As you get off the boat at Phoenix Island in the heart of the Mekong Delta in Ben Tre, Vietnam, one of the first things you’ll notice is an oddly shaped structure with nine blue-hued pillars. Colourful dragons wind their way up six-metre columns capped by large lotus-like domes. Made from broken ceramic dishes, they are one of the few remnants of the Coconut Kingdom religion, which, at its peak during the Vietnam War, was reported to have had nearly 4,000 followers.
The structure was once a floating pagoda constructed by the followers of Nguyen Tranh Nam, a French-educated crucifix-wearing engineer who was said to have sustained himself solely on coconuts for three years. Known as the Coconut Monk, he ran unsuccessfully for election as President of South Vietnam in 1971.
After winning the war in 1975, the communist Vietnamese government sought to repress religion and religious practices in the reunified country
After winning the war in 1975, the communist Vietnamese government sought to repress religion and religious practices in the reunified country. Groups like Coconut Kingdom were banned. But policy could not overcome reality in a country whose citizens have shown willingness to embrace a range of religious and spiritual practices.
Today, Vietnam is open for business: although technically still a communist country, its leaders have introduced reforms aimed at attracting investment and foster further economic growth. But opening up has other effects, and foreign money isn’t the only thing flowing into Vietnam.
Various religious groups have jumped on the opportunity to make their presence felt in the nominally atheist country, sometimes placing the authorities in a conundrum. The Vietnamese government’s recent reaction towards a church from Korea highlights their uneasy relationship with religions and cults.
The World Mission Society Church of God
The World Mission Society Church of God (WMS) is a Christian sect that emerged out of a schism within a church founded by South Korean minister Anh Sahng-hong. According to its website, WMS has established over 2,500 churches in around 175 countries.
It doesn’t just recognise Anh as its founder; WMS believes that Anh is God himself. WMS’ website refers to Anh as “Second Coming Christ Anhsahnghong” and credits him with restoring “the truth of life”. Followers also believe in a matriarchal God, whom they call “God the Mother”. As with their belief in Anh, this mother figure it not just an abstract deity, but an actual woman, Jang Gil-ja.
While WMS has received some recognition internationally for its charitable work—in 2016, a group of volunteers from WMS won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in the United Kingdom—it has also been denounced by ex-followers as a “doomsday cult” that “isolates its acolytes from their families and friends by controlling information and using brainwashing techniques.”
While WMS has received some recognition internationally for its charitable work, it has also been denounced by ex-followers as a “doomsday cult”
According to a report by PEOPLE in the United States, the church sought out people who were “more psychologically vulnerable”, such as recently-returned army veterans. Former congregants also said that the church “worked to deliberately dissolve marriages between devoted members and their unconvinced partners”, and pressured women to get abortions as they believed that bringing more children into the world was “pointless and selfish.” While NBC also led its own investigation, the WMS faces no criminal charges in the U.S.
An uneasy relationship
WMS is far from the first outlandish religion (or cult) to emerge in Vietnam. In fact, the country has been home to a variety of spiritual practices, from major recognised faiths and traditional folk religions to outright bizarre beliefs.
Apart from the reign of “His Coconutship”, some Vietnamese have also worshipped a turtle god, and, before 1975, promoted polygamy as part of their faith. The third-largest religion in Vietnam, Cao Dai, identifies Confucius, Muhammad and Victor Hugo—yes, the author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame—as its holy prophets. In North Vietnam, a religion—with practices that involve fire, swords, liquor and showering worshippers with cash—known as Dao Mau or Mother Goddess worship, was banned until the early 2000s, but has since been recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Unable to completely stem the tide, yet wary of any organisation that could challenge its power, Vietnam’s communist government maintains a complicated relationship with religious groups. Although the Constitution officially recognises freedom of religion, the government exercises control over religious practices. Laws include broadly-worded provisions that allow for the restriction of religious freedom, supposedly for national security reasons.
Christianity, in particular, is politically sensitive. 8.5% of Vietnamese have declared themselves as Christian; while the vast majority are Catholics, Protestantism is on the rise. The strained relationship between Christianity and the government comes from the country’s own history.
Following the 1954 Geneva Accords, which split Vietnam in two, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese moved from the North to the South. This mass exodus was partly encouraged by a propaganda campaign covertly engineered by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), targeting the North’s anti-communist Catholics. At that time, most of the country’s Catholics lived in North Vietnam; entire Catholic communities packed up and fled South during the US-managed Operation Passage to Freedom. In the South, Catholic refugees were given preferential treatment under Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, himself a member of the faith.
Christians were continually persecuted during and after the Vietnam War. Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan, Diem’s nephew, was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon less than a week before the end of the War in 1975; after the Communist government swept into Saigon, he spent thirteen years in Communist re-education camps, nine of them in solitary confinement. Various Christian sects also have long records of persecution; even after the government allowed Christian groups to fully return to the country in 2003, the tension persists.
Clamping down on WMS
As one of the newer Protestant sects in Vietnam—WMS is believed to have first gained a foothold in the northern port city of Hai Phong in 2016—WMS has attracted public attention after a number of YouTube videos featuring members of Hanoi’s WMS chapter circulated online. One video shows a man proselytising on Hanoi college campus, exhorting other students to abandon fake idols and prepare for Armageddon. Another video shows a young girl, apparently in a prayer-induced reverie, crying out for God to save her for nearly six minutes. At one point in the video, a passerby with an umbrella tries to shield her from the rain; she pushes him away.
On 21 April 2018, Religious Affairs Committee Chairman Vu Chien Thang released a public statement warning citizens, especially students, to be aware of WMS. Thang stated that the group had been operating in Vietnam for close to two years without official recognition.
The committee chairman’s announcement prompted the state-controlled mainstream media to begin lambasting WMS, publishing allegations made by former church members and accounts of individual experiences with the church.
News videos circulating online show church services with veiled women, believers prostrating themselves in prayer, or even crawling on the ground as they claim to be filled with a spirit. Still others show purported followers smashing traditional Buddhist statues. Relatives tell of losing loved ones to WMS control. Like some other religious organisations, WMS tells its followers to give 10% of their income to the church.
A Catholic, interviewed by New Naratif on condition of anonymity, pointed to Nguyen Van Hoa, one of the WMS founders in Ho Chi Minh City, as the individual “who forced my parents to return home and smash Jesus’ photos, and remove our ancestor altar table. [Hoa] told them that our ancestors, or even my siblings and I, are all demons.”
He is now a little estranged from his parents, and laments that he no longer sees them: “Now I can only call my father on the phone.”
The media campaign reached its peak on 7 May when the mainstream newspaper Tuoi Tre reported that the government had labelled WMS as a “heresy” of “real Christianity”; the official statement claimed that WMS “did not conform to existing catechism.” The authorities later seized WMS property and assets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This is the first known case—since the 1981 consolidation of Buddhist organisations and the banning of the politically oriented Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam—of the Vietnamese government trying to completely wipe out a religious organisation.
By taking it upon themselves to decide whether a religious group is or isn’t conforming to catechism, the government is effectively dictating what the accepted “true word of God” is
The government’s reference to catechism is key. A catechism is a church-manifested document delineating the faith’s doctrines and principles. By taking it upon themselves to decide—in both official channels and the media—whether a religious group is or isn’t conforming to catechism, the government is effectively dictating what the accepted “true word of God” is, and who is or isn’t a Christian.
These moves highlight the control that the government can exercise over religious groups, particularly unregistered ones. “Members of unregistered Christian, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and other groups… face regular arrests and harassment from local and provincial authorities, and dozens of people are believed to be behind bars in connection with their religious beliefs,” says Freedom House in its 2018 Freedom in the World report on Vietnam.
Even registered groups can run into sticky situations. A 2013 Catholic Ecumenical News article reported that “the situation in Vietnam in recent years for Catholics and other Christians has deteriorated.” The Church, since at least 2012, has regularly aided Vietnamese activists and other convicted for political dissent. In 2014 and 2016, the Church held prayer vigils for land rights activist Can Thi Theu, days before her separate convictions and sentencing for dissent. Catholics claim to regularly face small, aggressive encounters with the police and other officials, and are prohibited from holding posts in the military, police or other “sensitive” government positions.
Despite this, many leaders of the Vietnamese Catholic Church say the congregation is growing. Father Joachim Hien, ordained in Vietnam in 1974 and now retired, toldCatholic World Report that the country’s churches are “prosperous and packed”. But there’s still a red line that can’t be crossed. Although Father Hien said that there’s now more space for priests to criticise communism, he added, “just as long as they don’t try to stir up any [organised] revolt”—a fairly expansive caveat in a country known to brand activists as “reactionaries” and accuse them of attempting to overthrow the government.
Responses in Vietnam
The unequivocal response to WMS has people wondering about the government’s motives, and whether this could mark another tightening of control over religion, especially Christianity. How do the authorities determine whether a religious sect conforms to “existing catechism”?
It’s an issue that points to further questions over the process and criteria used to distinguish between legitimate worship and “heresy”. Take, for instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), which claims more than millions of followers globally.
The LDS Church, whose followers are called Mormons, was branded by critics as a cult in much of its early history. Leaders of fundamentalist Mormon offshoots have been indicted in the US in 2017 for organising sexual religious rituals with underage girls. But Vietnam’s Government Committee for Religious Affairs granted the Mormons official status in June 2016; two years later, it claims that WMS’ teachings is “heresy” and that it’s breaking a loosely-worded prohibition on “unsanctioned religious activities.”
Still, some practices are hard to defend, and there’s a rational basis for government intervention if WMS was engaged in coercion and abuse in Vietnam. On the same day Hanoi seized WMS assets and detained Hoa, a state-run newspaper reported(link in Vietnamese) that relatives of WMS adherents told police that that WMS worship includes drinking a “sacred liquid” with allegedly psychoactive properties. While the police did confiscate several bottles of liquid and vials from WMS properties, there has been no further public update on what the substances were. The police also confiscated hundreds of marijuana plants allegedly owned by one of the adherents; they claim that the “missionary” of WMS, Do Xuan Hieu, would “lure potential converts back home to take drugs.”
But not everyone in Vietnam agrees with the clampdown. Pastor Le Minh Dat of the evangelical Vietnam Agape Outreach Church told the BBC that the WMS should be viewed as a normal religion and that people “have the freedom to choose their faith in accordance with the law.” He criticised the government for making claims about “heresy” or catechism, which he sees as being the church’s territory.
The unequivocal response to WMS has people wondering about the government’s motives, and whether this could mark another tightening of control over religion, especially Christianity
The government’s actions have also triggered alarm bells. Redemptorist priest Father Le Ngoc Thanh reported to Catholic Press Agency Asianews.it that “he was afraid that the propaganda campaign against the World Mission Society Church of God was designed to create tensions between religious and non-religious people”, and that the WMS crackdown is simply the Vietnamese government getting a feel for whether it could get away with grabbing assets, including prime land, from Christian groups.
Other Christian religious leaders have been more circumspect in their comments, preferring to draw a clear line between the WMS and their own practice. “I have nothing to do with them, I cannot comment on, nor evaluate their activities,” says Father Tran Nguyen Duy Thang of the Catholic Church of God in Ho Chi Minh City.
Still, he added that—if allegations of WMS forcing members to abandon their loved ones are true—their actions were “not true of what our Catholics do, not exactly what is taught in the Bible to love, forgive and support.”
When contacted, the Archdiocese in Hanoi declined to respond.
This matter is by no means confined to just Vietnam; many religious practices and beliefs around the world have been controversial or potentially illegal, prompting state intervention or judicial action. But Vietnam’s tense relationship with religion, and Christianity in particular, provides a backdrop that makes the implications of such regulation more fraught than in other contexts.
No criminal charges have been filed against WMS or its leaders thus far. Nguyen Van Hoa has been publicly silent after a solitary interview(link in Vietnamese) professing his innocence. The government has de-legitimised the WMS officially and socially; years’ worth of content has been wiped from the Vietnamese WMS Facebook page, which suggests that the government has seized the page.
The Vietnamese government could be heading in a couple directions. The first matches its official justification for intervention: protecting the general welfare (albeit through autocratic methods) of the people in lieu of a proper legal framework on psychological coercion. The second is the one that’s keeping some of the religious up at night: a fresh crackdown.
Perhaps these two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive; if a problematic sect like WMS is behaving badly in Vietnam, it could provide the government the excuse it needs to overturn the existing, shaky balance of religious freedom.
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Michael McLaughlin is a producer, writer and educational/business consultant in Hanoi. Before coming back to what began as a 2004 flirt with Vietnam, Michael produced urban and design planning videos and wore many hats in documentary distribution for Gathr Films.