Religion Bulletin, January 2023: State Will No Longer Manage Temple Monetary Merit Donations

Buddhist temples will face less interference but will still have to share their merit donations.

Religion Bulletin, January 2023: State Will No Longer Manage Temple Monetary Merit Donations

[The Government’s Reach]

Ministry of Home Affairs issues circular on the management of monetary “merit” donations for religious relics and relic sites

On January 19, 2023, the Ministry of Finance issued Circular #04/2023/TT-BTC guiding the management and monetary flows for festival organizing, merit donations, and funding for relics and festivals. [1]

Merit donations are widely practiced in Vietnam where Buddhist followers believe that the donations they make at temples will reduce their karma.

The circular will not regulate the management and flow of merit donations or funding at religious establishments that the government does not yet recognize or include in local relic registries, according to the Law on Cultural Heritage. Funding and merit donations for maintaining the operations of religious organizations and their affiliates are also not within the scope of the above circular. [2]

The Ministry of Finance has stated that the government will not directly manage merit donations and funding for relic sites and festival activities at faith and religious establishments. [3]
Practitioners submit monetary “merit” donations at a religious establishment. Photo: VnEconomy.

According to the circular, the government will regulate the receipt of merit donations and funding for festival activities and relics (including relic sites that are concurrently faith or religious establishments) by having relevant parties open accounts at the State Treasury or commercial banks, among other collection forms.

In addition, relic sites located in areas the state has assigned to public business units for management and use must donate a percentage of their collected merit donations and funding to cover a portion of said units’ expenses, the percentage of which is to be set by local authorities.

For other cases, relic site management boards will have responsibility to manage and use funds in the spirit of "independence and accountability" (Clause 1, Article 10). This regulation seems somewhat relaxed at first glance, but a closer look at rules around allocation and use reveals that the relic site’s management board is still subject to sizable constraints. For example, these boards must deduct a percentage of funds and transfer it to a separate account of the local Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism for relic repair and restoration (Article 14).

In the past, because of the control over the funds, the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha had strongly opposed the Ministry of Finance’s previous draft circulars but has remained silent following the official issue of this circular.

Lai Chau Province: 70 Hmong have taken refuge in Thailand in the past 10 years

On January 29, 2023, the Lai Chau provincial police’s Internal Security Office reported that since 2012, 70 Hmong have fled to Thailand as refugees. [4]

The office warned that there were people who sought asylum in Thailand in hope that they could be resettled in a third country. On January 18, 2023, it held a meeting in a Muong Te district village to caution people against illegally crossing the border to Thailand.

Today, Thailand is a refuge for many Vietnamese citizens who are members of  ethnic minority groups. The majority of them believe the Vietnamese government has infringed upon their religious freedom. Many have reported that police arrested, interrogated, and tortured them for their religious activities.

Lai Chau Province is home to a diversity of ethnic groups, the majority of whom are Thai, Hmong, Dao, and who follow the Protestant faith. Authorities have stated that they are obstructing many new religions in the province, including Gie Sua, Ba Co Do (Church of God Loving Us), and the Duong Van Minh religion, among others. [5]

[Religion 360*]

Government Committee for Religious Affairs: Vietnam has more than 27.2 million practitioners – a twofold increase from 2019

State-owned Sai Gon Giai Phong [Liberated Saigon] newspaper, quoting information from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, reported that the total number of religious practitioners in Vietnam was more than 27.2 million as of November 30, 2022. [6]

This marked a sharp increase over 2019, when a comprehensive population and housing census revealed that the total number of religious practitioners in Vietnam was approximately 13 million. [7] Thus, in just three years, the total number of religious followers has more than doubled which causes some doubts among the public.

Previously, in October 2022, the Ministry of Home Affairs had instead reported that Vietnam had a total of 26.7 million practitioners. [8]

Both the Government Committee for Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs have not detailed how they arrived at their specific numbers for currently recognized religions.

According to Luat Khoa’s records, many religions have faced a serious decline in practitioners since 1975. Followers of Hieu Nghia Ta Lon Buddhism, the Pure Land Buddhist Association, Baha'i, Taoism, and the Nam Tong Minh Su Dao Buddhist Sangha have decreased by about 90%. Followers of Cao Dai, Buu Son Ky Huong, and the Minh Ly religions have decreased by more than 80%. Other religions, such as Tu An Hieu Nghia, Seventh-day Adventists, and Hoa Hao Buddhism, have lost between 50% and 70% of their followers. [9]

[New Religions]

Dong Hy District exceeds the prime minister's target of eliminating the Duong Van Minh religion

On January 16, 2023, Dong Hy district authorities  reported that the district had eliminated the "illegal Duong Van Minh organization" a year earlier than the deadline set by the prime minister and Thai Nguyen Province. [10]

The campaign to abolish the Duong Van Minh religion was carried out according to “Resolution #78 on fighting, obstructing, and eliminating the illegal Duong Van Minh organization,” abbreviated as “Project #78” and enacted by the government on November 9, 2021.

To date, details of the project have yet to be announced. However, a bulletin issued by Dong Hy district authorities stated that the project's goal was to eliminate the Duong Van Minh religion by 2023.
Dong Hy district authorities in Thai Nguyen Province award certificates of merit to officials participating in the campaign to abolish the Duong Van Minh religion. Photo: Dong Hy District website.

Also, in Thai Nguyen, on January 3, 2023, Vo Nhai district authorities held a conference to review the height of their struggle to eliminate the illegal Duong Van Minh organization. [11]

Specifically, district authorities seized 43 pieces of religious iconography, dismantled four funeral homes, and mobilized 69 households totalling 381 people in six communes to "sign pledges completely renouncing the illegal Duong Van Minh organization".
Vo Nhai district authorities (Thai Nguyen Province) commend individuals who carried out the suppression of the Duong Van Minh religion. Photo: Thai Nguyen newspaper.

The events comprising the campaign to eliminate the Duong Van Minh religion reveal that the government is systematically working to extinguish a religious and to some extent ethnic, minority group.

These actions touch on Vietnam's lack of commitment to Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which ensures that ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities can practice their own cultural life, religion, and language. [12]

Further reading: Persecution of the Duong Van Minh religion: 3 issues the government must clarify

Dien Bien and Lai Chau provinces: Abolish the Gie Sua and Ba Co Do religions

The Dien Bien provincial website reported that Dien Bien provincial police recently held a conference to review their work in 2022, including their achievements in eliminating the activities of the "false" Gie Sua religion throughout the province. [13]

The article also stated that authorities mobilized 8 households and 56 people to give up the "false" Ba Co Do religion in 2022.

Similar to Dien Bien, on January 3, 2023, Lai Chau Province’s Internal Security Office also summarized its work in 2022, reporting that it had established three working groups to eliminate the Gie Sua and Ba Co Do organizations. [14]

The Gie Sua religion is one of the North’s most heavily persecuted. Provincial authorities in the area believe that the Gie Sua religion’s activities have political and reactionary elements but have provided no concrete evidence.

Dak Lak Province: Authorities arrest an independent Protestant

According to the Facebook account, Montagnards Stand for Justice, on January 13, 2023, Ea Kao Commune police arrested Y El Nie, an independent Protestant dignitary, after he attended a funeral. [15] He was released the same evening.

Y El Nie has been arrested many times. His most recent arrest was on December 17, 2022, when he was questioned about his religious activities and again released the same day. Y El Nie is the pastor of the Evangelical Gospel Church. Since 2013, the government has consistently denied his applications to conduct religious activities for the church. [16]

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