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Religious work in Viet Nam’s renovation process
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Beliefs and religions in Viet Nam

In Viet Nam, there are 13 religions with 37 religious organizations recognized and licensed by the State. In addition to major religions introduced from abroad, including Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and Brahmanism, there are domestically-born religions such as Caodaism, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Buu Son Ky Huong, Tu An Hieu Nghia, and Tinh do Cu si Phat hoi Viet Nam (Pure Land Buddhism of Viet Nam) among others. Although independent in their rituals, religions in Viet Nam are bound to each other in the national unity bloc towards the goal of a wealthy people, and a strong, democratic, fair and civilized country. In addition, there are many folk beliefs associated with colorful rituals and popular cults like the worshipping rituals of the Holy Mother, the Hung Kings, and the Tran Saints.

Viet Nam is home to 24 million religious followers - 27% of the population. There are more than 11 million Buddhist followers, nearly 7 million Catholic followers, more than 1 million Protestant followers, 2.4 million Caodai followers, 1.5 million Hoa Hao Buddhist followers, and more than 1 million followers of the Pure Land Buddhism of Viet Nam. Followers of other religions number nearly half a million. Religious dignitaries, monks and nuns make up a large number: 83,000. Approximately 250,000 people oversee religious activities at about 25,000 places of worship.

Field studies reveal the following characteristics of religions and beliefs in Viet Nam:

First, religions and beliefs are co-existing and intermingling without discrimination, disputes, or conflicts. Traditional beliefs reflect the rich and diverse spiritual life, tolerance, humanity, and national unity of the Vietnamese people. These factors enable them to easily get on with other beliefs and religions. Religious and non-religious followers live in a united community. In a single village or commune, followers of one religion reside harmoniously with followers of another religion and with non-religious people on a basis of neighborliness and clanship.

Second, religions in Viet Nam mainly worship foreign Gods and supernatural persons. Studies on the history of Viet Nam’s beliefs and religions show that the ancient Viet people already had religious thoughts, reflected in the images of Lac birds and Dragon descendants of the fairies, and such supernatural persons as the Hung Kings, Mother Au Co and Lord Lieu Hanh. This thinking now survives only as folklore. The tenets of Viet Nam’s domestically-born religions (Hoa Hao Buddhism, Caodaism, and Pure Land Buddhism of Viet Nam) copy, borrow from, or are influenced by imported religions.

Third, religions, imported or domestically-born, are closely tied to and have had definite impacts (both positive and negative) on the nation’s history from the 4th century AD until now.

Fourth, each belief or religion has distinctive cultural characteristics, but all, influenced by national traditions, yearn for truth, goodness, and beauty, and all help to beautify the nation’s diverse and rich culture. In fact, each religion contains one or more beliefs which have interacted with Vietnamese culture. Throughout hundreds of years, imported belief culture has been Vietnamised and become an integral part of the Vietnamese culture (though not homogenous).

Fifth, during the nation’s modern history colonialists, imperialists, and reactionary forces have attempted to take advantage of beliefs, religions, and related issues to invade and rule Viet Nam, or cause political instability and social disorder to serve their ill-intentioned plots. Currently, hostile forces use beliefs and religions as weapons in a so-called “peaceful evolution” strategy to sabotage the construction and defense of socialist Viet Nam. Under the cover of “religious freedom”, and “human rights”, they fabricate and distort Vietnamese Party and State guidelines and policies on freedom of belief and religion, plotting to build their forces under a religious flag in order to overthrow the socialist State of Viet Nam.

Complicated issues related to religions and belief in today’s Viet Nam

Viet Nam’s current state of religions and beliefs is basically stable given clearer awareness on the part of the majority of religious followers and dignitaries about Vietnamese Party and State guidelines and policies on religious freedom. The system of legal documents on beliefs and religions has been supplemented and refined. Mass mobilization and state management of beliefs, religions, security, and order at the grassroots level has been given more attention. Leaders of almost all religious organizations are steering their religion towards an activity called “moving forward alongside the nation”. Reactionary elements, however, continue to take advantage of religious issues in the relationship between the administration and local people to incite unrest and encourage support for opposition elements in Viet Nam and abroad. The details are as follows:

The illegal transfer and donation of land, expansion of worshipping bases, and the building of churches and chapels occur in many localities.

Illegal religious activities. The “illicit ordination” or “self-ordination” of dignitaries continues, though in decline. The illicit printing, publishing, importing and circulating of bibles, religious books, and other publications continues to occur. Illegal preaching is reported in some areas inhabited by ethnic minority groups and in border areas.

Internal conflicts in several religious organizations. Personal interests and disagreement over a religious sect’s operation guidelines has led to internal conflicts in some religious organizations. As a result, certain religious groups and sects have scrambled for followers, adversely affecting the State’s management of religions.

Complicated religious activities in ethnic-inhabited areas. In the strategic regions of the Northwest, Central Highlands, and Southwest, recent religious activities in ethnic-inhabited areas have adversely impacted national security and social order and safety. Reactionary forces have abused religions to rally forces, cause unrest, demand a separate state, and damage national unity. They have named a king, established a Mong State in the Northwestern region and a Dega state in the Central Highlands and demanded that the Southern region be separated from Viet Nam.

Anti-government activities of reactionary elements in religions. Abetted by hostile forces overseas and a group called the “Viet Tan Party”, several groups and individuals in Viet Nam and abroad conduct propaganda campaigns, incite the people to unrest and oppose Party guidelines and State policies on beliefs and religions.

New belief and religious phenomena, strange cults, and evil cults. Viet Nam now has about 60 new belief and religious phenomena, either imported or domestically-born. (In fact, they are organizations of beliefs with religious coloring.) Some belief phenomena are forming organizations and seeking to have their operations licensed as new religions. However, many of them have shown signs of false beliefs, adversely impacting Viet Nam’s cultural life. Some reactionary organizations have used the cover of religion to rally forces…

Achievements of Viet Nam’s reforms of religious work

The Communist Party of Viet Nam’s guidelines and viewpoints on religious work during the renovation process

Inheriting Ho Chi Minh’s thoughts and the Communist Party of Viet Nam’s guidelines on freedom of beliefs, religions and national unity throughout revolutionary periods, the Communist Party of Viet Nam has enacted many policies on beliefs, religions, and religious work during the renovation period. The 6th Politburo’s Resolution 24/NQ-TW dated October 16, 1990, “On strengthening religious work in the new situation” raised two breakthrough theoretical points: “Beliefs and religions are spiritual needs of part of the people” and “Religions have cultural and ethical values appropriate to the new regime”. At its 7th plenum of the 9th Party Central Committee, the Communist Party of Viet Nam approved Resolution 25-NQ/TW dated March 12, 2003, “On religious work”. The 11th National Congress of the Communist Party of Viet Nam continued to affirm: “The continued refining of policies and laws on beliefs and religions in line with the Party’s viewpoints. Upholding cultural and ethical values of religions and encouraging religious organizations, dignitaries and followers to lead good secular and religious lives and to make an active contribution to national construction and defense. Paying attention to and creating conditions for religious organizations to practice their religions in accordance with the charters and regulations of religious organizations recognized by the State and its laws. Simultaneously, proactively preventing and resolutely fighting acts that abuse beliefs and religions to mystify, divide, or damage the national unity bloc”(1).

The Communist Party of Viet Nam’s viewpoints and guidelines on beliefs, religions and religious work focus on: Building a system of policies and laws to ensure the people’s freedom of beliefs and religions; unifying the interests and obligations of citizens in order to make religious dignitaries, monks and nuns and followers lead “good secular and religious lives”; upholding cultural and ethical values of religions for building a new society; the mobilization of religious dignitaries and followers being considered an important task of the whole political system; resolutely fighting and foiling plots by reactionary forces who abuse and use religions to sabotage the Party, State and people; building a dynamic and effective apparatus in charge of religious work of the Party, State and mass organizations and a contingent of cadres, who have the knowledge, professional qualifications, ethics and prestige among the religious communities…

The Vietnamese State’s system of laws and regulations on religious work

Law is an important tool in the state management of beliefs and religions. During the process of refining socialist legislation, the system of laws and policies as well as the state management of beliefs and religions has gradually improved, fully institutionalizing the Party’s guidelines and viewpoints and corresponding to international law and treaties that Viet Nam has been a signatory to or joined in. This is most vividly reflected in the 1992 Constitution, the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, and other legal documents. Specifically as follows:

Article 70 of the 1992 Constitution states: Citizens have the right to freedom of belief and religion or non-religion. All religions are equal under law. Places of worship are protected by law. Nobody is allowed to encroach on the freedom of beliefs and religions or take advantage of beliefs and religions to undertake acts that violate the law or State policies…

The Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions (valid from November 15, 2004) is comprised of 6 chapters and 41 articles, clearly regulating citizens’ rights to freedom of belief and religion; citizen rights and obligations of religious dignitaries, monks, nuns and followers; state protection for beliefs and religions; the operations of belief or religious organizations in Viet Nam; international relations of religious organizations, dignitaries and followers…

The Government’s Decree 92/2012/NĐ-CP dated November 8, 2012, “Detailed regulations and measures to implement the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions” (comprised of 5 chapters and 46 articles) replaces the Government’s Decree 22/2005/NĐ-CP dated March 1, 2005. The new decree gives instructions on how to implement several provisions of the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, adding new points on the management of belief activities; conditions, procedures and time frames for the registration of religious practice, license of religious activities, and time frames for the recognition of a religious organization. The document regulates the management of religion training institutions with regard to enrolment and registration of charters and revised rules (if applicable) by religious organizations with competent state agencies. It covers religious activities at venues recognized as historical-cultural relics and scenic spots, the classification of belief, religious structures and supportive structures, and requirements for licensing construction. The decree also governs foreigners’ religious practice in Viet Nam’s religious venues, relevant state agencies overseeing religious activities, reception and treatment of dossiers submitted by organizations and individuals related to religious activities, the number of dossiers sent to competent state agencies, deadlines for replying religious organizations and individuals, and receiving dossiers…

Other legal documents include the Prime Minister’s Instruction 01/2005/CT-TTg dated February 4, 2005, on Protestantism affairs, the Prime Minister’s Instruction 1940/CT- TTg dated December 31, 2008, on religion-related land and housing; and the Ministry of the Interior’s Circular 01/2013/TT-BNV dated March 25, 2013, “Issuance and instructions on how to use forms and administrative formalities related to beliefs and religions”. In addition, the National Assembly has passed many laws and resolutions which amend relations arising from belief and religious activities, like the Penal Code, the Land Law, and Resolution 23/2003/QH11 dated November 26, 2003, “On land and housing that the State had managed and allocated for use during the process of implementing policies on land, housing management and the policies on socialist transformation before July 1, 1991”…

State management of beliefs and religions

During the national renovation period, the Vietnamese Party and State’s consistent viewpoints and policies on freedom of belief and religion have been implemented more openly. Since the enforcement of the 2004 Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions, these policies have created a favorable legal corridor for belief and religious activities. Major annual religious events and congresses of religious organizations have been solemnly and safely held and are growing in size, attracting the participation of large numbers of followers. Many religious festivals have become a common cultural practice of the communities, including Buddha’s birthday and Christmas for Catholics and Protestants… Administrations at various levels have created conditions for building or restoring places of worship. The ordination and relocation of places where dignitaries live religious lives has become easier.

Pure belief and religious activities have been stabilized in accordance with an organization’s charter and regulations and within the law. In general, religious dignitaries and followers believe in the leadership of the Party and the management of the State, and strictly abide by the law. They promote the tradition of patriotism, unity and moving forward alongside the nation, enthusiastically participating in socio-economic development programs, building and consolidating national defense, safeguarding security and order, and contributing to the great achievements recorded during national construction and renovation.

The relationship between religious organizations and administrations at all levels has improved, helping to create understanding, respect and consensus in many common jobs. Congresses and major events of religions are given thoughtful assistance by local Party committees, administrations, and mass organizations, who send representatives to present gifts and convey congratulatory messages. Administrations at all levels create conditions for religions to print bibles and religious books, give out health care insurance cards on a yearly basis, and meet religious dignitaries regularly.

The administrations also create conditions for religious followers to “move forward alongside the nation”, uphold cultural values and morality of religions in building a healthy lifestyle in residential areas. They encourage followers to take an active part in social and charity activities, realize the motto of leading “good secular and religious lives”, while responding to patriotic emulation movements, contributing to local socio-economic development, and promoting the prestige and influence of their religions.

The relationship between religions and between religion and secular life is getting better. It is common for dignitaries of one religion to attend events and meetings of another religion. Voluntary donations and assistance by followers of one religion for followers of another religion or for non-religious people are popular, reflecting solidarity between religions and between religions and secular life.

Many recent momentous international religious activities hosted by Viet Nam have won world acclaim, vividly demonstrating Viet Nam’s policies on freedom of belief and religion. The most notable were the UN Day of Buddha's Birth, Enlightenment and Passing (Vesak) in 2008; the 11th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women (2009-2010); the opening ceremony of the Jubilee Year of the Catholic Church in 2009; the 10th plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences in 2012… These international religious activities were successful in achieving their goals. Thanks to assistance from the Vietnamese State, these activities complied with all laws and were safe, spectacular, filled with Vietnamese hallmarks, and impressive to Viet Nam’s international friends./.

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(1) Document of the 11th National Party Congress, The National Political - Truth Publishing House, Hanoi, 2011, p. 245

Pham DungAssoc. Prof., Dr., Deputy Minister of the Interior, and Head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs