U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2005 - Vietnam
* Copyright notice: The copyright for this document rests with the U.S. Department of State.
Table of Contents
Covers the period from July 1, 2004, to June 30, 2005
Both the Constitution and law provide for freedom of worship; however, the Government continued to restrict organized activities of religious groups that it declared to be at variance with state laws and policies. The Government generally allowed persons to practice individual worship in the religion of their choice, but the country's legal framework governing religion requires that the organization and activities of all religious denominations be officially sanctioned by the Government.
Respect for religious freedom improved during the period covered by this report; however, a number of positive legal reforms remained in the initial stages of implementation. During the period covered by this report, the Government released a number of religious prisoners, facilitated a long-delayed national convention by one of the country's Protestant organizations, allowed the opening of a new training class for Protestant pastors, and introduced several new, less restrictive legal documents governing religion. In November 2004, the Ordinance on Religion and Belief went into effect and now serves as the primary document governing religious practice. In February 2005, the Prime Minister issued an "Instruction on Protestantism" that directed officials to assist unrecognized religious denominations in registering their activities so that they can practice openly. In March 2005, the implementation decree (number 22) for the new Ordinance on Religion established guidelines for religious denominations to register their activities and seek official recognition.
Participation in religious activities throughout the country continued to grow, and believers in the Central and Northwest Highlands reported improvements in their situation. However, restrictions on the hierarchies and clergy of religious groups remained in place, and the Government maintained a role supervising recognized religions. Religious figures encountered the greatest restrictions when they engaged in activities that the Government perceived as political activism or a challenge to its rule. Official oversight of recognized religions and harassment or repression of followers of nonrecognized religions varied from locality to locality, often as a result of ignorance of national policy or varying local interpretations of it. Many of the hundreds of Protestant house churches in the Central Highlands that had been ordered to shut down in 2001 were able quietly to resume operations, although most had not yet sought or received official registration. Local officials in Dak Lak continued to block the opening and operation of house churches in that province. There were reports that officials pressured ethnic minority Protestants to recant their faith, but the frequency of such reports was less than in previous years. According to credible reports, the police arbitrarily detained and sometimes beat religious believers, particularly in the mountainous ethnic minority areas. The Government denied these allegations. The estimated number of prisoners and detainees held for religious reasons was at least 6, with a minimum of 15 more suffering various levels of restrictions on their activities including effective house arrest in some cases.
The relationship among religions in society generally was amicable. In various parts of the country, there were modest levels of interfaith cooperation and dialogue. Religious figures from most major recognized religions participated in official bodies such as the Vietnam Fatherland Front and the National Assembly.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City maintained an active and regular dialogue with senior and working-level government officials to advocate greater religious freedom. The U.S. Ambassador and other U.S. officials, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, raised concerns about the registration and recognition difficulties faced by religious organizations, the detention and arrest of religious figures, the repression of Protestants in the Central and Northwest Highlands, and other restrictions on religious freedom with the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, government cabinet ministers, Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) leaders, provincial officials, and others.
In September 2004, the Secretary of State designated Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. In May 2005, the United States and Vietnam concluded an agreement in which the Government set forth a number of commitments to advance and protect religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an area of approximately 127,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 83 million. The Government officially recognizes one Buddhist organization (Buddhists make up approximately 50 percent of the population), the Roman Catholic Church (8 to 10 percent of the population), several Cao Dai organizations (1.5 to 3 percent of the population), one Hoa Hao organization (1.5 to 4 percent of the population), two Protestant organizations (.5 to 2 percent of the population), and one Muslim organization (0.1 percent of the population). Many believers belong to organizations that are not officially recognized by the Government. Most other Vietnamese citizens consider themselves nonreligious, although many practice traditional beliefs such as veneration of ancestors and national heroes.
Among the country's religious communities, Buddhism is the dominant religious belief. Many Buddhists practice an amalgam of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucian traditions that sometimes is called the country's "triple religion." Some estimates suggest that more than half of the population is at least nominally Buddhist. The Office of Religious Affairs uses a much lower estimate of 12 percent (10 million) practicing Buddhists. Buddhists typically visit pagodas on festival days and have a worldview that is shaped in part by Buddhism, but in reality these beliefs often rely on a very expansive definition of the faith. Many individuals, especially among the ethnic majority Kinh, who may not consider themselves Buddhist, nonetheless follow traditional Confucian and Taoist practices and often visit Buddhist temples. One prominent Buddhist official has estimated that approximately 30 percent of Buddhists are devout and practice their faith regularly. Mahayana Buddhists, most of whom are part of the ethnic Kinh majority, are found throughout the country, especially in the populous areas of the northern and southern delta regions. There are proportionately fewer Buddhists in certain highland areas, although migration of Kinh to these areas is changing the distribution somewhat. A Khmer ethnic minority in the south practices Theravada Buddhism. Numbering just over 1 million persons, they live almost exclusively in the Mekong Delta.
There are an estimated 6 to 8 million Roman Catholics in the country, although official government statistics put the number at 5,570,000. French missionaries introduced Catholicism in the 17th century. In the 1940s, priests in the large Catholic dioceses of Phat Diem and Bui Chu, to the southeast of Hanoi, organized a political association with a militia that fought against the Communist guerrillas until defeated in 1954. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics from the northern part of the country fled to Saigon and the surrounding areas ahead of the 1954 partition of North and South. Catholics live throughout the country, but the largest concentrations remain in the southern provinces around Ho Chi Minh City, in parts of the Central Highlands and in the provinces southeast of Hanoi. Catholicism has revived in many areas, with newly rebuilt or renovated churches in recent years and growing numbers of persons who want to be religious workers. The proportion of Catholics in the population of some provinces appears to be increasing modestly.
Estimates of the number of Protestants in the country range from the official government figure of 500,000 to claims by churches of 1,600,000 or more. Protestantism in the country dates from 1911, when a Canadian evangelist from the Christian and Missionary Alliance arrived in Danang. The two official recognized Protestant churches are the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV), recognized in 2001, and the much smaller Evangelical Church of Vietnam: North (ECVN), recognized since 1963. The SECV has affiliated churches in all of the southern provinces of the country. The ECVN has 15 approved churches in the northern part of the country. The ECVN also has issued papers of affiliation to over 800 ethnic-minority house churches in the northern and northwestern mountainous regions, although it has not formally applied for official registration of any of these. There are estimates that the growth of Protestant believers has been as much as 600 percent over the past decade, despite government restrictions on proselytizing activities. Many of these persons belong to unregistered evangelical house churches. Based on believers' estimates, two-thirds of Protestants are members of ethnic minorities, including Hmong, Thai, and other minority groups in the Northwest Highlands, and members of ethnic minority groups of the Central Highlands (Ede, Jarai, Bahnar, and Koho, among others). The house church movement in the Northwest was sparked in part by Hmong language radio broadcasts from the Philippines beginning in the late 1980s. In more recent years, missionaries, mostly ethnic Hmong, have increased evangelism in the area.
The Cao Dai religion was founded in 1926 in the southern part of the country. Official government statistics put the number of Cao Dai at 2.4 million, although Cao Dai officials routinely claim as many as 4 million adherents. Cao Dai groups are most active in Tay Ninh Province, where the Cao Dai "Holy See" is located, and in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta. There are 13 separate groups within the Cao Dai religion; the largest is the Tay Ninh sect, which represents more than half of all Cao Dai believers. The Cao Dai religion is syncretistic, combining elements of many faiths. Its basic belief system is influenced strongly by Mahayana Buddhism, although it recognizes a diverse array of persons who have conveyed divine revelation, including Siddhartha, Jesus, Lao-Tse, Confucius, and Moses. During the 1940s and 1950s, the Cao Dai participated in political and military activities. Their opposition to the communist forces until 1975 was a factor in their repression after 1975. A small Cao Dai organization, the Thien Tien branch, was formally recognized in 1995. The Tay Ninh Cao Dai branch was granted legal recognition in 1997.
The Hoa Hao branch of Buddhism was founded in the southern part of the country in 1939. Hoa Hao is largely a quietist faith, emphasizing private acts of worship and devotion; it does not have a priesthood and rejects many of the ceremonial aspects of mainstream Buddhism. According to the Government, there are 1.6 million Hoa Hao followers; affiliated expatriate groups estimate that there may be up to 3 million followers. Hoa Hao followers are concentrated in the Mekong Delta, particularly in provinces such as An Giang, where the Hoa Hao were dominant as a political and military as well as a religious force before 1975. Elements of the Hoa Hao were among the last to surrender to communist forces in the Mekong Delta in the summer of 1975. The government-recognized Hoa Hao Administrative Committee was organized in 1999. Many Hoa Hao follow other sects that do not have official recognition.
Mosques serving the country's small Muslim population, estimated at 65,000 persons, operate in western An Giang Province, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and provinces in the southern coastal part of the country. The Muslim community is composed mainly of ethnic Cham, although in Ho Chi Minh City and An Giang Province it includes some ethnic Vietnamese and migrants originally from Malaysia, Indonesia, and India. Approximately half of the Muslims in the country practice Sunni Islam. Sunni Muslims are concentrated in five locations around the country. An estimated 15,000 live in Tan Chau district of western An Giang Province, which borders Cambodia. Nearly 3,000 live in western Tay Ninh Province, which also borders Cambodia. More than 5,000 Muslims reside in Ho Chi Minh City, with 2,000 residing in neighboring Dong Nai Province. Another 5,000 live in the south central coastal provinces of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan. Approximately 50 percent of Muslims practice Bani Islam, a type of Islam unique to the ethnic Cham who live on the central coast of the country. Bani clerics fast during Ramadan; ordinary Bani followers do not. The Bani Qur'an is an abridged version of approximately 20 pages, written in the Cham language. The Bani also continue to participate in certain traditional Cham festivals, which include prayers to Hindu gods and traditional Cham "mother goddesses." Both groups of Muslims appear to be on cordial terms with the Government and are able to practice their faith freely. They have limited contact with Muslims in foreign countries, such as Malaysia.
There are several smaller religious communities not recognized by the Government, the largest of which is the Hindu community. Approximately 50,000 ethnic Cham in the south-central coastal area practice a devotional form of Hinduism. Another 4,000 Hindus live in Ho Chi Minh City; some are ethnic Cham but most are Indian or of mixed Indian-Vietnamese descent.
There are an estimated 6,000 members of the Baha'i Faith, largely concentrated in the south. Prior to 1975, there were an estimated 200,000 believers, according to Baha'i officials. Open Baha'i practice was banned from 1975 to 1992, and the number of believers dropped sharply during this time. Since 1992, the Baha'i have met in unofficial meeting halls. Community leaders say they have good relations with authorities. Some Baha'i members in Ho Chi Minh City were allowed to hold a quiet ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Baha'i Faith in the country in May 2004.
There are several hundred members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) who are spread throughout the country but live primarily in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Some are pre-1975 converts, while others became Mormons while living abroad.
At least 10 active but unofficially unrecognized congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses, with several hundred members, are present in the country. Most of the congregations are in the south, with five in Ho Chi Minh City.
Of the country's approximately 83 million citizens, 14 million or more reportedly do not practice any organized religion. Some sources strictly define those considered to be practicing Buddhists, excluding those whose activities are limited to visiting pagodas on ceremonial holidays. Using this definition, the number of nonreligious persons would be much higher, perhaps as high as 50 million. No statistics are available on the level of participation in formal religious services, but it generally is acknowledged that this number has continued to increase from the early 1990s.
Ethnic minorities constitute approximately 14 percent of the overall population. The minorities historically have practiced sets of traditional beliefs different from those of the ethnic majority Kinh. Many ethnic minorities have converted to Catholicism or Protestantism.
Foreign missionaries legally are not permitted to proselytize or perform religious activities. Undeclared missionaries from several countries are active in the country.