Freedom of Religion and Artistic Expression

VOICE

11 January, 2014

1. Article 70 of Vietnam’s Constitution guarantees ‘Citizens have the right to freedom of belief and religion, and may practise or not practise any religion’. However, the government has tried to control religious freedom, using both force and administrative measures. Current administrative measures include the 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief (Ordinance No. 21) and the 2012 Decree on Directions and Measures for Implementing the Ordinance on Religion and Belief (Decree No. 92).

2. The government does not grant religious organizations the same legal status as other nonreligious organizations. Both the latest Ordinance 21 and Decree 92 fail to mention the legal status of religious organizations. Without this status, religious organizations cannot engage in routine transactions, such as opening a bank account or buying and owning property. Consequently, as religious organizations’ bank accounts or properties can only be registered under the names of private citizens, they become easy targets for harassment and confiscation by the authorities.

3. The authorities allow religious organizations to register for operation (without a legal status) but with major restrictions (Articles 5–8, Decree 92), such as control over the religious organizations’ right to operate and run its own affairs (e.g. admission of clergymen or appointment of bishops must be vetted by the authorities). Currently, several religious organizations are outlawed, including the Unified Buddhist Church, the Original Hoa Hao Buddhist Church, the Orthodox Cao Dai Church, and evangelical churches such as the Mennonites or Lutherans. Members of the banned churches are routinely harassed and persecuted while government–approved churches and their leaders are appointed to represent and legitimize the set-ups.

4. Religious organizations are forbidden from setting up publishing houses, radio stations, TV stations, web pages or any other communication sources. They are also prohibited from communicating to the public their religious teachings, even when such teachings are intended to improve society, establish and operate schools, or run orphanages, clinics, hospitals, or retirement homes.

5. Vietnam’s current Constitution is premised upon the State owning all land, thus the authorities have released regulations, such as the Prime Minister’s Directive No. 1940 (2008), allowing the nationalization of church property, including liquid assets seized in the past. Furthermore, in order to prevent expansion of activities, religious organizations are not allowed to accept donated real estate.

6. Public security police keep a tight watch on banned churches and their practices. On June 24, 2013, over 100 policemen and local henchmen launched an attack against a religious service held by the local Hòa Hảo Buddhists in An Giang in the Mekong Delta. The faithful, including women and children, were violently beaten.

7. The authorities also continue to use brutal measures against defiant Catholic and Protestant parishes in North Vietnam. For example, in 2012, plainclothes police launched an attack against the Catholic diocese of Con Cuông (Nghệ An province) while they were holding a praying ceremony in a private chapel, injuring more than 60 people. In September 2013, thousands of police were deployed to Mỹ Yên diocese (Nghệ An province) to curb a “riot” by Catholics who claimed they were barred from attending church. Many civilians were beaten, with 20 people sustaining serious injuries. This prompted the bishop, in an unprecedented move, to denounce the government’s brutal crackdown publicly and with the international media, such as the BBC.

8. From January 28 to February 1, 2013, an obscure group of 22 founders of a Buddhist religious sect in Central Vietnam, called “Hội đồng Công luật Công án Bia Sơn” (the Bia Sơn Public Law Council), were tried for the crime of ‘organizing activities to overthrow the people’s administration’ under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code. They were all given exceedingly harsh sentences, ranging from 13 years to life imprisonment, yet received little media attention. The group’s members suspected that this stemmed from powerful local public security police officials desiring to grab the group’s communal land plot, which had grown in size and worth over the years due to its location.

9. From October to November 2013, police arrested eight religious members of the ethnic Hmong group in the northern province of Tuyen Quang, charging them with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interest of the state” under Article 258 of the Penal Code. The warrant did not specify exactly what the arrestees had done to “infringe upon the interest of the state”, but it is believed that they were arrested for initiating a class action suit against authorities who suppressed Dương Văn Mình, a Christian sect founded in 1989. Earlier in June, police demolished unauthorized religious shrines of the said sect on orders of the government Committee on Religious Affairs. Harassment continued, targeting adherents of Dương Văn Mình and leading to their arrest.

Strict Censorship on Artists 

10. In October 2012, songwriters Việt Khang and Trần Vũ Anh Bình were given sentences of 4 years and 6 years imprisonment, respectively, under Article 88 for their advocacy through music. Their defense lawyer had insisted to the end and in court that there were “scarcely any anti-state elements” in their songs.

11. In May 2013, song-writer Ngọc Đại was fined 30 million VNDs (approximately 1500 USD) for distributing his two musical albums “without permission”. Copies of his albums, though sold out, were confiscated and destroyed for containing “crude” and “politically sensitive” lyrics.

12. In June 2013, the much anticipated action movie “Bụi Đời Chợ Lớn” (Chinatown’s Dust of Life) was banned because, according to the censorship agency, the film “wrongly reflects Ho Chi Minh City’s real life,” thus “blemishing the country and city’s image and adversely impacting viewers, particularly youths.” The film’s director, Charlie Nguyễn, could not do anything but express his frustration on his Facebook page.

13. In August 2013, “Tycoon” (in Vietnamese: Đại Gia), a novel by writer Thiên Sơn, was banned by the Department of Publishing for “exaggerating real life in Vietnam.”

14. Also in August 2013, police launched an investigation against “Café Cộng” (a café chain in Hanoi, whose double-meaning name means either “Plus” or “Communist”). The inspection originated from an article published on a police newspaper alleging that Café Cộng made a mockery of the communist government, its menus parodying Lenin’s speeches and Ho Chi Minh’s poems and smearing other Communist figures. Following the investigation, the owner of Café Cong, singer Linh Dung, was fined and forced to change the chain’s presentation and style.

VOICE (Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment) is a non-profit, non-religious, and non-political organization registered in the United States and the Philippines. Its mission is to advocate for the rights of refugees from Vietnam and to help develop civil society in the country. Founded in 2007, to date, VOICE has offices in California, USA; Bangkok, Thailand; and Manila, the Philippines. For further information, you may contact our Manila office at: +632.571.5439 or by email: voiceinmanila@gmail.com
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