RFA that police arbitrarily took her phone to print out human rights study materials from an email with the sender's information, which they then forced her to sign on that document.
Nguyen Xuan Mai at the June 2022 U.S.-based International Religious Freedom Summit. Photo: Cao Dai Chon Truyen 1926.

According to Mai, she returned to Vietnam after a trip to the United States to campaign for religious freedom, during which time she spoke at the International Religious Freedom Summit and met U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain.

The Vietnamese government strictly controls Cao Dai churches due to their anti-communist history and past influence. Independent practitioners like Mai are regularly harassed and forced to join government-sanctioned organizations.

In March 2022, authorities worked with Cao Dai organizations in Da Nang, Ben Tre, Tay Ninh, Long An, Kien Giang, and Tien Giang provinces to uphold the regulations laid out in Notice #34/TB/TW (issued in 1992). The directives include discouraging the development of the Cao Dai religion and preventing the establishment of an administrative apparatus, as well as the unification of the religion's sects. [8]

Vietnamese authorities regularly interrogate individuals who publicly campaign for human rights abroad upon their return home; such sessions are a perennial fear for activists in Vietnam.

The government orders the Unified Buddhist Sangha pagoda to relinquish land for canals

In July 2022, abbots at Thien Quang Pagoda continued petitioning the authorities of Xuyen Moc District (Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province) to reconsider the construction of canals passing through pagoda land. [9]

The petition has dragged on for more than a year with no significant progress.

According to the explanation on Thien Quang Pagoda's Facebook page, the authorities want to dismantle the pagoda's structures to build the canals. However, it only pays the pagoda compensation for the land and the crops on it and nothing for the pagoda. In the past few months, the government has repeatedly called on the pagoda to voluntarily remove some of the structures on its premises. [10]
Buddhists and monks at Thien Quang Pagoda. Photo: Thien Quang pagoda.

Thien Quang Pagoda also stated that the government did not meet with it to discuss the matter and that it only sent notices requesting clearance of the land.

Thien Quang Pagoda belongs to the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, established before 1975. Construction on the current pagoda began in 2000 and still has not been granted a permit. Under international pressure, the government has allowed the monks of the pagoda to carry out limited activities.

Authorities prevent independent Protestants from carrying out religious activities in Dak Lak and Phu Yen provinces

According to RFA, on July 5, 2022, Buon Ma Thuot municipal police (Dak Lak Province) stopped 40 Protestants from celebrating at a residence in K'mrong Prong B Village (Ea Tu Commune). [11]

According to VOA, from July 8 to 10, 2022, Ea Lam commune authorities (Song Hinh District, Phu Yen Province) prevented followers of the Vietnam Church of Christ from gathering for religious activities. [12]

On July 13, 2022, three members of the church, including Nay Y Bang and Kshr Y Them, were summoned by the authorities to discuss the church's activities.
A plainclothes police officer gestured while at Nay Y Bang's residence on July 10, 2022. Photo provided by figures involved in the meeting RFA.

One of the members relayed to VOA what commune authorities told them: "If you all keep gathering like this, we will arrest and prosecute you by whatever means. The State is more forceful now and won't let you get away with this."

Although independent Protestant groups have always faced many difficulties, authorities in some places have been more relaxed about purely religious activities. The threat is a possible sign that the level of repression is on the rise.

Further reading on independent Protestant groups in the Central Highlands: When the Central Highlands is no longer home

[Religion 360*]

State magazine: 73 percent of Protestants are ethnic minorities

In an article published on July 28, 2022, the Journal of Party Building reported that out of 1.2 million Protestants nationwide, 73 percent (equivalent to 873,700) are ethnic minorities. [13]

Ethnic-minority Protestants are concentrated in two areas: the northern mountainous region with 238,900 practitioners and the Central Highlands region with 575,940 practitioners.

In 2020, the government acknowledged that Protestantism was growing very quickly in these two areas. [14]

These are also the two areas where new religions such as Gie Sua, Ba Co Do, Duong Van Minh, and the World Mission Society Church of God have developed.

Authorities also report that many Protestants have joined new religious groups. For example, in 2019, 1,208 former Protestants in Dien Bien Province converted to the Gie Sua faith. [15]

[New Religions]

Bac Kan province: Duong Van Minh religion sees the peak of repression in last six months of 2022

The People's Police newspaper reported on July 12, 2022, that Bac Kan provincial authorities were cracking down on Duong Van Minh practitioners as planned in "Government Project #78," which stipulated in plain terms that the last six months of 2022 would be the peak of the repression campaign. [16]

The project's full name is "Fighting, obstructing, and eradicating the Duong Van Minh illegal organization," issued in 2021 to completely wipe out the religion from Bac Kan Province by 2023.

Authorities have not publicized the complete content of the project.

According to the article, as of May 2022, Bac Kan Province had 889 practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion. After two weeks of implementing the project, the specific time period of which is unknown, police had forced 221 people to sign pledges not to follow the religion.
A household that had pledged not to follow the Duong Van Minh religion receives a portrait of Chairman Ho Chi Minh. Photo: Bac Kan newspaper.

Among the households who had committed to renouncing the religion, one was given a portrait of Chairman Ho Chi Minh by the government as a gift to congratulate them on leaving the Duong Van Minh faith.

For months following the death of founder Duong Van Minh, authorities in the northern mountainous provinces have repressed practitioners without pause, finding ways to force them to sign pledges not to follow the religion.

Further reading: Who's lying to you about the Duong Van Minh religion: the army or the police?

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