The earliest established religions in Vietnam are Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism (called the triple religion or tam giáo). Significant minorities of adherents to Roman Catholicism, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao and smaller minorities of adherents to Hinduism, Islam, Protestantism and Theravada Buddhism exist.
The majority of Vietnamese people classify themselves as non-religious, although they visit religious temples several times every year. Their everyday behaviours and attitudes are dictated by the synthesis of philosophies which can be traced from many religions, especially Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Those religions have been co-existing in the country for centuries and mixed perfectly with the Vietnamese tradition of worshiping their ancestors and national heroes. That special mix explains why the people there find it hard to say exactly which religion they belong to.
Mahayana Buddhism is the largest religion in Vietnam. There is a significant minority of Catholic Christians. Other religions include Protestant Christianity, Theravada Buddhism, Islam, Hoa Hao, and the syncretic Cao Dai religion. Many citizens consider themselves non-religious, although they may practice traditional beliefs such as veneration of ancestors and national heroes. Ethnic minorities historically practice different traditional beliefs than those of the ethnic majority Kinh. Many ethnic minorities, particularly among the H’mong, Zao, and Jarai groups in the Northwest and Central Highlands, have converted to Protestantism.
Undeclared missionaries from several countries are active in the country. Foreign missionaries legally are not permitted to proselytize or perform religious activities.
The following is from Vietnam: Law and Religion Framework Overview (August 2010)
Vietnamese law provides some protection for freedom of religious belief, within the context of state regulation. The Vietnamese government is primarily concerned with preventing the use of religion as a tool for political subversion. Consequently, freedom of religion is often stated as a core principle, but that freedom is subject to broad and often vaguely worded restrictions and limitations. For example, Article 70 of the Constitution states:
The last provision has proven most problematic to those who desire increased religious freedoms in Vietnam. This provision functions in concert with other provisions of law to regulate and limit religious expression. For example, Article 74 of the Constitution states, “All acts violating the interests of the State, the rights and legitimate interests of collectives and citizens shall be dealt with severely in time.”
Article 112 of the Constitution indicates that the government has the specific responsibility to implement “policies on religion.” Utilizing this power, the Vietnamese government has promulgated ordinances specifically outlining the rights and responsibilities of religious organizations. The most notable and recent is the 2004 Ordinance on Belief and Religion (“2004 Ordinance”).
Like the Constitution, Article 1 of the 2004 Ordinance guarantees the right to freedom of belief and religion within a framework of state regulation, while other articles can be used to severely limit the exercise of that freedom. For example, Article 8, section 2 reads:
Also, Article 15 reads:
These Articles reflect the concern of many government officials who fear the use of religion as a politically subversive force. The regulations are broadly worded and as a result can be construed very differently depending on the goals of the government officials who enforce them.
Overall, despite the apparent recognition of religious liberty, the Constitution and 2004 Ordinance allow for a great deal of discretion in protecting that professed freedom. The significance of the protections and restrictions on religious liberty is based, not in the laws themselves, but in their enforcement.
Religious Policy Making
As expected in a Communist country, policy decisions begin with the Vietnamese Communist Party (“Party”). The Party has a centralized, national organization which is replicated at each level of government. Thus, the structure of the Party organization at the provincial level is very similar to the structure of the Party at the national level. Similar to the Party, the government structure at the national level is replicated at lower levels. While the Party and government at the national level create the policy, there is still a great deal of discretion at the provincial level which can have a large impact on religious activities.
a. National Level Policy Making
At the national level, the Central Committee is the key decision making body within the Party. The Central Committee is made up of the General Secretary, the 14 member Politburo, and the Secretariat. The Politburo determines government policies while the Secretariat handles administrative affairs.
Within the Party, the Mass Mobilization Commission (“MMC”) institutes policy on religion and all other mass organizations. The MMC will issue resolutions of general policy goals to guide lawmakers. The MMC functions as a subsidiary commission of the Central Committee of the Party. The Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences provides a special advisor to the MMC to aid them in policy making.
Once the decisions are made by the MMC, the National Assembly and the Prime Minister implement Party resolutions on religion. After the Party issues a resolution giving the broad areas of guidance on religion, the National Assembly turns them into an ordinance. Nearly all of the members of the National Assembly are members of the Communist Party. As a result, the National Assembly has largely endorsed the Party policy. Once the National Assembly passes an ordinance, the Prime Minister issues Implementing Decrees to address any other important issues that do not necessitate a formal change in the ordinance itself.
In addition to the National Assembly and Prime Minister, the Party also uses the Vietnam Fatherland Front (“VFF”) to implement policy. The VFF is an arm of the Party that is charged with coordinating and managing mass organizations, such as the Women’s Union, Farmer’s Association, and religious groups. The VFF works with churches to ensure compliance with Party policies on religion. There is much formal deference given to the VFF in the Vietnamese Constitution and the 2004 Ordinance. For example, Article 9 of the Constitution of Vietnam states:
However, in practice the VFF does not make any decisions independent of the Party. This does not mean that the VFF is unimportant. The 2004 Ordinance clarifies the role of the VFF in Article 7, Section 1, which reads:
While the VFF does not have a formal policy making role in government, the authority and responsibilities of the organization allow the VFF to substantially influence the way religious activities are perceived by the decision makers in the Party. It is generally understood that a candidate for political office must be endorsed by the VFF — currently all 493 members of the National Assembly are members of the VFF.
Additionally, the VFF has the formal right to comment on all draft legislation, giving them a significant voice on religious policy. In constructing comments on policy, the VFF Central Committee relies on a board of seven Advisory Councils, including an Advisory Council on Religious Organizations. The Advisory Council on Religious Organizations is made up of prominent religious leaders, government officials and members of the academic community.
The VFF also coordinates humanitarian and development efforts within Vietnam, including the efforts of religious groups. However, the efforts of Foreign NGO’s are primarily coordinated through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Foreign NGO’s must work through the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations (VUFO). The VUFO is charged with coordinating and monitoring the activities of Foreign NGO’s. While the VUFO is nominally tied to the VFF, it primarily functions as part of the MFA due to the international character of its mission. The VUFO also acts at the standing body of the Government Committee for Foreign NGO Affairs, commonly referred to as COMINGO. COMINGO is responsible for enforcing government regulations on NGO activity by determining whether to issue a permit for operations or to establish offices. This committee reports directly to the Prime Minister. Within the VUFO, the People’s Aid Coordinating Committee (PACCOM) is the functional body which acts as the focal point for government relations with international NGO’s. PACCOM acts as a liaison between the NGO and any government office which may need to be involved. Also, PACCOM provides assistance to COMINGO regarding the issuing of permits.
In addition to the VFF and its subsidiary organizations, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (“CRA”) is in charge of implementing all religious policy in Vietnam and recommending policy changes to the Prime Minister. In particular, the CRA is charged with approving licenses for religious organizations to operate in multiple provinces. This is explained in Article 19 of the 2004 Ordinance, which reads:
The approval of a license to operate in multiple provinces is the most important responsibility of the CRA. The denial of a license can be an easy way for the government to control the development of a specific religious community. The CRA is officially under the Ministry of Home Affairs, but the Chairman of the CRA reports directly to the Prime Minister, so it is essentially a Minister level post.
In addition to the CRA, the Ministry of Public Security (“MPS”) exerts a great deal of influence on numerous interagency decisions, including the approval of religious activity at the national and provincial level. Within the MPS there is a Bureau of Religious Affairs and a division of special police for religion and political dissidents, which ensures that churches are trying to obey the law. Their primary concern regarding religion is to prevent churches from becoming a politically subversive force.
b. Provincial Level Policy Making
In addition to the national government apparatus, provinces play a key role in implementing government regulations on religion. The decision making process at the provincial level is very similar to the process in the national government. Within the Provincial government, the elected People’s Council is the legislative arm and is tasked with implementing policy to support the laws passed by the national government. A standing committee of the People’s Council, called the People’s Committee, is the executive arm of the provincial government. Many of the national organizations or the Party and the Government are replicated at the provincial level, including the MMC, VFF, CRA, the Bureau of Religious Affairs, and offices for each national ministry.
These local offices of national organizations are subject to a dual hierarchy of authority. There is horizontal authority exerted by the offices within the province, like the People’s Committee, and also vertical authority exerted by the national counterpart of the provincial office. Although, the amount of influence the national office has will vary depending on the importance of the national office, and the accessibility of the province to national officials.
In many ways, provinces function like fiefdoms of local officials—some more so than others. Generally, the less accessible a province is from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, the less regulated the affairs of provincial government become. The central government has tried to bring provincial leaders into alignment at times with training and directives, but in the end provincial officials have a lot of discretion in how they run their provinces. Unless the provincial officials are causing problems for the national government, they are largely left alone.
One of the primary ways the provincial government can affect religious activity is through the issue or denial of a permit for a religion to operate within a province. According to Article 16 of the 2004 Ordinance, “The Chairman of the People’s Committee of a province or a city under central authority shall recognize a religious organization operating mainly within that province or city.”
Traditionally, if a church applies for a provincial permit, the provincial CRA, within the Interior Department of the People’s Committee, will examine their application and make a recommendation to the People’s Committee. Traditionally, the provincial CRA will solicit the input of the central CRA, but the provincial CRA is not bound to abide by the central CRA’s recommendation. If the People’s Committee decides to approve the application then it issues a permit for activities within the province. As with the central government, the denial of permits provides a simple way to curtail the development of specific religious communities.
While the provincial government has much less legal authority than the national government, they can exert a great deal of control over the religious affairs of the province. This can also be helpful to religions that may not be able to get national approval, because it does not automatically prevent them from operating within a single province.