The constitutional right to religious belief and practice continued to be subject to uneven interpretation and inconsistent protection, especially involving ethnic minorities in some provinces of the Central and Northwest Highlands. Government authorities, particularly at the local level, continued to limit the activities of unregistered religious groups, and members of these and other groups reported physical assaults, excessive use of force, detentions, monitoring, hindering of movement, denials of registrations and other permissions, and other harassment. Victims often reported they suspected the perpetrators of assaults and surveillance were plainclothes police officers (referred to as “plainclothes individuals” below). Nevertheless, in some areas, local authorities tacitly approved activities of unregistered groups, including certain social welfare activities.
The government stated it continued to monitor the activities of certain religious groups because of their political activism and invoked national security and solidarity provisions in the constitution and penal code to override laws and regulations providing for religious freedom. This included impeding some religious gatherings and blocking attempts by religious groups to proselytize to certain ethnic groups in border regions deemed to be sensitive, including the Central Highlands, Northwest Highlands, and certain Mekong Delta provinces.
According to reports, local authorities established steering committees to implement national directives to suppress the growth of the Duong Van Minh religious group. Group members stated several followers were wanted by the police. In August police and Ministry of Public Security officials from Ha Giang province were reported to detain Duong Van Minh follower Ma Van Pa and interrogated him after he met with U.S. officials.
Mennonite pastors in Binh Duong Province, Gia Lai Province, and Ho Chi Minh City reported police, local authorities, and plainclothes individuals intimidated, harassed, and physically attacked church leaders and congregants throughout the year. Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang reported police raided his home during a new year’s celebration worship service in January, escorted him and his congregants to the police station, and subsequently assaulted them. In March Quang reported that approximately 20 plainclothes individuals struck him and three others with metal tubes when they attempted to visit a house church. Quang reported he was forced to step down from pastoral duties due to continued harassment from the authorities. Pastor Nguyen Manh Hung reported that Ho Chi Minh City police came to his residence in June, July, and September, each time damaging property and, during the September visit, threatening his family.
On July 26, plainclothes individuals reportedly assaulted and threatened Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) leadership during their visit to a house church in Loc Ninh Commune, Dong Hoi City, Quang Binh Province. Reports state provincial authorities sought to disband the house church and local police witnessed the assault but did not intervene. Prior to the visit, ECVN leaders had received permission to visit from the local CRA.
In March and April a pastor of the United World Mission Church reported that plainclothes individuals in Da Nang City attempted to intimidate followers from attending service with threats and assault. The pastor said the church attempted unsuccessfully to register with city authorities several times in recent years.
Local and central authorities continued to call on the H’mong people in the Northwest Highlands, including Tuyen Quang, Cao Bang, Bac Can, and Thai Nguyen Provinces, to disavow the Duong Van Minh religious group, whose followers advocate for a simplified version of traditional H’mong funeral ceremonies, and to dismantle all nha don, public buildings used for funeral rites. On February 6, uniformed police and plainclothes individuals were reported to have destroyed a small nha don at Khuoi Vin village in Cao Bang Province and burned all the funeral items inside. Reports state seven villagers were assaulted while trying to prevent or film officials’ actions. Members of the Duong Van Minh group stated this was the fifth time local authorities had destroyed a nha don in this particular village.
In October a monk affiliated with the unsanctioned Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam reported local authorities and police in Ba Ria Vung Tau Province dismantled a pagoda his congregation was constructing. The monk stated that when followers protested, local police used tear gas grenades and struck one person with their batons, leading to his hospitalization.
In February ethnic H’mong members of Protestant churches in Dien Bien Dong District, Dien Bien Province reported that local authorities forced congregants to renounce their faith. They stated local authorities, accompanied by non Protestant family members, shredded Bibles, seized and destroyed followers’ property, and physically assaulted followers. Local authorities reportedly expelled some Christians from their villages. By year’s end, there had been no official investigation of the local authorities’ actions.
In total the government has granted recognition to 38 religious organizations, 36 of which hold full recognition. These 38 religious organizations were affiliated with 14 distinct religious traditions as defined by the government. The 14 religious traditions are: Buddhism, Islam, Bahai, Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Buu Son Ky Huong, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Phat Duong Nam Tong Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao Tam Tong Mieu, and Khmer Brahmanism. Distinct denominations within these religious traditions must seek their own registration and/or recognition.
Both registered and unregistered religious groups stated that government agencies sometimes did not respond to registration applications or approval requests for religious activities within the stipulated time period, or at all. Some groups reported they successfully appealed local decisions to higher level authorities through informal channels.
Several hundred ECVN congregations continued to await action on their applications to register local meeting places, beyond the time periods outlined by Decree 92. Government officials reportedly rarely adhered to the stipulated response times, if they responded at all, and often did not specify reasons for refusals. Authorities attributed the delays and denials to the failure of applicants to complete forms correctly or to provide complete information. Local authorities also cited general security concerns, such as political destabilization or potential conflict between followers of established ethnic or traditional religious beliefs and newly introduced Christian beliefs. Some Protestant house churches stated local authorities used registration requirements to harass followers and exert pressure on the religious groups to cease religious activities.
Leaders from the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) reported local authorities in some Central Highlands provinces required smaller congregations, some with as many as 100 followers, to combine together into larger groups of up to 1,500 individuals in order to gain official registration. The church leaders called such requests unreasonable, saying many of the congregations were composed of a variety of ethnic minority groups with different languages and incongruent worship practices. Mountainous terrain and lack of infrastructure in the rural highlands prevented other SECV churches from sustaining the required minimum number of followers necessary to qualify for local registration.
Some registered and unregistered Protestant groups reported that local authorities pressured newer congregations to affiliate with existing congregations or other, more established denominations. In at least one reported case, authorities offered a congregation a greater level of recognition if its leadership acted more cooperatively with the government.
According to many Catholic bishops, parishes in remote areas with majority ethnic minority populations faced difficulty registering, uneven and inconsistent enforcement of national laws, and a lack of accountability on the part of provincial authorities. In the Central Highland’s Kon Tum Province, a Catholic priest stated that in January local authorities planned to demolish an unregistered house church. The priest said that authorities were deterred after more than 1,000 followers rallied in protest on the day the church was scheduled to be taken down. In March the Catholic leadership publicized an internal document from the Kon Tum provincial leadership directing local authorities to close 22 unregistered house churches. In September the Catholic leadership stated that Kon Tum authorities halted the plans and entered into dialogue with the church regarding construction of new worship facilities.
Some Buddhist, Protestant, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao groups did not affiliate with any government recognized or government registered religious organizations, nor did they seek their own registration or recognition. Unregistered Buddhist, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Christian religious groups regularly reported some provincial authorities used local registration laws to pressure, intimidate, threaten, extort, harass, and assault their members.
A significant number of registered religious groups reported their ability to meet openly for worship had improved in recent years. For example, two major Protestant groups reported they had greater freedom to organize religious activities, including seminary classes. The government, however, continued to require religious groups to register their activities in advance and used this requirement to restrict and discourage participation in certain unregistered religious groups, including unsanctioned Buddhist, Protestant, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao groups.
In March leadership of the unsanctioned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) affiliated An Cu pagoda in Da Nang said plainclothes individuals prevented followers from attending a full moon ceremony by covering the roads to the pagoda with nails.
Religious believers, particularly members of organizations that had not applied for or been granted legal registration, continued to report intimidation by local security officials about attending religious services. In a number of instances, local officials forced church gatherings to disperse, advised or required groups to limit important celebrations in scope or content, closed unregistered house churches, or pressured individuals to renounce their religious beliefs and cease religious activities.
Members of the Interfaith Council reported police in Thua Thien Hue Province prevented 10 council members from attending a March event honoring the former Republic of Vietnam at Phuoc Thanh pagoda. The council, which included representatives of unsanctioned Buddhist, Protestant, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai groups, stated that police threatened the delegation, pressured the owner of a local guest house to expel them, and confiscated the license and identification papers of their drivers. On the day the celebration had been scheduled, approximately 40 50 people, including police, reportedly surrounded the pagoda.
In April press reports and independent Cao Dai followers reported local authorities in Phu Yen Province razed an independent Cao Dai temple despite protests from local followers. In May the independent Cao Dai Nhon Sanh group reported local authorities and government sanctioned Cao Dai followers prevented them from organizing a conference at a Cao Dai holy site in Tay Ninh Province, physically barring them from entering and throwing paint on them. The independent Cao Dai group did not obtain official permission to organize their conference. In September authorities at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport reportedly confiscated Cao Dai Master Hua Phi’s passport and prevented him from travelling abroad for a religious freedom conference.
Falun Gong practitioners reported in August and October that Ho Chi Minh City authorities and plainclothes police prevented them from practicing in a local park, at times using threats, playing loud music, or physically assaulting followers.
Authorities continued to deny prisoners and detainees the right to worship, although the constitution guarantees in principle the right of prisoners to practice their beliefs. Family members said prison guards prevented Protestant Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh from praying and reading the Bible. Some prisoners, however, were allowed to read the Bible and practice their beliefs while incarcerated.
Ho Chi Minh City authorities continued to negotiate with leadership of the UBCV affiliated and unsanctioned Lien Tri Pagoda as well as a nearby Catholic church and convent to vacate their land to facilitate an urban development project. Leaders of the pagoda and church said authorities were using the redevelopment as a pretext to force them to move and to raze the buildings. Both sides reported that local authorities offered compensation and alternative sites, although the religious institutions said the compensation was inadequate and the sites offered were in remote areas. Pagoda Abbot Thich Khong Tanh continued to release public statements critical of government restrictions on religious organizations.
Although the law prohibits nongovernment publishing of religious materials, in practice some private, unlicensed publishing houses unofficially printed and distributed religious texts without active government interference.
In September volunteers with the Catholic group Books for Parishes stated that the police harassed them by issuing traffic tickets and repeatedly inspecting their belongings while they were establishing free libraries in Con Cuong District, Nghe An Province.
The government continued to restrict the number of students who could enroll in Catholic and Protestant seminaries to numbers the churches’ leadership said were inadequate to meet demand. Catholic and Protestant leadership stated, however, the number of students permitted to enroll had increased compared to prior years.
Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Bahai, and Buddhist groups were allowed to provide religious education to adherents in their own facilities. Students continued to participate in training sessions on fundamental Buddhist philosophy organized at pagodas nationwide during summer holidays.
In August the government approved the establishment of the Vietnamese Catholic Institute, which church leaders expected would be the first faith based, degree granting educational institution in Vietnam.
Montagnards in the Central Highlands stated the government continued to monitor, interrogate, and discriminate against them, in part due to suspicions they were affiliated with Protestant organizations tied to separatist political organizations. In March, April, and May state owned media published a series of articles discouraging citizens from affiliating with Degar Protestantism, a Montagnard Protestant group. Some Montagnards also reported throughout the year that local authorities seized their land and withheld social services in part due to their religious beliefs. In some cases, Montagnards stated that ongoing social and religious persecution drove them to flee to Cambodia. Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Human rights activists reported plainclothes police kept Hoa Hao follower and rights activist Nguyen Bac Truyen and his family under close surveillance throughout the year. In August Truyen said that police prevented him from leaving his home to meet with foreign officials. Other activists reported local police in An Giang Province kept Hoa Hao activists Mai Thi Dung and Vo Van Buu under close surveillance following Dung’s release from prison in April.
Two Buddhist clergy, both members of the recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, reported local authorities harassed them and members of their pagodas in Bac Giang Province and Hanoi. They reported the harassment included intimidation of monks and nuns, expulsion by force of clergy from their buildings, plainclothes individuals breaking into religious buildings, the destruction of pagoda property, and theft of cash donations from villagers.
Activists reported police continued to harass family members of imprisoned Protestant pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, including by barring them from receiving visitors, displacing them from their home, placing them under heavy surveillance, and confiscating and destroying their personal belongings. Restrictions on the family’s movement at times prevented Pastor Chinh’s four children from attending school.
As in previous years, UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do reported authorities permitted him to leave the Thanh Minh Monastery, where he resides, only for quarterly medical check ups. Other UBCV leaders stated the government continued to monitor their activities and restrict their movements, although they were able to meet with some foreign diplomats, visit other UBCV members, and maintain contact with associates overseas. In August UBCV follower Le Cong Cau said that airport security in Thua Thien Hue Province prevented him from traveling to Ho Chi Minh City to meet with the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
In October independent Hoa Hao followers stated that authorities in Dong Thap Province prevented them from visiting Hoa Hao activist Duong Thi Tron after her release from prison. Followers said that the police instructed Tron’s family not to organize a gathering in the days leading up to her release.
In July Catholic clergy reported unidentified individuals wearing masks threw stones, bricks, and shrimp paste at the residence of Catholic priest Father Phan Van Loi in Hue, actions they stated were in retaliation for his human rights and religious freedom advocacy. Plainclothes individuals reportedly harassed him in March during his meeting with a Buddhist leader. Although Catholic clergy reported the incident to local authorities, the police did not initiate an investigation.
Church members reported Ho Chi Minh City authorities continued to hold the passport of Pastor Pham Dinh Nhan, the head of the unregistered United Gospel Outreach Church, which was first confiscated in 2013. They said authorities permitted his personal travel abroad but confiscated the passport after each trip.
Leaders of some unregistered Protestant denominations continued to report that local authorities in the Central Highlands discriminated against their followers, threatening to exclude them from state run social welfare programs if adherents did not denounce their faith.
Protestant and Catholic groups reported ongoing restrictions or prohibitions of religious groups operating medical and educational facilities such as hospitals and parochial schools. Catholic representatives said the government refused to return hospitals, clinics, and schools seized from the Catholic Church in past decades.
In some cases local authorities permitted religious organizations to operate social services. For example, in Hanoi, city officials allowed Protestant house churches to operate drug rehabilitation centers.
Most representatives of registered religious groups reported adherence to a religious group generally did not seriously disadvantage individuals in nongovernmental civil, economic, and secular life, although some religious leaders said unofficial policies of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and the government hampered advancement of religious adherents within those organizations. The official resumes of the top four CPV leaders stated they followed no religion.
Practitioners of various religions served in local and provincial government positions and were represented in the National Assembly. Many registered religious organizations, such as the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, as well as other clergy and religious followers, were members of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for government affiliated organizations under the guidance of the CPV. High ranking government officials sent greetings and visited churches during Christmas and Easter and attended Vesak activities commemorating the birth of the Buddha.
Local authorities sometimes prevented individuals from changing religious affiliation on national identification cards, according to reports from religious groups. The government announced in December it would begin issuing a new type of identity card which would no longer specify religious affiliation.