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Caodaism in Vietnam :

Religion vs Restrictions and Persecution

by Sergei Blagov


Note : Dr. Sergei Blagov delivered the following speech at the Internation Association for Religious Freddom (IARF) Worl Congress, held in Vancouver, Canada, on July 31st, 1999.



A notion of religious freedom has long been somewhat of enigma to the Communist authorities in Vietnam, and Hanoi’s treatment of Caodaism is in line with the general restrictive approach. For many years Caodaism was viewed by the Communist leadership as “reactionary opportunist organization with some religious overtones”.  This perception of Caodaism was instrumental in outlining the official policy toward the movement, which could be summed up as follows: not to allow the church to grow, to prevent various Caodaist sects from unification, to ban all economic or social activities within Caodaist congregations. Hanoi’s restrictive policies obviously aimed at having the traditional relationship between the movements’ leadership and the lay community consistently undermined in order to reduce the possibility of popular support for any resistance the Cao Dai might offer.  Only when the reorganization was completed were these pressures somewhat reduced.


In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Hanoi authorities were keen to reorganize all religious communities in Southern Vietnam in such a way so as to destroy them as autonomous hierarchical social organization and to subordinate them to the political ideologies of the Socialist Vietnam. The new authorities apparently viewed the majority of the priests, notably those who had been socially active before 1975, as “the spies of the CIA”.


During the late 1970s the state apparatus seemed to try to eliminate religions, viewing the denominations as superstitious and “anti-revolutionary.” For instance, in the late 1970s  the authorities aimed at destroying new religions in Southern Vietnam within 10-15 years, “disbanding reactionary political institutions of the religions in 3-4 years and crashing all superstitions in 8-10 years.”


According to the Decree No. 297, of 11 November 1977, the Caodaist church was placed under the control of the Fatherland Front and much of the religious properties were confiscated. Any religious activity needed prior authorization by the authorities, and disobedience could led to arrest of the clergy. 20 September 1978 the Fatherland Front of Tay Ninh province condemned any Caodaist religious activities deemed to be counter-revolutionary.


On June 4, 1980  the provincial administrative committee issued an order to dissolve all political institutions of the church and to transfer to the State 40 out of the 46 buildings inside the Holy See (though, the main temple and five other important buildings remained in the church’s  hands. 


Actual abolition of the Caodaist hierarchy was symbolically effected by prohibiting the spiritist seances, thus effectively halting inauguration of the new dignitaries. With the abolition of seances the membership of the Tay Ninh hierarchy declined.


According to the official data, between 1975 and 1983 the total thirty five “anti-revolutionary” organizations were uncovered in Tay Ninh. 1,291 adepts were arrested, 39 adepts were killed in clashes, 9 were sentenced to death, more than 1,000 were sent to reeducation camps,  more than 3,000 were re-educated in the province.  But despite the draconian measures, by late 1980s “political security” in the province still was not seen as perfect by Hanoi. Obviously, strict control became the antecedents for the continued dissent.


It should be pointed out that Caodaism – Vietnam’s third largest religion – is not small by any standards. Hanoi’s sources indicated that by 1975 there were about 3 million  adepts of various Caodaist sects in Southern Vietnam.  More recent estimates varied. In 1988, for instance, the chairman of the Religious Affairs Committee (RAC) of the Vietnamese government  claimed  that  Caodaist  religion in Vietnam controlled about 1.5 million adepts.  Three years later the estimates rose considerably. In 1991 the head of the RAC stated that there were 2 million Caodaists in Vietnam. Leader of pro-government faction in Tay Ninh, Archbishop Thuong Tho Thanh, on  August 19,  1994  conceded to the author however that reliable statistics  were  not  available, but the actual number of adherents was possibly higher. But official sources agree with the above mentioned estimate - 2 million adherents of Caodaism in Vietnam. The Office of Religious Affairs gave the UN the following data for 1996:


Cao Dai

1,122,827 followers, 5,608 dignitaries, 896 temples.  According to non-governmental sources, however, Caodaism has 3 million followers.


However, these “statistics” seem to amount to little more than informed guesses - notably because questionnaires of national census in 1979 and 1989 did not include religious affiliation.  UN experts argue that some provisions of Vietnamese laws could hardly be reconciled with the principle of freedom of religion.


According to article 70 of Vietnam’s Constitution of 15 April 1992, “The citizen has the right to freedom of belief, of religion, to embrace or not to embrace any denomination. Religions are equal before the law. The places reserved for the worship of the various beliefs and religions are protected by the law.” However, this same article 70 also provides as follows: “It is forbidden to violate freedom of belief, of religion, or to take advantage of it to act against the law or the policies of the State.” Furthermore, article 4 of the Constitution, which states that “The Communist Party of Viet Nam ...  following Marxism-Leninism and the thought of Ho Chi Minh, is the guiding force of the State and of society”. UN experts argue that these two articles are likely to impede freedom of religion or even reduce it to very little indeed.


Furthermore, according to the Directive No. 500 HD/TGCP of 4 December 1993, “those who misuse religion and commit such violations with perverse intention must be severely judged in accordance with the law”; and “those who slander or distort the truth will be severely punished”.


However, in a visible policy change, in August 1993 Communist party General Secretary Do Muoi visited Tay Ninh Holy See and urged adherents to forget about the past and look toward the future. Government experts conceded that Caodaism was going to persist  for a long period of time, because southern peasants have a great religious zeal. They said the teaching became “traditions and customs” of the people and “nobody predicted that Caodaism would disappear”.


On December 18-19, 1995 the Religious Affairs Committee of Vietnam’s government held a conference on Caodaism in Hanoi - it was attended by representatives of Interior Ministry, General Political Department of Defense Ministry, CPV Central Committee as well as local authorities. They claimed that Hanoi’s new policies toward Caodaism were designed to serve the best interests of “an absolute majority” of the believers.  The also argued that the new tolerant policy would help to heal the wounds of the period of “Caodaist reeducation”.  The conference said the main aim of Hanoi’s policy is to reintegrate some 3 million Caodaists within the course of “renovation” so as to strengthen adepts’ belief in party leadership. The conference also announced that the authorities have no intention to unify Caodaist sects and groups or to restore pre-1975 congregations.


However, Caodaism is still targeted by a drive designed to subordinate them to Hanoi’s political ideologies. On April 5, 1997 an “Universal Congress of Representatives”  was organized in Tay Ninh - 808 delegates from 400 temples attended. The Congress adopted the Charter, and electoral legislation.  The Congress elected 52 - instead of 72 - dignitaries into the new Ruling committee,  85-year-old Archbishop Thuong Tho Thanh remained its chairman. The Charter includes description of Caodaists rituals, festivals, symbols - Celestial Eye, banner - as well as the purposes of the religion.


The Congress, the first since 1975, became the event of utmost importance for the community, said Nguyen Thanh Xuan, expert of RAC on June 12, 1997. However, critics argue that it were local authorities and police who had selected deputies to attend the Congress,  the Congress itself and its decisions were rigged. But even despite tight control, the authorities were understood to be unable to find enough dignitaries in Tay Ninh wishing to join a pro-government body, falling short of a required number of 72 officials.


Le Quang Vinh, vice-chairman of the Religious Affairs Committee of Vietnam’s government, addressed the Congress. He confirmed the party’s policy to respect religious freedom, but he warned against “misusing religion to undermine national solidarity”. On May 9, 1997 RAC acting head Vu Gia Tham signed the charter, finalizing Hanoi’s official recognition of Tay Ninh church.


However, the charter sparked a controversy among adepts, as many Caodaists viewed it as a brainchild of government officials and their supporters in Tay Ninh - thus violation of their teaching and religious constitution. The new electoral legislation - designed to replace traditional inauguration of dignitaries during spiritist seances - is viewed as a major breach of religious rules. The critics viewed the Charter as an attempt to use some Caodaist dignitaries - in the Ruling Committee - to destroy Caodaism and its 5-layer hierarchy, and to turn Tay Ninh church into a sect.  The opponents also highlight their adherence to the Charter of 1965. The opponents of the government argue that the Cao Dai has been recognised in the way which is likely to lead the destruction of the religion.


In an unprecedented move on January 10, 1998 the Caodaists in Tay Ninh led by Archbishop Thai The Thanh and Archbishop Thuong Nha Thanh sent a letter of protest to Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. The signatories - the total of more than 2,000 dignitaries and adherents in Tay Ninh - demanded to halt intervention of the authorities into the affairs of Tay Ninh church, and restore Hoi Thanh or the Sacerdotal Body. Furthermore, the Caodaist activists worldwide have set up the US-based Caodai Overseas Missionary so as to lobby for their cause internationally.


It should be pointed out that they have a good point - by restricting and banning some Caodaist practices (spiritist seances, inauguration of dignitaries, etc) in Vietnam, the Communist authorities therefore restrict religious freedom of the overseas Caodaists - in the US, Canada, Australia, etc.


In July 1998, the Communist Party Politburo issued its first directive on religion, stating that the party’s policy is to respect religious freedom, but to ban “superstitious practices.” The directive does not, however, define “superstitious practices.” It also prohibits the printing and distribution of Bibles, bans “excessive mobilization of the population,” and threatens legal repercussions against those who abuse religion to cause social unrest or oppose the government.  A new decree on religion also warns of punishments for those who misuse (loi dung) religion to harm the state. The decree, which was issued by the government on April 19, 1999 and came into force on May 4, also states that religious property and lands once handed to the government now belong to the State.


However, it turned out that “delicate” questions are not even asked in the SRV, let alone answered. The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Abdelfattah Amor, visited Vietnam October 19-28, 1998 and complained he was hindered and obstructed from meeting people from non-state sanctioned religious groups - a charge denied by Hanoi. Among the difficult issues which the Rapporteur raised were the limits to the freedom of worship outside state-approved religious organizations.


Abdelfattah Amor’s visit to Tay Ninh Holy See on October 27, 1998 took just one hour - he met up with “state-run” Ruling Committee officials, and Bishop Tam told him that relations with the authorities were good and some dignitaries were arrested because they allegedly violated the laws. In the meantime, Mr Amor did not have an opportunity to meet dignitaries, opposing the Ruling Committee.


On March 16, 1999 Abdelfattah Amor released his report on the situation in Vietnam, arguing that all of the religious communities there were prevented from conducting activities freely. “Religion appears as an instrument of policy rather than a component of society, free to develop as it wishes, something which is ultimately contrary to freedom of religion or belief as governed by international law,” said Amor. He also argued that Vietnam’s Penal Code includes provisions used as major obstacles to the exercise of religious activities. Amor mentioned article 205 (a).  “Misuse of democratic rights aimed at undermining the interests of the State, social organizations or citizens: misuse of freedom of speech, the press and religion “.


Not surprisingly, on March 18, 1999 Hanoi said it would not welcome any foreign groups or individuals wanting to look into religious or human rights issues. “We will not accept any foreign individual or organization that wishes to travel to Vietnam to carry out investigations into religious or human rights issues,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Sy Vuong Ha said, responding to questions about the United Nations.  “Regrettably Mr Amor has released a report that is lacking objectivity and goodwill towards the religious situation in Vietnam, despite the fact that he was able to witness religious freedom,” Ha said.


Paradoxically, Hanoi’s concept of “misusing” the original teaching, the cornerstone of official policy concerning non-orthodox religious phenomena in modern Vietnam, sound very much like an ancient Confucian attitude. In traditional China the sectaries were blamed of “misusing” officially-sponsored teachings-giao so as to excite people and therefore to organize  rebellion. In modern Vietnam even minor deviations from officially recognized churches are considered to be ill-intended manipulations thus subject to crackdown. For instance, on April 17, 1997, the official VNA news agency covered a seminar on religion for high-ranking “cadres” in Lam Dong province - they were warned of dangers of “peaceful evolution and the attempts of hostile forces to misuse religion” in Vietnam. The possibility of sincere faith of the adepts was a priori excluded, and un-orthodox teachings were considered to be cover-up for politically motivated rebellious plans.


Thus, Vietnamese policy on religious matters generally reflects, on the one hand, a gradual improvement in religious freedom, but in very limited areas subject to restrictions and, on the other, the maintenance of restrictions and checks by authorities anxious to prevent the establishment of organizations capable of questioning their authority and influence.


Since Vietnam introduced a policy of openness in 1990, there have been some positive developments, Amor said. The government has moved away from an anti-religious policy towards the authorization, within a framework that is well defined by authorities, of religious practice and the building of places of worship.


It is understood that few countries treat their religious congregations as badly as Vietnam, partly because the Communist party fears possible competition - that vibrant religions may weaken its authority. The violations of freedom of religion also include the requirement that all religious activities be approved by the State, and restrictions on travel by religious leaders and the contents of their sermons and speeches. Though the religions are already experiencing something of a revival in recent years as heavy restrictions have been eased, but it will be years before they regain their former vibrancy. Years of suppression are readily apparent, especially in the largely geriatric religious hierarchy.


In summary, recently more liberal policy towards politico-religious movements of Southern Vietnam has been launched. The earlier repressive phase has been replaced by a more liberal recognition of the fact, that the religious element  of the movements can  not be so easily annihilated, as their administrative structures. During the recent years people were no longer discouraged from attending religious festivals.  But it  is too early to  depict  the changes as an acceptable modus vivendi, which has been arrived at between the Communist Party and the movements.


In conclusion, much of the 75-year history of the Cao Dai, the adepts of the new religion were to suffer persecution by different regimes: the French colonial administration, Ngo Dinh Diem’s government, the Communist authorities. This is why the Cao Dai used to have a background of living under stress - they have survived in the Communist Vietnam for some 25 years and they are likely to persist for some time.  However, it is clear that the Communist authorities in Hanoi have come up with the most consistent anti-Caodaist policies, designed to turn the religion into a loyal, pro-government body. This is why these days the Cao Dai very much need the support of the international community - otherwise, Caodaism could probably disappear as an independent religious movement within the next 10-20 years.