Republic of Vietnam's Approach: Three Pioneering Religious Policies in the South Before April 30, 1975

Religious communities were highly active during the French colonial period and the Republic of Vietnam era.

Republic of Vietnam's Approach: Three Pioneering Religious Policies in the South Before April 30, 1975
Graphic: Shiv/The Vietnamese Magazine.

Thien Truong wrote this article in Vietnamese, which was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on July 7, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated the article into English.

In June 1963, a monk walked down the streets of Saigon after riding in an Austin A95 Westminster car with license plate No. DBA 599. His disciples slowly led him to an intersection. Moments later, the monk doused himself in gasoline and lit a match, and he burst into flames. The self-immolation, which the monks themselves organized, was a protest against the rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Earlier that same day, the public witnessed Buddhist followers parading in the streets of Hue carrying Buddha statues and images of Venerable Thich Tri Quang in protest against the government's prohibition of hanging religious flags on Vesak Day. Vesak Day is a significant Buddhist festival commemorating the birth, enlightenment (nirvana), and death (parinirvana) of Siddhartha Gautama, who later became Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.

Catholics also frequently organized protests after 1963 in the South of Vietnam.

From 1954 to 1975, public demonstrations by religious groups were organized to signify the conflict between religions and the government and between different belief systems. These events indicate that religions greatly influenced the situation in South Vietnam at that time.

After 1975, the religious-organized protests vanished. These were replaced by organized meetings systematically held by the government in the light of socialist society. Many believe that the tensions and conflicts related to religion in the South before 1975 were due to the weaknesses of the political system. But in some aspects, these protesting actions reveal a prominent feature of the religious policies of that time, and it was something that the current government has not been able to replicate or, frankly speaking, is afraid to do.

I. The Freedom to Establish Religions

Many believe establishing new religions was difficult before 1975, especially during the colonial era. However, this is not entirely true. In contrast to political parties heavily suppressed by French colonial power, religious groups in Indochina, under French rule, operated quite freely. Colonial authorities viewed religion as a moralizing factor in Vietnamese society. [1]

Buddhism underwent a revival in the southern region during the colonial era. This led to the establishment of the Nam kỳ Phật học hội (Cochinchina Buddhist Association) in 1931 and the Lưỡng Xuyên Phật học hội (Lưỡng Xuyên Buddhology Association), founded by Most Venerable Khanh Hoa also in the 1930s. [2]

On Oct. 7, 1926, the founders of Caodaism wrote an official letter in French to Governor Le Fol, requesting recognition of their new religion. The proposal included the signatures of 28 representatives, outlining the needs, reasons, and content of their new faith. [3] However, while waiting for a response from French authorities, the Caodaism founders organized an inaugural ceremony marking the birth of their religion on November 19, 1926, in Tay Ninh Province. Following this event, the French authorities did not prohibit its operation and even recognized Caodaism as a legitimate religion. [4]

Moving westward to the village of Hòa Hảo in An Giang Province in 1939, an indigenous religion called Hòa Hảo Buddhism emerged. From the French colonial government's perspective, Hoa Hao Buddhism was simply a school of Buddhism–a traditional religion of the Vietnamese people. Initially, they advocated three abstentions: no monastic ordinations, no monks, and no emphasis on hierarchical positions. Perhaps for this reason, the contemporary authorities in Vietnam overlooked the legal issues and recognized Hoa Hao Buddhism as a legitimate religion. [5]

In 1941, French authorities recognized Protestantism as a religious group, allowing it to operate freely according to prevailing laws. However, Protestantism faced numerous challenges due to its "rational religious" nature and relatively late arrival in Vietnam. [6]

Chief of State Bao Dai issued Decree No. 10 on Aug. 6, 1950, which regulated associations. Accordingly, establishing a new religion required a petition to form an association, including information about the founders (aged 21 or above), their names, purposes, etc. (Article 4). [7]

Less than a year later, 51 delegates from six Buddhist organizations in Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin convened at Tu Dam Pagoda (Hue Province) and united to establish the General Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam. The headquarters of the General Buddhist Sangha were set up at Tu Dam Pagoda (Hue city). [8] Nonetheless, the title "Buddhist Sangha" was not established then because Buddhism was only included in the scope of Decree No. 10 like any other religious organization. Except for Catholicism, the missionary organizations of religions like Buddhism, Caodaism, and Hoa Hao Buddhism were all treated on par with religious and non-profit associations.

After the French withdrawal, Ngo Dinh Diem, who had previously served as prime minister of the government of South Vietnam since June 1954, assumed the presidency, establishing a new republic in a short span of 15 months.

From then on, the Republic of Vietnam formed its “Personalism Revolution” which became an effort to harness religion, creating a religious front against atheistic communism. [9] The Ngo Dinh Diem administration inherited several facets from the French colonial government, recognizing pre-existing religious organizations but favoring a bit on Catholicism. However, Article 17 of the 1956 Constitution of the First Republic omitted the concept of a state religion, and the Ngo Dinh Diem administration never declared Catholicism the official state religion.

Decree No. 10 was issued by Chief of State Bao Dai. Photo:

On November 1, 1967, religious policies became even more apparent after the establishment of the Second Republic. Article 9 of the 1967 Constitution emphasized that “the state is fair with the development of religions.”

It is worth noting that after contributing to the downfall of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam split into two factions: the An Quang faction and the Viet Nam Quoc Tu faction. Due to the An Quang faction's pro-communist leanings, President Nguyen Van Thieu issued Decree No. 23/67 on July 18, 1967, only recognizing the legitimacy of the Viet Nam Quoc Tu faction. This further solidified the alignment of the An Quang with the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. However, the Nguyen Van Thieu administration did not officially disband the An Quang faction and allowed both factions to coexist until 1975.

Furthermore, during the Republic of Vietnam era, many new religions were established, including Coconut religion (1963), Tổ tiên Chính đạo (1966), Pháp tạng Phật giáo Việt Nam (1971), Gospel Preaching Association (Hội Truyền giảng Phúc âm) (1973), and others. The southern government officially recognized all of them.

II. The Presence of Chaplains Within the Military

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Republic of Vietnam's armed forces was the presence of chaplains and religious clergy who attended to the spiritual well-being of the military members. They were closely tied to morale in the military but were not directly involved in combat. The first chaplains were of the Catholic faith. They appeared around the end of 1955, as soon as Ngo Dinh Diem assumed the presidency of the First Republic. 

Due to his deep Catholic faith, Ngo Dinh Diem displayed favoritism towards Catholicism. Throughout his over eight years as president, the military under Diem had only Catholic chaplains. Meanwhile, Buddhism did not have a similar official chaplaincy structure despite having a large following. [10]

Since the establishment of the chaplaincy system, Catholic chapels started to emerge in military bases across the South.

Due to his faith, some people viewed that Ngo Dinh Diem displayed strong favoritism towards Catholicism. This became one of the sources of discontent among Buddhist followers both within and outside the military. The Buddhist chaplaincy system was established after his regime collapsed in November 1963. Most Venerable Thich Tam Giac became the first director of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Department. [11]

After 1964, the Buddhist Chaplaincy Division, Catholic Chaplaincy Division, and Protestant Chaplaincy Division all fell under the Social Department of the General Political Warfare Department and continued to exist until April 30, 1975.

No comprehensive information is available on the exact number of chaplains present within the Republic of Vietnam's military, nor the distribution of chaplains among military units. This varied based on the needs of each locality.

After 1975, the Communist regime disbanded the chaplaincy system within the military and required chaplains to undergo re-education, a form of imprisonment without formal conviction.

III. Religions Exercising Freedom of Demonstration

Despite undergoing two massive political shifts, the South Vietnamese government never established clear protest laws. However, the right to protest was acknowledged in Article 13 of the 1967 Constitution, which stated: “The state respects the political rights of all citizens, including the right to petition freely and engage in overt, non-violent and legal opposition.” (Article 13.3) 

Even though there was no explicit protest law pre-1975, the right to protest was implicitly considered a fundamental right. As a result, the political landscape in South Vietnam was always lively and dynamic. This dynamism was marked by religious organizations leading protests. They consistently exerted pressure on the government at various times, with varying motivations, including non-religious motives. Among them, Buddhism always conducted the most extensive and vibrant protest activities.

First and foremost, the pivotal event in Buddhism's history is the 1963 Buddhist crisis, which began on May 6, 1963, when Ngo Dinh Diem issued Official Telegram No. 9195 prohibiting the display of Buddhist flags during that year's Vesak celebration. [12] In response, Buddhist leaders vehemently protested, but the government ignored their demands and enforced the ban in Hue. The following day, Buddhist devotees took their Buddhist altars to the streets and staged protests against Ngo Dinh Diem’s government. Others in Thua Thien Province pressured the provincial leader to allow Buddhist flags to be hung during Vesak Day. [13]

On the evening of May 7, 1963, a secret meeting was organized by Buddhist leaders at Tu Dam Pagoda in Hue, which led to the decision to stage more protests against the government.

At 6 a.m. on May 8, 1963, a procession of people carrying Buddhist statues from Dieu De Pagoda to Tu Dam Pagoda suddenly turned into a protest demanding the government implement religious equality policies. During the demonstration, Buddhist monks and devotees chanted slogans and held signs opposing the government. Later that day, the broadcast of the Vesak celebration was cancelled. This led the protesters to surround the Hue radio station, prompting the military to open fire, resulting in eight deaths and numerous injuries. [14]

By May 10, Venerable Thich Tri Quang organized a meeting at Tu Dam Pagoda and announced a declaration containing five demands from the Inter-faction Committee for the Defense of Buddhism, urging the government to address these demands.

The following day in Saigon, the Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc self-immolated. This event shook the entire nation, sparking a series of subsequent protests and other self-immolations, such as the burning of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Huong at Ben Thanh Market on Oct. 5, 1963, and Bhadanta Thich Thien My at the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica in Saigon on Oct. 27, 1963.

Even after Ngo Dinh Diem's administration was overthrown, the Buddhist community continued to organize protests, like those against the Tran Van Huong government in 1964 and various demonstrations, strikes, and uprisings across the central region in 1966.

After this period, Venerable Thich Tri Quang again led Buddhist followers against the government, demanding the repeal of Decree No. 23/67-SL, which recognized the Viet Nam Quoc Tu bloc, signed by President Nguyen Van Thieu.

The last large recorded protest of Vietnamese Buddhism occurred on March 31, 1975, during the final historical moments of the Republic of Vietnam. That protest, led by Venerable Thich Tri Quang, saw Buddhist followers demanding President Thieu's resignation.

In addition to Buddhism, Catholicism also frequently organized similar protests.

After 1963, French President Charles de Gaulle proposed a neutral stance for General Dương Văn Minh's government, which included requesting the United States to refrain from interfering in Vietnam's internal affairs. The Vietnam Catholic Student Union believed that neutralism meant accepting Communist rule. As a result, they organized two protests against this neutral stance. [15]

By February 1965, Phan Huy Quat became the prime minister and initiated a dialogue with the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. This led the Catholic community to believe that Quat opposed Catholicism in some of his policies. [16] They organized protests led by extreme Catholic figures like Father Hoang Quynh and Father Ho Van Vui. [17]

That same year, Catholics protested against U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, and early the following year, they once again organized significant protests against what they perceived as the government's “surrendering to Buddhist ultimatums.” [18]

Even when President Thieu was at the peak of his power, Catholic clergy also conducted large-scale protests. A notable instance was the opposition led by Father Tran Huu Thanh, a priest from the  Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, who headed an anti-corruption campaign against Thieu. [19] Father Thanh accused Thieu of “exploiting the anti-communist cause for personal gain and corruption.” [20]


The religious situation before 1975 is vastly different compared to today. That period is often regarded as the heyday of religious freedom, a golden age for religious liberty, and it significantly contributed to the society and the legal system until the Saigon government collapsed. 

Although the above religious policies cannot encompass the entire religious landscape of Vietnam at that time, they can provide a general perspective on the religious situation under the two regimes in the Republic of Vietnam.

Unfortunately, the modern Vietnamese history that is being taught in the country today has never acknowledged the religious freedom that existed before the fall of the Republic of Vietnam in April 1975.


1. Keith, Charles. (2012b). “Protestantism and the Politics of Religion in French Colonial Vietnam.” French Colonial History 13:141–74. CrossRef Google Scholar

2. Yêu nước trong phong trài chấn hưng Phật giáo. (2022). Chùa Phật học Xá lợi.

3. N.,T.,Thuỳ. (2021). Tìm hiểu việc công nhận pháp nhân tôn giáo ở Việt Nam dưới chế độ cũ (Trước năm 1975). Tạp chí Công tác Tôn giáo. (23-28).

4. See [3]

5. See [3]

6. See [3]

7. See [3]

8. Phong trào thành lập Tổng hội Phật giáo Việt Nam. (2021, November 12). Tạp chí nghiên cứu Phật học.

9. Phi Van Nguyen. (2018, June 14). A Secular State for a Religious Nation: The Republic of Vietnam and Religious Nationalism, 1946–1963. Cambridge University Press.

10. Thích Trí Quang “Cuộc vận động của Phật giáo Việt Nam”, Tuần báo Hải Triều Âm, số 12, ngày 9-7-1963, tr.2

11. Le Kim Anh. (2022). Nha tuyên uý quân lực VNCH.

12. Huế - những tháng ngày sục sôi. (2017, August 25). TUOI TRE ONLINE.

13. L., Cung. (1997). Phong trào Phật giáo Miền Nam Việt Nam năm 1963. Luận án phó Tiến sĩ. ĐH Sư Phạm Hà Nội.

14. See [13]

15. Nguyen-Marshall, V. (2009). “Tools of Empire? Vietnamese Catholics in South Vietnam”, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 20 (2), 138–159

16. Robert Shaplen, The Lost Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 343–5.

17. Thanh V. Nguyen, “Vietnamese Buddhist Movements for Peace and Social Transformations, 1963–66,” (Ph.D. diss., Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, San Francisco, 2006).

18. See [15]

19. Phillip Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History 1946–1975 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 751.

20. Dennis Duncanson, Government and Revolution in Vietnam (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1968), 167.

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