Dozens of religious communities across Vietnam celebrated the “International Day Commemorating Victims of Violence based on Religion or Belief” but the day was marked by further repression in some communities.
In 2019, the United Nations designated August 22 as an international memorial day for victims of persecution because of their religion or belief.
The day is special for independent religious communities in Vietnam who have fought hard to remain independent of government control.
Cao Dai crackdown
On Saturday, police from Binh Khanh ward in An Giang province’s Long Xuyen city visited the Cao Dai Binh Khanh religious pilgrimage group, forcing members gathered at the house of the group leader, Nguyen Thi Thu Cuc, to disperse.
A clergyman of the independent Cao Dai sect, Nguyen Trong Tieng, said fellow believers met at Cuc’s house to mark the memorial day after morning worship.
At 8 a.m., when the group was hanging banners, a group of four people led by a local policeman arrived and told them to cancel the memorial, staying until 5 p.m.
“As soon as people took out banners for hanging, the police came to stop them and took records” Tieng said.
“Ms. Cuc’s family had to inform her fellows not to come… The followers and policemen argued and finally Ms. Cuc agreed to sign a written commitment not to hold this memorial ceremony.”
Tieng said he decided not to attend the memorial when he heard about the police harassment. Even so police met with Tieng on the afternoon of Aug. 22 to interrogate him about the event.
Police asked Cuc to sign the document on his behalf but she refused.
RFA contacted Cuc’s family but they declined to provide any more information.
The reporter also contacted the People’s Committee of Binh Khanh ward, using the number on the ward’s website, but could not get through. RFA emailed the office but received no response.
Two years earlier the Cao Dai community in An Giang held a memorial ceremony without incident.
Other Cao Dai communities under police scrutiny
Nguyen Ngoc Dien, deputy administrator of another Cao Dai community in Long Xuyen city, said this year his group was allowed to commemorate the event under the eye of local police who did not intervene.
1926 Cao Dai is a separate group from 1997 Cao Dai which was formed under government pressure to show loyalty to the Vietnamese Communist Party. It has suffered years of persecution from authorities and the other Cao Dai group, which has tried to pressure members into switching sect.
Protestants questioned by police
Some Protestant communities in the Central Highlands also faced police harassment this year. Religious activist Y Quynh Buon Dap, who is currently a refugee in Thailand, told RFA: “The police came to threaten [people in] several places, and said they would summon some for interrogation. At Ako Dung village in Dak Lak the police summoned six people for short interrogations.”
Some religious communities abandon commemoration attempts
Cao Dai community head Nguyen Bach Phung in Vinh Long province said that there was no memorial service where she lives because the local government constantly monitors them.
The abbot of the Phuoc Buu Pagoda of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in Xuyen Moc, Ba Ria-Vung Tau province, told RFA that he knew about the memorial day. However, Thich Vinh Phuoc said his temple had no human resources for organizing the event as a consequence of long-term religious persecution.
In the southern coastal province, there are two pagodas, Phuoc Buu and Thien Quang, belonging to the Buddhist Church and built before 1975 when the Vietnam war ended.
Both were pressured by local authorities to join the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha – a member of the government aligned Vietnam Fatherland Front.
Phuoc said local authorities sought to intimidate Buddhists by installing cameras on the way to the Phuoc Buu temple and trying to build ditches to narrow the temple entrance.
Government pressure is even stronger at Thien Quang Pagoda.
Recently authorities used the pretext of building a ditch to block the entrance to the temple and occupy a large part of its land.
“There are three factors for the local government’s pressure on that pagoda,” Phuoc said.
“The first is that its head Thich Thien Thuan is my disciple. The second one is that his temple is independent of the Vietnamese Buddhist Church. And third, the pagoda has hosted thousands of traditional Buddhists on many occasions.”
Vietnam Interfaith Council lists victims of religious persecution
Thich Khong Tanh, co-chair of the Vietnam Interfaith Council, said that over the weekend the council had a meeting about the memorial day. It decided to issue a statement listing religious crackdowns and a specific list of victims of religious persecution in the past year.
Unified Church also under pressure
The abbot of Ho Chi Minh City’s Lien Tri Pagoda in District 2, which was demolished by the local government in 2016, said the national government is putting pressure on two establishments of the Unified Church of Vietnam, Son Linh Pagoda in Kon Tum and Thien Quang in Ba Ria-Vung Tau. Thich Khong Tanh said the government aimed to force them to give up their independence and agree to be managed by the Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
“On the last Vu Lan [wandering spirits] festival, Son Linh Pagoda held a gratitude ceremony, but the police and local authorities entered and harassed monks and Buddhists,” the abbot said.
He said other religions such as traditional Cao Dai, Hoa Hao Pure Buddhism, or Protestantism were also persecuted and harassed.
Overseas groups monitor religious freedom in Vietnam
U.S. NGO Boat People SOS, specializes in monitoring the situation of religious freedom in Vietnam.
According to the Facebook page of general director Nguyen Dinh Thang, in the past week dozens of religious communities in Vietnam, including churches in the Central region, Central Highlands, and South have successfully organized memorials for victims of religious persecution. He said the groups included pure Hoa Hao, traditional Cao Dai, Protestant, and Catholic communities.
Thang said his organization would monitor and report to any harassment by Vietnamese authorities at memorials to the international community.