Religion Bulletin, June 2022: U.S. Department of State - Many Independent Religious Practitioners Tortured by Police

Vietnamese government considers passing more draconian regulations on religion.

Religion Bulletin, June 2022: U.S. Department of State - Many Independent Religious Practitioners Tortured by Police

[The Government’s Reach]

2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: many Vietnamese practitioners claim police torture

At the beginning of June 2022, the U.S. Department of State released its 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom, which included a chapter on Vietnam. According to the report, numerous practitioners from unregistered religious groups stated that they had been beaten and tortured by police. [1]
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom on June 2, 2022. Photo: AP.

The report highlighted many prominent cases:

  • On December 12, 2021, while attending the funeral of founder Duong Van Minh in Yen Lam Commune (Ham Yen District, Tuyen Quang Province), 36 Hmong practitioners of the Duong Van Minh religion were forced into a COVID-19 quarantine.

Members of this group told the U.S. State Department that they had been interrogated by police for hours, stating that police threatened, tortured, and beat them to force a renouncement of the Duong Van Minh religion, with some detained and beaten at the Ham Yen district police station. Others said they were tortured by police until they confessed and signed documents renouncing the Duong Van Minh religion, adding that a refusal would have meant an extension of their quarantine period.

  • In July 2021, 21 people in Dak Lak, many of them Protestants, were detained for two consecutive days. At least one of them said he was beaten and threatened with death. Some practitioners stated that police told them learning about their rights in the Constitution and the Law on Belief and Religion was illegal. Police threatened that they had to renounce their religion or join groups registered with the government. Many of the group’s practitioners have attended civil society training organized by a U.S.-based human rights organization.
  • In September 2021, police arrested three independent Cao Dai leaders and interrogated them about their religious activities. Several practitioners said the government had harassed them to prevent them from participating in international events, including an online conference on religious freedom in Southeast Asia in December 2021.

In addition to arresting and beating practitioners, the government also utilized soft suppression measures, such as the refusal to grant permanent residency registrations or to implement housing welfare policies for Duong Van Minh practitioners. Practitioners of the Pentecostal Movement in Dien Bien Province, Baptists in Thanh Hoa Province, and independent Protestants in the Central Highlands have also reported that they were hindered by the government when accessing social welfare policies.

The government has not only cracked down on independent religious groups but also tightened its grip on mainstream religions.

The Vietnamese Catholic Church has reported that the government no longer recognizes it as before. Instead, the Catholic Church must submit a full application through a laborious and time-consuming process whenever it seeks to establish a parish or any other dependent religious organisation. Another process involves registering mass religious activities for parishes; the procedure is simpler but significantly limits religious activities.

Some Catholic bishops have also reported that some provincial authorities make it difficult to acquire permission for religious activities, especially in the Central Highlands and northern provinces, such as Yen Bai, Lao Cai, and Son La.

Such revelations from the Catholic Church demonstrate the vague application of current regulations on religion. Authorities can arbitrarily interpret procedures to restrict religious activities.

On the report's publication date, June 2, 2022, the U.S. Secretary of State condemned Vietnam for harassing religious practitioners of unregistered groups. [2]

As it has done every year, Vietnamese State media rejected the report, with the People's Police newspaper asserting that this year's report was one-sided and lacked objectivity. [3]

Amendment to implementation decree for Law on Belief and Religion: Government can suspend religious organizations from all activities

In early June 2022, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs published a draft to replace Decree 162/2017/ND-CP on implementing the Law on Belief and Religion. [4] Vietnam's religious freedom will be more restricted than ever if the draft is approved.

The draft contains three new regulations that allow the government to increase control and suppression of registered religious activities:

1. Central and provincial authorities have the right to suspend religious organizations and their dependent religious organizations from all activities.

Article 13 of the draft allows provincial-level People's Committees, or central government-level religious management bodies (for example, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs), to issue decisions to halt all activities of a religious organization if the group is in serious violation of Clause 4 or Clause 5 of Article 5 on prohibited acts under the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion. [5]

As it stands, the scope of Clauses 4 and 5 of Article 5 are both broad and vague, and the government can easily interpret them arbitrarily to suppress religious organizations.

Clause 4 prohibits religious activities that (1) infringe upon national defense, security, or sovereignty, social order, safety, or the environment; (2) bring injury to social morality, the body, health, life, or property; offend the honor or dignity of others; (3) obstruct the exercise of citizens’ rights or obligations; cause ethnic, religious divisions; (4) divide those who follow beliefs or religions from those who do not, or between people who follow different beliefs or religions.

Clause 5 prohibits taking advantage of beliefs or religious activities for personal gain.

According to the draft, religious organizations can be suspended from all activities for no more than two years. However, if the cause of the suspension cannot be remedied, then the government can dissolve the organization.

The draft does not define what constitutes a "serious violation."

This law, if passed, will force religious organizations to censor their activities in an unprecedented and over-compensatory way.
The June 7, 2022 consultation meeting on the draft decree to replace Decree No. 162/2017/ND-CP, detailing the implementation of several articles and measures of the Law on Belief and Religion. Photo: Government Committee for Religious Affairs.

2. The central government has the right to suspend religious training institutions from all training activities

Article 17 of the draft stipulates that a religious training institution may also be suspended from operating if it seriously violates Clauses 4 or 5 of Article 5, Law on Belief and Religion.

Central state bodies in charge of managing belief and religion, such as the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, have the jurisdiction to issue suspension decisions.

The duration of the suspension shall not exceed 2 years. The government may also dissolve the religious training institution if the cause of suspension is not remedied.

3. Permission from the government must be sought to conduct religious activities online

Article 28 of the draft stipulates that groups with "religious activities that have been announced or approved by authorized state agencies" must notify the government in writing when said activities are carried out online or combined with online elements.

As for groups with "religious activities that have not been announced or approved by authorized state agencies," when said activities are carried out online or are combined with online elements, these groups must secure proper permission under the Law on Belief and Religion and this decree.

The draft does not specify the content requiring notification to the authorities when a religious organization moves online.

In some places, local authorities are requiring that religious organizations submit for approval their slate of religious events for the year before they can be held. Article 28 of the draft will create additional burdens and further hinder freedom of religious activities.

In addition to the above, the draft also clearly stipulates the conditions for granting permits to foreigners residing in Vietnam who want to conduct mass religious activities. Currently, foreigners who want to conduct mass religious activities must be approved by the provincial-level People's Committee within 30 days. [6]

The draft’s only bright spot is the regulation that the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of National Defense, and the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs are responsible for ensuring religious scriptures at detention facilities.

Initial draft decree on administrative sanctions in the field of belief and religion announced

In June 2022, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA) also announced the Draft decree on administrative sanctions in the field of belief and religion. This draft, if approved, will become the first document regulating administrative sanctions over religion. [7]

The draft includes four chapters, 51 articles, and specific regulations on administrative sanctions for violations of the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion. The main targets of sanctions are religious organizations and establishments, with the level of punishment ranging from fines, public apologies, and suspension of activities to the forced dissolution of religious organizations.

Notably, the draft allows the government to profoundly interfere in the internal operations of religious organizations that commit violations, such as forcing a halt to dispensing dignitaries and cancelling the results of appointments and elections. Authorities also have the right to stop ceremonies, even while they are in progress. The draft calls these actions “remedial measures.”

The government will also force religious training institutions to teach two subjects: Vietnamese history and Vietnamese law. According to current regulations, these two subjects must be taught according to books compiled by the GCRA. [8]

The maximum fine for administrative violations regarding faith and religion is 30 million dong [US$1,280 USD] for individuals and 60 million dong for organizations. Concurrently, the revised 2020 Law on Administrative Violations stipulates that the maximum fine is 30 million dong. [9]

The Law on Belief and Religion was passed in 2016 and took effect in 2018. However, after more than three years of implementation, the authorities have yet to codify administrative sanctions for violations.

The law has been repeatedly criticized by international organizations since its drafting because it allows the government to strictly and arbitrarily control religious organizations and interfere in their internal affairs.

In November 2020, the General Confederation of Evangelical Churches of Vietnam (Southern region) had to postpone the organization of its 10th Clerical Congress after the GCRA demanded to see and approve the roster of candidates before the election, as stipulated by Article 34 of the Law on Belief and Religion. [10]

Trial postponement in Tinh That Bong Lai case

On June 30, 2022, the People's Court of Duc Hoa District announced the postponement of the trial of six members of Tinh That Bong Lai - a small temple that practices Buddhism but is not registered with the State - due to the absence of many important witnesses.
The scene inside the court on June 30, 2022. Photo: VietnamNet.

Defense attorneys proposed the postponement [11], complaining that some of the court’s procedural acts had not been resolved and that they did not have enough time to prepare for the defense; they were only notified of the trial seven days in advance and only had access to electronic evidence and data two days before the trial.

On June 28, defense attorneys asked the court to summon another 11 individuals for the trial but have yet to receive a response. The lawyers also stated there were signs that provincial prosecutors overstepped their authority.

After hearing proposals from both defense attorneys and prosecutors, the People's Court of Duc Hoa District decided to postpone the trial until July 20, 2022.

According to court records released by the lawyers, security forces packed the room during the trial, along with dozens of prosecutors who were arranged to sit in the audience. Tuoi Tre News reported that correspondents were not allowed to attend the trial directly but had to watch through a television relay. [12]

Four members of Tinh That Bong Lai were arrested in early January 2022. In May 2022, Long An province police arrested two more individuals, prosecuting all six for abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state or the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and individuals (Article 331, Penal Code).

According to the indictment cited by state media, the defendants had established an unregistered Buddhist organization. From 2019 to 2021, its members posted numerous videos which have been accused of insulting the reputation of Duc Hoa district police (Long An Province), Buddhism, and the Venerable Thich Nhat Tu of the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha, affecting local security and order. [13] Five videos and one social media post are accused of violating Article 331 of the Penal Code. [14]

Article 331, formerly Article 258, is often used by the government to criminalize the exercise of human rights, especially freedom of speech and expression.

In 2014, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, condemned the ambiguity of Article 258: “Even the members of a local provincial court and the People’s Supreme Court [in Vietnam] could not clarify the meaning of the term ‘abuse’ and failed to specify the acts that would constitute violations of the law." [15]

Further reading: Tinh That Bong Lai case: what crime did they ultimately commit?

An Giang: Government continues to hinder Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism on the anniversary of Huynh Phu So’s founding of the religion

On June 15, 2022, An Giang provincial authorities continued to prevent Pure Hoa Hao Buddhists from celebrating the anniversary of the “Virtuous Master’s Founding of Hoa Hao Buddhism”.

Specifically, at 8 am on June 14, 2022, police and local security forces set up two checkpoints at both ends of the road leading to the sangha headquarters in Long An Commune (Cho Moi District). [16] As in previous years, the government sought to exert control by preventing members from attending the celebration.
The two checkpoints led to the headquarters of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Sangha on June 14, 2022. Photo: Le Quang Hien’s Facebook profile.

Meanwhile, on June 16, the Central Management Board of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Sangha, the only government-sanctioned Hoa Hao Buddhist organization in Vietnam, smoothly organized their celebration with the presence of local authorities and a large number of dignitaries and practitioners. [17]

For many years, the government has obstructed the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Sangha from celebrating its commemorative holidays. On March 26, 2022, authorities also prevented the sangha from celebrating the “Day of the Virtuous Master’s Disappearance.” [18]

Further reading: The trials and tribulations of Hoa Hao Buddhism

[Religion 360*]

Khmer Krom organization sends a letter to the Vietnamese government requesting the right to establish an independent Buddhist organization

On June 2, 2022, the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) sent nine requests to the Vietnamese government regarding the guarantee of human rights for Khmer people living in the southern region of Vietnam. Among them was a request to allow the establishment of an independent Theravada Buddhist organization separate from the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam. [19]

According to its introduction, the KKF is a human rights organization advocating for the Khmer Krom people, who live mainly in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. For years, the Vietnamese government has considered the KKF a provocative, anti-government organization. [20]

In addition to requesting the right to establish an independent Buddhist organization, the KKF also called for allowing the Khmer language to be taught in public schools, the right to use Khmer names for villages and settlements, the establishment of human rights organizations and trade unions for the Khmer people, the right to receive compensation for land, and the guarantee of rights of freedom of expression and freedom to establish media organizations in the Khmer language.

The letter to the Vietnamese government was publicly posted on the KKF website. Photo: screenshot.

According to the 2019 Population and Housing Census, Vietnam has about 1.3 million Khmer people, about 1 million of which live in rural areas. [21] The Khmer have traditionally followed Theravada Buddhism, also known as Southern Buddhism. As a result, monks have considerable prestige among the Khmer people.

Presently, southern Khmer monks are members of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha; many have joined the Vietnamese Communist Party.

However, some other southern Khmer monks disagree with the Vietnamese government on religious and human rights policies and have become targets of government repression.

In February 2020, Long Phu district police in Soc Trang Province interrogated Seun Ty, 36, a Khmer monk with Cambodian nationality, and confiscated his passport. Police accused the monk of violating the Cybersecurity Law by sharing an interview with a KKF representative on his personal Facebook page. [22]

Many Khmer monks have been forcibly defrocked for dissenting with the Vietnamese government. [23] Some have been imprisoned for opposing the authorities. In 2007, a Khmer monk was sentenced to a year in prison for undermining national unity. [24] In 2009, Vietnam released four Khmer monks who were sentenced to between two and four years in prison for participating in protests in 2007. [25]

[New Religions]

Thua Thien – Hue: Yiguandao religion obstructed

On June 1, 2022, Phu My commune police (Phu Vang District, Thua Thien - Hue Province) reported that they had stopped a group of people from practicing Yiguandao. [26]

According to the article, a family had invited eight people from other provinces and cities to their homes to advise them on constructing Yiguandao altars in their own homes.

Police reported that the family started participating in Yiguandao while living in Da Nang and continued following the religion after they moved to the area, practicing at home and contacting other practitioners via phone and social networks.

Police forced the group of eight to sign pledges not to practice Yiguandao again and asked them to leave the area. Police stated that the family that invited the eight to their home would be prosecuted in accordance with the law. Authorities also confiscated the group's religious materials.
Some of the eight individuals who were stopped by Phu My commune police (Phu Vang District, Thua Thien - Hue Province) from practicing Yiguandao. Photo: VTC News.

Yiguandao was a prominent religion in China in the 19th century, with a tradition of merging the three Eastern religions of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism with two other ones: Islam and Christianity. [27]

Yiguandao has been banned in China since the 1950s. Its core group grew larger in Taiwan. In 1987, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan recognized Yiguandao as a legal religion. Since the 2000s, China has stopped labelling Yiguandao a false religion, implicitly allowing it to operate.

In addition to Taiwan and China, Yiguandao has also been transmitted to other places, including Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and countries in Southeast Asia. Europe and North America also have Yiguandao communities, and the religion tends to evangelize to other ethnicities and not just the overseas Chinese community. [28]

In Vietnam, Yiguandao is still not recognized as a religion. However, groups of believers still practiced secretly, and information about Yiguandao is disseminated on social media.

Further reading:

What's a "false religion"? Four problems surrounding new religions that the government doesn't want you to know

Government Committee for Religious Affairs recognizes positive aspects of new religions

Tuyen Quang Province: "Mobilizing" 70 households to give up the Duong Van Minh “false religion”

The Vietnam News Agency reported that in the first four months of 2022, 70 households were “mobilized to give up the illegal Duong Van Minh organization,” citing Hung Loi commune authorities (Yen Son District). [29]

However, 49 percent of Hmong people in the commune still follow the Duong Van Minh religion. Hung Loi Commune has 1,673 households, about 45 percent of which are Hmong.
A working session reportedly mobilised people in Hung Loi Commune to give up the Duong Van Minh religion. Photo: Vietnam News Agency.

Commune authorities stated that in early 2022, they had established eight working groups comprised of commune police, security forces, commune officials, party secretaries, and village heads. These groups visited households to "agitate and mobilize" households to give up the Duong Van Minh religion.

Tuyen Quang Province has doggedly suppressed the Duong Van Minh religion for years.

According to the U.S. State Department's 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom, while other provinces such as Ha Giang, Thai Nguyen, and Cao Bang have stopped dismantling the Duong Van Minh religion's funeral homes, Tuyen Quang provincial authorities continue to do so. [30]

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

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to The Vietnamese Magazine.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.