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Vietnam's War on Religion By: Michael Benge
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, September 16, 2009


The United States’ decision not to put Vietnam back onto the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) regarding religion flies in the face of absurdity given that repressive country’s ongoing war on religion.  Religious repression appears to have actually increased since Vietnam was taken off the CPC list.  

The Washington Times' August 7 article “Zen master at center of row” exposes but one more example of Vietnam’s war on religion, this time against the disciples of famous Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh:  “The monks and nuns at Bat Nha monastery in Vietnam’s Central Highlands have been quietly meditating and studying the teachings of the 82-year-old Vietnamese sage who is perhaps the world's best-known living Buddhist after Tibet's Dalai Lama.” 

Rather than roll out mainline military units as in the past, the Vietnamese communists changed tactics and used gangs of plain clothes police and hired thugs - a parastatal army - armed with sledgehammers, axes, iron bars and other weapons to attack the monastery. They smashed windows, damaged buildings and threatened the monks and nuns. By using this mix of plain clothes police and hired thugs, Hanoi feels it has plausible deniability by claiming that the attack was caused by inter-factional fighting within the Buddhist Church, and in other cases “citizen anger toward inhabitants.” 

Many believe that the real reason for the attack was because of Nhat Hanh's call on President Nguyen Minh Triet for Vietnam to abolish government control of religion.  Others say that the attack may have been predicated on pressure from China on Hanoi for Nhat Hanh's praise for the Dalai Lama.

This kind of an attack is not an isolated incident and is being indiscriminately used against Protestants, Catholics and other Buddhist sects as well.  A week later, the diocese of Vinh reported the brutal beating of two Catholic priests by plain clothed police and thugs.  Fr Paul Nguyen was beaten by a group of men when he tried to save three women who were being attacked by the same men while 30 uniformed police officers stood idly by and watched.  Fr Peter Nguyen The Binh was beaten by a similar gang of armed men and thrown from a second story window while visiting Fr Nguyen in the hospital.    

Similar attacks against Montagnard Protestants have been reported in the Central Highlands. For example, on August 21, 2009, Vietnamese communist security police went to the homes of Protestant Christian pastors Phan Nay (DOB 1977), Vong Kpa (DOB 1969) and Hnoi Ksor (DOB 1982) of Ploi Ksing A village, Xa ia  Piar commune, Huyen ayun Pa district, Gia Lai province and severely kicked and beat them with batons in front of their families and villagers.  Afterwards, their relatives tried taking them to the hospital but were prevented from doing so by the police. According to more recent reports, they are still in severe pain and have difficult eating and keeping food down.  The police accused them of conducting illegal House Church services not authorized by the “Potempkin”  Hoi Thanh Tin Lanh Vietnam communist government controlled church for Montagnards in Plieku city.    

In Vietnam, communism is a political religion and the communist party views any organized religion as a direct threat to national security and their authoritarian control of the Vietnamese people.  In Vietnam’s 2008 Internal ‘Training Manual for the Task Concerning the Protestant Religion,’ designed for the Central Bureau of Religious Affairs’ (CBRA) special police, whose responsibilities include the monitoring and control of religion and churches, it states “official thinking still connects religion with schemes of “enemy forces which hope to destroy the precious revolution of our people.”

By 2007, the communist government held over 3,000 training courses and 10,000 workshops throughout the country for the political management of religion. US Ambassador Michael Michalak and the State Department commended the Vietnamese government for doing so.  In the 2007-2008 training cycle, 21,811 more of CBRA’s religious police were trained to “manage religion.”

On August 11, Compass Direct News reported that four police officers and two officials from the CBRA interrupted a Sunday House Church worship service in Tran Phu Commune, Hanoi, and one officer told the members that if he found them meeting next Sunday, "I will kill you like I'd kill a dog."  Ironically, the pastor had twice tried to register the House Church with the government. 

Over 150 Montagnard House Church Pastors are languishing in prisons in Vietnam.  In April 2008, Pastor H’Bat Puih, mother of four, was sent to Pleiku’s T-20 prison and hasn't been heard of since. 

The price of registering churches means surrendering religious freedom to the communist party. The church must submit to the CBRA a list of the names and addresses of members, and only those approved by the CBRA can attend services. All sermons must be approved in advance by the CBRA, and all sermons, including those of minorities, must be given in Vietnamese.  Pastors and priests can neither deviate from the approved sermon nor proselytize, and the CBRA religious police “manage” all church activities. 

This wrath of the communist regime also includes the destruction of church property. For example, not only is the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam outlawed but its property was seized and buildings destroyed; the first Montagnard Christian Church, considered as a sacred historical site in Buonmathuot city, was recently demolished; the Catholic nunciature in Hanoi was destroyed as was the Redemptorist Monastery in Nha Trang. The nuns of the Order of Cross Lovers in Thu Thiem - a suburb of Ho Chi Minh city - were removed from their 170 year old convent and the buildings destroyed. The monastery of the order of the Brothers of The Holy Family of Banam (Frères de la Sainte Famille de Banam) in Long Xuyen were demolished, as was the monastery of the Sisters of St Paul of Chartres in Vinh Long province. 

Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak recently stated, “The US has no interest in putting Vietnam back onto the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) regarding religion.” He has often praised Vietnam regarding their supposed record of improving religious freedom, and also said, “…the US Department of State stated that there was not enough evidence to put Vietnam back on the list.” US policy toward Vietnam seems to have reverted to “see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil” when it comes to religious persecution.  This is the same communist regime that murdered over a million of their own people after its takeover of South Viet Nam in 1975. 

This carryover Bush policy of engagement with Vietnam regarding religious freedom has been a dismal failure, and in fact, the U.S. inaction is seen by the communists as tacit approval of their policies.  President Obama has promised change, now the question is, does he have the courage to change President Bush’s failed policy of worshiping at the alter of trade by holding Vietnam’s feet to the fire and placing that repressive regime back on the CPC list?


Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer, including five years as a Prisoner of war-- 1968-73 and is a student of South East Asian Politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights and religious freedom and has written extensively on these subjects.


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