Government committee for religious affairs religion and policies regarding religion in vietnam

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HÀ NỘI - 2006


Vietnam is a multi-ethnic and multi-religion nation that treasures a history of several thousand years and a rich cultural heritage. Like many other countries in the world, Vietnam has many ethnic groups. Each of the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam has beliefs and religions that are embedded in that group’s particular economics, culture, and social life.

To ensure the right to freedom of belief and religion for citizens, the first Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1946) and the current Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam have consistently affirmed the right to “freedom of belief and religion” as a fundamental right of human beings. In Vietnam, there is no discrimination based on belief or religion; followers of different religions live harmoniously in the national community of Vietnam.

The documents of the 10th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam set forth: “Compatriots of different religions constitute an all-important component of the country’s larger national unity. The Party will consistently implement its policy of respecting and guaranteeing the citizens’ right to enjoy freedom of belief, to follow or not to follow a religion, and to engage in normal religious practices as stipulated by the law". These documents also reaffirm the need to prevent superstitious activities and abuses of belief and religion that harm the country's common interests and encroach upon the citizens’ right to religious freedom.

The State of Vietnam is committed to respecting and safeguarding the citizens’ effective right to freedom of belief and religion, and at the same time constantly improves the legal system related to belief and religion to meet the citizens’ basic spiritual and religious needs while simultaneously promoting the strength and great unity of the entire nation and building the country so that Vietnam becomes increasingly more developed, democratic, equitable, and cultured.

However, both inside and outside of the country, because of inadequate information and certain prejudices, there are those who do not yet have a complete and accurate understanding of the situation of religion and the State’s policies on religion in Vietnam. The Government Committee for Religious Affairs is pleased to introduce this book, "Religion and Policies Regarding Religion in Vietnam", in order to help readers, researchers, and those interested inside and outside of the country so that they have a clearer understanding about the situation of religion in Vietnam and about the Vietnamese State’s policies on religion.



1. Overview of Beliefs and Religions in Vietnam

Vietnam, which is situated in Southeast Asia, has a rich cultural heritage and a history of several thousand years building and defending the nation. There are 54 ethnic groups living in Vietnam. These groups have different traditional cultures, and religions and beliefs that are imbued with their respective ethnic characteristics. Each group has its own culture within Vietnam’s community of ethnic groups, yet all these ethnic groups share a common practice of polytheistic worship.

Buddhism arrived in Vietnam by sea routes from India and land routes from China almost two thousand years ago, the Vietnamese subconsciously combined Buddhism with their own indigenous religions and beliefs to create Man Nương Mother Buddha and pagodas honoring the Four Goddesses (the Goddesses of Clouds, Rain, Thunder, and Lightning). The worship of the Four Goddesses became an indigenous religion, with Buddhism integrated into elements of the Vietnamese people’s early beliefs, i.e., the worship of goddesses of agriculture and reverence for natural phenomena, such as clouds, rain, thunder, and lightning.

Since the tenth century, polytheism and the smooth combination of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism came into a religion that came to be called the “three religions from the same source” or “three religions deserving the same honor”. This three-religion construct became a spiritual system bearing the deep Vietnamese national imprint.

In the fifteenth century, the Lê Dynasty ascended to the throne and replaced Buddhism with Confucianism as the moral mainstay of society. Thus, the village communal house replaced the pagoda as the center of village life. In every village in every area, the people chose for themselves a tutelary saint to honor. This tutelary God is not necessarily a person of high position, great merits, or with impressive stature but, rather, is a person who is highly respected by the people and may bless the villagers and give them protection. The worship of tutelary Gods was and is an eclectic fusion between the new beliefs and the Vietnamese people’s long-standing deep-seated tradition of worshipping ancestors.

Catholicism entered Vietnam in the sixteenth century, introducing Vietnamese to a monotheistic religion. For several centuries, the Vietnamese Catholic followers with their belief in a Christian God had to renounce their old beliefs and practices, including worship of their own ancestors. Only in the beginning of the 1970s did the tradition of ancestor worship return to Vietnamese Catholics.

Thus, the structural system of religions and beliefs of the Vietnamese people takes its source from different religions and beliefs. These include: Indigenous beliefs and polytheism; exogenous religions (i.e., religions that arose in other countries and subsequently were introduced into Vietnam, such as Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, etc.); native religions (i.e., religions arising in Vietnam, such as Cao đài, Hòa Hảo Buddhism, Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa, etc.); and new religious phenomena. Exogenous religions entering Vietnam have adapted to the cultural and religious complexions of the Vietnamese people. As a result, they have transformed from their original form; in other words, once these exogenous religions entered Vietnam, they were assimilated by Vietnamese culture.

Whether following exogenous or native religions, Vietnamese believers in general are influenced by polytheism, by a spirit of religious tolerance and of nationalism. Patriotism is a valued tradition of religious followers as well as of the vast majority of religious leaders in Vietnam. More than anyone else, Vietnamese religious believers understand that religious freedom can exist only when the Homeland is independent.

As residents of a multi-religion country, Vietnamese religious followers as the whole are devoted to the nation while at the same time taking active part in social and cultural life, thus contributing to Vietnam’s rich, diverse, and distinctive culture. Vietnam is of tolerance and moderation country in terms of inter-religious relations and has a tradition of religious unity and of national unity in the defence and building up of the nation. The peaceful co-existence and tolerance among different religions together with the compassionate and humane nature of the Vietnamese people and their society create a lively picture of beliefs and religions living together in Vietnam: singular yet various, intermingling yet without discord. In particular, in Vietnam today, the harmony between religions and the State is quite apparent. Thus, conflicts between religions have not occurred in Vietnam. Overall national unity, including unity among religions, is the country’s source of strength and the decisive factor that ensured victory in the cause of defending and building the Homeland.

2. Religions in Vietnam

2.1. Buddhism

Buddhism was brought to Vietnam about two thousand years ago. Luy Lâu (now in the Thuận Thành District, Bắc Ninh province in Northern Vietnam) soon became a large and flourishing center for Buddhism.

Buddhism first reached Vietnam from India by sea. Monks from India and Central Asia visited Vietnam along with traders. Those who engaged in missionary work include Mahajivaka and K’sudra at the end of the second century A.D., Khương Tăng Hội and Chi Lương Cương (Kalyana – Siva) in the middle of the third century A.D., and then Dharmadeva in the fourth century A.D..

From the fifth to the tenth century, due to historical circumstance, Chinese Buddhism began gradually to influence Buddhism in Vietnam. From the tenth to the fifteenth century, Vietnamese Buddhism moved into a new era of development that accompanied the country’s independence. Certain Buddhist monks were allowed to attend to court affairs under the rule of the Đinh – Lê Dynasties (from the late tenth to early eleventh century) Buddhism flourished during the Lý – Trần Dynasties (from the eleventh to the fourteen century), when many Buddhist monks helped the kings to protect the country. Soon, Buddhism came to be considered the national religion. Pagodas were built and maintained; Buddhist doctrine, organizations, and practices enjoyed favorable conditions for development. Some kings even decided to lead a religious life. King Trần Nhân Tông was the founder of the Trúc Lâm Yên Tử (Trúc Lâm Congregation of Zen Buddhism at Yên Tử in Quảng Ninh province, Northern Vietnam). This denomination bears Vietnamese characteristics of creativity, tolerance, and secularity. After the fifteenth century, Buddhism gradually gave way to Confucianism. However, it still maintained its position among the three religions from the same source.

Theravada Buddhism entered Southern Vietnam during the fourth century A.D.. Theravada believers were mainly among the Khmer ethnic group in the Mekong Delta; the Congregation became known as Khmer Theravada Buddhism. Khmer Theravada Buddhism made many contributions to the defense and development of the nation. During the wars against foreign aggression, the Khmer Theravada Buddhist leaders and followers took part in the resistance movements to secure independence for the Homeland. In 1981, the Khmer Theravada Buddhists joined the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha during the Representative Congress for Uniting Buddhist Organizations and denominations. The Khmer Theravada Buddhists now have 452 pagodas, more than one million believers, and almost 9,000 monks. In addition, there are about 500 Theravada Buddhist monks among Kinh people in a number of provinces in the Center and South East of the country.

During its entry and development in Vietnam, Buddhism proved to be a peaceful religion that could harmonize with native beliefs and closely ally itself with and accompany the nation during its defense and construction.

The beginning of the twentieth century was a time of major social, economic, and cultural change. Movements to revitalize Buddhism arose in several Asian countries, including China, Japan, and Vietnam. Beside its religious significance, the Movement to Revitalize Buddhism in Vietnam also had political and social implications and fit together with the national liberation struggle.

The Movement to Revitalize Buddhism first emerged in Sài Gòn in 1920 through pioneering monks, such as Khánh Hòa and Thiện Chiếu... It then spread to the Central and Northern regions through the participation of the Most Venerable Giác Tiên, Venerable Tố Liên, Venerable Trí Hải... and lay believers such as Lê Đình Thám, Nguyễn Năng Quốc, Phan Kế Bính, and Trần Văn Giáp...

During this period, a number of Buddhist organizations were founded in all three regions (North, Center, and South). Of these, six organizations were particularly significant. In the South: The Southern Buddhist Study Association (Hội Nam Kỳ Nghiên cứu Phật học) founded in 1930 and the Southern Vietnamese Buddhist Association (Hội Tăng già Nam Việt) founded in 1951. In the Center: The Annam Buddhist Study Association (An Nam Phật học Hội) founded in 1932 and the Central Vietnamese Buddhist Association (Hội Tăng già Trung Việt) founded in 1949. In the North: The Northern Buddhist Association (Hội Phật giáo Bắc Kỳ) founded in 1934 and the Buddhist Clergy Rectification Association of Northern Vietnam (Hội Chỉnh lý Tăng ni Bắc Việt) founded in 1949. In 1950, this association changed its name to the Northern Vietnamese Buddhist Association (Hội Tăng già Bắc Việt).

In 1951, those organizations gathered in Huế and agreed to establish the Vietnamese Confederation of Buddhist Associations (Tổng hội Phật giáo Việt Nam). This event can be considered as the first important drive for Buddhist unification organizationally in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism.

The Movement to Revitalize Buddhism lasted until 1954. The overwhelming majority of Buddhist clergy and followers maintained their traditional patriotism and joined the mainstream of the nation while following their religious practices in accordance with their ancestries. They actively contributed to the victory of the August 1945 Revolution as well as to the Resistance War against colonial aggression. Many monks, nuns, and followers joined the Việt Minh and the Inter-Việt Front. Many pagodas became resistance bases and sanctuaries for revolutionary cadres. Particularly in Southern Vietnam, the Buddhist National Salvation Association (Phật giáo cứu quốc) attracted a large number of monks and nuns to take part in patriotic activities.

After 1954, the separation of the country into North Vietnam and South Vietnam brought about substantial changes in the situation of Buddhism:

In the North, in September 1957, prominent clergy campaigned to form a new Buddhist organization. In March 1958, the Conference of Northern Representative Clergy established the Vietnamese United Buddhist Association (Hội Phật giáo Thống nhất Việt Nam) with the aim of “creating harmony among nuns, monks, lay people, and researchers to: propagate Buddhism, benefit the population, serve the Homeland, and protect peace". After its founding, in addition to its religious practices, the Vietnamese United Buddhist Association actively participated in social and patriotic movements, contributed to national defense and construction of the Homeland in the North, struggled against French colonialism, and helped to liberate the South and unify the nation. The founding of the Buddhist Association and its positive activities served as an important step in the history of Northern Buddhism’s close association with the nation in the North.

In the South, the period from 1954 to 1975 witnessed the foundation of dozens of Buddhist organizations, including: The Original Buddhist Association (Tăng già Nguyên Thủy), the Mendicant Monks’ Congregation (Khất sĩ), the T’ien-t’ai School Association (Thiên Thai Giáo Quán tông), and the Vietnamese Buddhist Study Association (Hội Phật học Nam Việt). After the collapse of the Ngô Đình Diệm regime, the Vietnamese United Buddhist Sangha (Giáo hội Phật giáo Việt Nam Thống nhất) was founded in 1964 by uniting several Buddhist denominations and organizations. The Vietnamese Confederation of Buddhist Associations (Tổng hội Phật giáo Việt Nam) played a central role. A short time after its founding, the Vietnamese United Buddhist Sangha (Giáo hội Phật giáo Việt Nam Thống nhất) began to split into factions; a small group exploited by foreigners for political purposes, broke off as separate entity. However, the majority of the clergy and followers remained loyal to the nation, were patriotic, and participated in the liberation of the South and in national unification.

After 1975, the Vietnamese United Buddhist Sangha continued its activities in Vietnam and continued to implement the Movement to Revitalize Buddhism during the time the country was reunited. The overwhelming majority of monks, nuns, and followers indicated their wish to unifying all Buddhist sects into one common organization, and indeed the chance came for that wish to be fulfilled. In February 1980, a Preparatory Committee for Buddhist Unification (Ban Vận động Thống nhất Phật giáo) was established with 33 members representing Buddhist denominations from across the nation. In November 1981, the Conference of Representatives for Buddhist Unification was organized in Hà Nội capital with the participation of 165 representative monks, nuns, and lay people from nine different denominations: The Vietnamese United Buddhist Sangha (Giáo hội Phật giáo Việt Nam Thống nhất), the Unified Vietnamese Buddhist Association (Hội Phật giáo Thống nhất Việt Nam), the Vietnamese Traditional Buddhist Sangha (Giáo hội Phật giáo Cổ truyền Việt Nam), the Hồ Chí Minh City Buddhist Liaison Committee (Ban Liên lạc Phật giáo Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh), the Vietnamese Original Buddhist Sangha (Giáo hội Tăng già Nguyên thủy Việt Nam), the Southwestern Patriotic Clergy Solidarity Association (Hội Đoàn kết Sư sãi Yêu nước Tây Nam Bộ), the Vietnamese Mendicant Monks Buddhist Sangha (Giáo hội Tăng già Khất sĩ Việt Nam), the T’ien-t’ai School Sangha (Giáo hội Thiên Thai giáo Quán tông), and the Vietnamese Buddhist Study Association (Hội Phật học Nam Việt).

The Conference unanimously agreed to establish the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha (Giáo hội Phật giáo Việt Nam) and promoted a motto for action: “The Dharma – The Nation – Socialism". On 7 November 1981, the conference also elected the leadership of the Sangha. Most venerable Thích Trí Thủ, on behalf of the Conference Presidium, read the Appeal of the Congress for the Unification of Vietnamese Buddhists, at Quán Sứ pagoda, noting: “From this point on, we are no longer Buddhists of the South, Buddhists of the Center, or Buddhists of the North and are no longer split into diversing organizations or forms but are all Vietnamese Buddhists and are all members of the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha, whether inside the country or outside the country".

After this historic landmark of Vietnamese Buddhism, monks, nuns, and followers from across the nation continued their patriotic tradition in line with “helping with the propagation of Buddhism, serving the Homeland, and bringing peace and contentment to the world". The Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha continued to develop through the contribution of clergy and followers nationwide and has earned a position of respect in the hearts and minds of the population. The Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha has organized five national congresses: The first in 1981, the second in 1987, the third in 1992, the fourth in 1997, and the fifth in 2002.

Festival for Buddha’s Birthday (Buddhist year 2550)

at Vĩnh Nghiêm pagoda, Hồ Chí Minh City

The Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha is currently organized into two levels: The top level is the Buddhist Sangha Patronage Council and the Dharma Executive at the central level, with 11 departments: Clergy Affairs; Clergy Education; Buddhist Guidance; Propagation; Rituals; Culture; Economics and Finance; Social Charity; Buddhist International Affairs; the Institute for Buddhism Study; and Administration.

Under the central level are the Provincial/City Executive Boards, District Representative Boards, and Village (Ward) Representatives. Grassroots units of the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha are pagodas, temples, monasteries, and nunneries.

Vietnamese Buddhism has a history of nearly twenty centuries. Today, Buddhist clergy and followers nationwide under the leadership of the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha contribute significantly to the country’s Reform and Renewal (Đổi mới).

2.2. Catholicism

Western missionaries started their work in Vietnam as early as the beginning of sixteenth century. Khâm định Việt sử Thông giám Cương mục (Royal Vietnamese synopsis of general history) notes that “In the year of Nguyên Hòa under King Lê Trang Tôn (1533), a businessman named Ignatius arrived via sea and evangelized in Ninh Cuờng Village of Quần Anh Commune, Nam Chấn District and in Trà Lũ Village of Giao Thủy District (both now part of Nam Định province in Northern Vietnam)". Many scholars studying the history of Catholicism list 1533 as the beginning of Catholic missionary work in Vietnam. Later on, in 1550, Father Gaspar da Santa Cruz preached in Hà Tiên province (now part of modern-day Kiên Giang province in Southern Vietnam); in 1558, other priests including Luís de Fonseca and Grégoire de la Motte evangelized in the country’s Central region; in 1583, Fathers Diego Doropesa and Pedro Ortiz evangelized in the coastal area of Quảng Ninh province in Northern Vietnam. Between 1533 and 1614, most of the missionaries came from the Portuguese Order of Friars Minor and the Spanish Order of Preachers; they traveled on merchant ships. However, their mission was not fully successful due to language barriers and their unfamiliarity with Vietnam’s terrain. From 1615 to 1665, missionaries of the Portuguese Society of Jesus based in Macau (China) came to Vietnam and operated in both Đàng Trong (South of the Gianh River in modern-day Quảng Bình province) and Đàng Ngoài (North of the Gianh River). Priests working in Đàng Trong included Francesco Buzomi, Diego Carvalho, Francisco de Pina, and Alexandre de Rhodes (known as Father Đắc Lộ). Priests working in Đàng Ngoài included Pedro Marques, Gaspar d’Amaral, Antonio Barbosa, etc.

In particular, Father Alexandre de Rhodes managed to create a Latin-based writing system, which contributed to the development of current Vietnamese writing and effectively served Catholic missionary work. According to statistics from the Catholic Church, missionaries of the Society of Jesus were able to attract 100,000 religious followers after 37 years of evangelization in Đàng Ngoài with 25 priests and five assistants and after 50 years in Đàng Trong with 39 priests and one assistant. By 1850, there were 500,000 Catholic followers and 227 priests in the whole country (380,000 followers and 147 priests in Đàng Ngoài and 120,000 followers and 80 priests in Đàng Trong).

The first half of the nineteenth century saw important changes in terms of organization: In 1844, Pope Gregory XVI divided the Đàng Trong Diocese into West Đàng Trong (Sài Gòn), which comprised six Southern Vietnamese provinces and Cambodia and was overseen by Bishop D. Lefèbvre Ngãi, and East Đàng Trong (Qui Nhơn) overseen by Bishop E.T. Cuénot Thể. Similarly, in 1846, the Pope divided West Đàng Ngoài into West Đàng Ngoài (Hà Nội) under Bishop P.A. Retord Liêu and South Đàng Ngoài (Vinh) under Bishop J.D. Ganthier Hậu. In 1848, the Pope in turn divided East Đàng Ngoài into East Đàng Ngoài and Central Đàng Ngoài (Bùi Chu). In 1850, the Pope split East Đàng Trong into North Đàng Trong (including part of Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, and Thừa Thiên Huế provinces) under Bishop F. M. Pellerin Phan and East Đàng Trong (from Đà Nẵng to Qui Nhơn, Phan Thiết). West Đàng Trong was split into Nam Vang (including Cambodia and Vietnamese provinces South of Hậu Giang) under management by Bishop J.C. Miche Mịch and into West Đàng Trong (from Đồng Nai to Vĩnh Long provinces) under Bishop D. Lefèbvre Ngãi.

Ordination ceremony for 57 priests officiated by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Vatican Minister of the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples, at the Hà Nội Cathedral in November 2005

Along with enhanced missionary work, not a few missionaries from the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (Paris Society for Overseas Missions) involved themselves in non-religious activities, attracting a group of Catholic followers and clerics to assist French schemes to invade and dominate Vietnam.

The development of Catholicism in this period is reflected in the following statistics:

In 1890, eight dioceses had 648,435 Catholic followers, 9 bishops, 575 priests and clerics (of which 356 were Vietnamese), and 930 churches. By 1910, those figures had increased to 900,000 followers; by 1939, the figures had further increased to 1,544,765 followers, 1,662 priests and clerics (of which 1,343 were Vietnamese), and 979 parishes.

By 1913 there were 11 dioceses and one archbishop’s office in Vietnam. To support the Vietnamese Catholic Church, in 1925, the Vatican established the Indochina Resident Governor’s Office, which was based in Phú Cam (Huế).

For the first time, in 1933 (400 years after the introduction of Catholicism to Vietnam), the Vatican ordained a Vietnamese bishop: Nguyễn Bá Tòng. (By 1975, 41 Vietnamese bishops had been ordained; the figure for the period between 30 April 1975 and August 2006 is 51, of which 4 were cardinals). Peace was re-established in the North in 1954, on 24 November 1960, Pope John XXIII issued Ordinance on the establishment of Vietnamese Catholic titles; at the same time, he upgraded all bishops’ offices in the then 20 dioceses from “quasi-offices” to “authentic offices". Between 1954 and 1975, some dioceses in the Center and the South of the country were established or divided to facilitate the management of followers, thus increasing the number of dioceses to 25. In December 2005, Xuân Lộc Diocese (Đồng Nai province in Southern Vietnam) was split into two: Xuân Lộc (Đồng Nai province) and Bà Rịa (Bà Rịa - Vũng Tàu province). At present, the Vietnamese Catholic Church has 26 dioceses across the country.

During the process of evangelization and church development in Vietnam, Catholicism contributed to the enrichment of Vietnamese culture: with the distinctive architectural designs of its churches, particularly the stone church in Phát Diệm (Kim Sơn District, Ninh Bình province), the Hà Nội Cathedral; festivals, such as Noel and the La Vang Festival in Quảng Trị province in Central Vietnam, display the country’s fine cultural attributes.

In 1980, the Vietnamese Council of Bishops was established, composed of all the bishops in Vietnam. The Vietnamese Council of Bishops has the duty to “encourage close connections to promote the service to God in apostolic forms and by methods that suit the times, in a spirit of bonding with the nation and the country". (Vietnam Catholic Church Yearbook – 2004). A letter by the Vietnamese Council of Bishops in 1980 identified the working orientation of the Vietnamese Catholic Church as “Living the Gospel within the nation for the happiness of fellow Vietnamese".

The Executive Committee of the Vietnamese Council of Bishops includes: A chairman, vice-chairmen, secretary general, deputy secretaries general, and heads of the council’s commissions. The Council for the ninth term (2004-2007) has nine bishops’ commissions: Teachings and Beliefs; Worship and Holy Arts; Holy Music, Priests and Postulants; Clergymen; Parishioners; Evangelization; Culture; and Social Charity.

A term for the Council of Bishops lasts three years. Since the Council’s foundation, there have been nine terms: The first from 1980 to 1983; the second from 1983 to 1986; the third from 1986 to 1989; the fourth from 1989 to 1992; the fifth from 1992 to 1995; the sixth from 1995 to 1998; the seventh from 1998 to 2001; the eighth from 2001 to 2004; and the ninth from 2004 to 2007.

2.3. Islam

Islam in Vietnam is practiced mostly by Chăm ethnic-minority people, most of whom live in Hồ Chí Minh City and Southern provinces, such as Ninh Thuận, Bình Thuận, An Giang, Tây Ninh, and Đồng Nai.

According to historical documents, the Chăm people familiarized themselves with Islam during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Documents from China’s Tống (Song) Dynasty recorded the introduction of Islam into the Chăm Chiêm Thành Kingdom at the end of the tenth century and the beginning of eleventh century. However, not until the historic events in the fifteenth century followed by the decline of the Chăm Chiêm Thành Empire did Islam became popular among the Chăm people in Vietnam.

Such factors as geographical conditions, circumstance surrounding diffusion of the religion, living conditions, and the extent of communication with the outside world contributed to the formation of two main groups of Vietnamese Muslims: One is the Chăm Muslims in Ninh Thuận and Bình Thuận provinces, who are known as the Old Islamic Group or Chăm Bà-ni; the other is Muslims in Châu Đốc (An Giang), Hồ Chí Minh City, and Tây Ninh and Đồng Nai provinces in Southern Vietnam. They are known as the New Islamic Group, and their religion is known as Chăm Islam.

Muslim followers attending Ceremony at the Jamiul Mosque

(52 Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street, Hồ Chí Minh City)
on 22nd of October 2006

There are considerable differences between the two groups in terms of religious practices, religious scriptures and dogma, and especially in terms of rules and rituals. The main differences can be summarized as follows:

Chăm Ba-ni in Ninh Thuận and Bình Thuận provinces has been strongly influenced by local, traditional customs and beliefs and has mixed with elements of Brahmanism and matriarchy.

Chăm Islam in Châu Đốc (An Giang), Hồ Chí Minh City, and Tây Ninh and Đồng Nai provinces is different in that Islamic rules and rituals are fully observed. In particular, followers of this branch of Muslims maintain contact with the wider Islamic world through pilgrimages to Mecca. They send believers to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia to study, and to organize annual ceremonies to chant the Koran...

One should mention the influence by Malaysians and Malay Islam on Chăm Islam in Vietnam. Although there are only a few Malaysians in Châu Đốc and even though they have been assimilated by the Chăm, this group nevertheless has exerted a rather large influence in many areas, ranging from social structure to religious activities to the spirituality of local inhabitants. Previously, in that area, the Koran was read in Arabic but was then taught in Malay. Most of the clerics who teach the Koran are Malaysians. Religious publications are also imported from Malaysia.

In 1991, the Muslims in Hồ Chí Minh City established a seven-member Muslim Community Representative Committee, which has a four-year term. From 1992 until now, the Hồ Chí Minh City Muslim Community Representative Committee has completed three terms: The first term from 1992 to 1996, the second from 1996 to 2000, and the third term from 2000 to 2006. At the beginning of 2004, the Muslims in An Giang Province established their Preparatory Committee and organized a Representative Congress at the end of 2004, resulting in the foundation of An Giang Muslim Community Representative Committee.

Although there are not many followers of Islam in Vietnam, the religion is closely aligned with the Chăm people, an ethnic group with distinctive historical and cultural characteristics. Islam as practiced by the Chăm people has many variations; the religion has contributed to the diversity of culture and customs among Vietnam’s Chăm people as well as to Vietnam’s multi-ethnic cultural diversity.

2.4. Protestantism

Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) brought Protestantism to Vietnam in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, the arrival of Protestantism was considerably later than other exogenous religions.

In 1887, Pastor A.B. Simpson (Ph.D) – the founder of CMA – visited Vietnam to assess the situation while he was doing missionary work in Huanan, China.

In 1911, Pastor R.A. Jaffray together with two other pastors (P.M. Hosler and G.L. Hughes) arrived in Đà Nẵng (Tourane) and built the first Protestant missionary base with the assistance of Mr. Bornet from the Bible Society. (He had arrived in Đà Nẵng in 1902.) Thus, the year 1911 is considered as the landmark for the beginning of Protestantism in Vietnam.

In 1914, there were nine Protestant CMA clergy in Vietnam. By 1921, the number of clergy had doubled, and then tripled by 1927. From Đà Nẵng, the CMA clergy expanded missionary work to contiguous areas and sent missionaries to disseminate Protestantism to the country’s Northern and Central regions. After seven years, CMA had established five chapters in the North, six chapters in the Center, and five chapters in the South. The French Resident Superior and the Vietnamese Royal Court permitted all those chapters to operate under the name of Mission Évangélique de l’Indochine Française (MEI, Evangelical Mission of French Indochina).

Between 1914 and 1925, CMA clergy, with the assistance of several Vietnamese Confucian scholars, translated the Bible into the Vietnamese Latin script to help disseminate Protestantism. In 1921, a Protestant church was built in Hà Nội, and a Bible School opened in Đà Nẵng. During three consecutive years – 1924, 1925, and 1926 – CMA organized retreats and congregational prayer meetings in Đà Nẵng and plenary congresses to decide on religious affairs. In 1927, the 4th Plenary Congress officially elected a Central Management Board of the Vietnamese General Confederation of Evangelical Churches under the name Mission Évangélique de l’Indochine Française. Then, in 1945, the name was changed to the one still used today: Vietnamese General Confederation of Evangelical Churches. The 5th Plenary Congress (1928) adopted its “Regulations of the Church", which were revised during the 8th Congress (1936) and implemented as the “1936 Regulations". The 5th Plenary Congress had decided to divide Protestantism in Vietnam into two regions: Northern-Central and Southern. In 1931 it was divided into three regions: Northern, Central and Southern. This division existed until 1954.

In 1926, 15 years after the first CMA foundation was established in Đà Nẵng (1911), A.H. Jackson, a Canadian pastor from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, arrived in the Central Highlands to look for new missionary opportunities. In 1929, the Seventh-Day Adventists began missionary work in Southern Vietnam.

Until 1945, Vietnam had about 15,000 Protestants with 100 chapters. In 1954, there were more than 60,000 Protestants with 154 chapters and nearly 100 pastors and missionaries. Among them were 6,000 ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands.

After the Geneva Agreement (1954), Protestantism developed differently in the North and the South. The majority of followers and clergy in the North fled to the South. The headquarters of the Vietnamese General Confederation of Evangelical Churches moved to Sài Gòn. There remained in the North only about 1,000 followers and a dozen pastors and preachers. After three years maintaining chapters, in 1955, the followers and pastors in the North established their own church and named it the Vietnamese Confederation of Evangelical Churches (Northern Region), called “Northern Church” for short. The church had two organizational levels – the central confederation level and the grassroots chapter level. The 1958 Church Congress decided to draft its own “Regulations". After some time drafting, in 1962, the 8th Congress held in Hà Nội adopted its official “Regulations of the Northern Church", which were approved by the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1963. They were subsequently called as the “1963 Regulations". These regulations adopted the Church’s motto as “Worship of God and love of nation". Between 1962 and 2004, the Vietnamese Confederation of Evangelical Churches (Northern Region) held 25 congresses. The 32nd Congress of the Northern Church met from 30 November to 3 December 2004 and elected its Central Management Board for the 2004-2008 term with 13 members.

Between 1954 and 1975, CMA took advantage of the political situation in the South and worked even harder to advance its missionary work by investing money, providing facilities, and sending clergy to help the Vietnamese General Confederation of Evangelical Churches (Southern Region), called as the “Southern Church” for short, build up an organizational system and expand its religious, economic, and social establishments. CMA and the Southern Church paid particular attention to promoting Protestantism in the ethnic minority areas of the Central Highlands.

In addition to the Southern Church, during this time there were also a number of other Protestant denominations which had either detached from the Southern Church or had been imported from outside, mainly from Northern America. These included: The Mennonites in 1954, the United World Mission in 1956, the Baptists in 1959, World Vision in 1959, the Disciples of Christ in 1963, Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1965, the Assemblies of God of the Pentecostal in 1970, and some others.

After the liberation of the South, the religious establishments of the Southern Church, the Seventh-Day Adventists, United World Mission, Baptists, and some other denominations kept operating as usual. However, the Government did not yet accept the legal status of the Southern Church for several reasons, including the fact that some Protestants, especially those in the Central Highlands, were allied with reactionaries from FULRO (Front Unifie de Lutte des Races Opprimees – United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races).

A scene from 32nd Congress of the Vietnamese

Confederation of Evangelical Churches (Northern) held from
November 30th to December 3rd, 2004

In October 2000, the Southern Church established a Plenary Congress Action Committee with 24 pastors. In January 2001, the 43rd Congress of the Vietnamese General Confederation of Evangelical Churches (Southern Region) convened in Hồ Chí Minh City with 382 delegates, including pastors, evangelists, and representative followers from all chapters. Among these were 58 pastors, missionaries, and lay people from provinces in the Central Highlands. The Congress adopted a new charter (called the “2001 Charter”), determined the official name of the Vietnamese General Confederation of Evangelical Churches (Southern Region), and elected a Central Management Board with 23 pastors and missionaries.

This Congress accepted a motto for the religious activities of the Southern Church as follows: “Living the Gospel, worshipping God, and serving the Homeland and the nation". It further noted:

The Vietnamese General Confederation of Evangelical Churches (Southern Region) operates in accordance with the Constitution and laws of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and abides by the regulations of State authorities.

It regularly educates its followers about patriotism, civic obligations, the observance of laws, and the spirit of solidarity among the population in order to contribute to national construction of the Homeland, national defense, and peacekeeping".

The “2001 Charter” stipulates the organization of the General Confederation on two levels: The general confederation level and the chapter level (grassroots chapters). The Church’s organization includes representative committees or representatives at the provincial and city level. The term of the Central Management Board of the General Confederation is four years, while the terms of the Representative Committees, Representatives, and Grassroots Management Boards are two years. In forming a new organizational structure, the “2001 Charter” aimed at framing a religious organization with its own base independent of, though relating to the foreign Protestant organizations.

The 44th Congress of the Vietnamese General Confederation of Evangelical Churches (Southern Region) convened from 1-4 March 2005 in Hồ Chí Minh City, where a Central Management Board was elected with 23 members.

2.5. The Cao đài Religion

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the colonial regime and the Nguyễn feudal court reinforced their exploitation and oppression of the Vietnamese people. Working people became more and more miserable, and their lives grew increasingly impoverished. This was particularly true of the Southern peasants who lost their land and were forced to work as serfs for landlords. The failure of the people’s struggle and the hopeless attitude towards the present life led to a spiritual crisis. In addition, the decay of popular religion and contemporary social values created a large gap in spiritual needs, thereby increasing people’s demand for religion and belief. These factors served as favorable conditions for the birth of the Cao đài religion.

The Cao đài Tây Ninh Holy See, Tây Ninh province

During this period, the Western Theosophy Movement became very popular in the South through such forms as "xây bàn" (the turning table), which resembles Vietnamese seance customs, and "cầu cơ" (evocation of a Superior Spirit) by the Five Branches of the Bright Way Sect (Ngũ chi Minh đạo). This brought about a movement, cầu cơ và chấp bút (spiritual seance and written record), called “cơ bút” for short, referring to the mechanism for a spiritual seance). Two main groups among those engaging in spiritual seance (đàn cơ) evolved into the Cao đài religion. The first group led by Ngô Minh Chiêu conducted cầu cơ at temples and pagodas in the traditional way of cơ bút and the Five Branches of the Bright Way. The second group led by Cao Quỳnh Cư, Cao Hoài Sang, and Phạm Công Tắc first conducted their turning table and seances according to Western theosophy for entertainment, but afterwards they used the Minh Thiện (belonging to the Five Branches of the Bright Way) spiritual seance.

On 7 October 1926, a group of 28 Vietnamese representing 247 believers signed the “Declaration of the Founding of the Cao đài Religion” and sent it to the French Governor of Cochin China. In the middle of November 1926 (15th day of 10th month of the Year of the Tiger), the first disciples of the Cao đài religion organized their inauguration ceremony at Gò Kén Pagoda, Tây Ninh province in Southern Vietnam and officially declared the foundation of the Cao đài religion.

The principle of the Cao đài religion is “Three religions returned to their origins – Five Branches are reunited". The doctrine of the Cao đài religion dignifies the Divine and the miraculous quality of Supreme Spirits and considers them as the means for human beings to unify with God. “The New Canonical Codes” (Tân luật) and the “Religious Constitution of the Cao đài Religion” (Pháp Chánh truyền) maintain the religious laws and rules. Cao đài ceremonies are rather sophisticated and complicated because they reflect the spirit of “three religions originating from the same source". Cao đài followers worship the Divine Eye, meaning the Eye of Heaven and a symbol of the Supreme Being of the Cao đài religion. Worshipping protocol divides into three levels: The Holy See (Tòa thánh), the Holy House or Oratory (Thánh thất or Thánh tịnh), and the Private House (Tư gia).

The Cao đài religion is organized into three branches: The Eight Trigram Palace (Bát Quái đài), which is the secluded branch and worships the Supreme Being (the Divine Eye), the Buddha, the Immortal, the Saints, and the Genies; the Heavenly-Union Palace (Hiệp Thiên đài) is the legislative body and has the authority to set up and manage the spiritual seances; it monitors the activities of the Nine Spheres Palace (Cửu Trùng đài) headed by the Maintainer of Rules and Laws (Hộ pháp). The executive body (Cửu Trùng đài) consists of nine ministries and is headed by a pope (Giáo tông).

Between 1926 and 1934, after the declaration of foundation, Cao đài leaders advanced their missionary work in the South so that the Cao đài religion became a domestic religion. They embraced the spirit of patriotism and thoroughly used the mysteriousness of their apparatus for spiritual seances (cơ bút) to attract followers. The leaders concentrated on building the Holy See, promoted the Holy Houses and oratories, and improved the religious doctrine, laws, ceremonies, and organization, thus helping to consolidate and stabilize the activities of the Holy See and to develop grassroots establishments. The body of the religious administration began to take shape on five levels from the center to the grassroots. During this period, the practice of the Cao đài religion was conducted mainly through spiritual seances. Several dignitaries exploited the spiritual seances to compete for influence. This led to contradiction between the Heavenly-Union Palace and the Nine Spheres Palace. Discord in the Sacerdotal Council caused some senior disciples to disagree with the Holy See and leave for different localities, where they established their own Cao đài sects.

The period between 1934 and 1975 witnessed not only the robust development of the Cao đài religion but also saw the separation of the Cao đài religion into different independent sects, sometimes as many as 30. The number of followers reached about two million, most of them living in the South and a small number scattered in several Northern and Central provinces.

After 1975, Cao đài sects were organized differently compared with the previous organizational structure of the Cao đài religion. They are now administered by the Church Council at the central level and the parishes at the grassroots level. From 1995 to 2000, nine Cao đài sects carried out their plenary congresses to approve their charters, a two-level administration system, and three councils: The High Council (Thượng hội), the Sacerdotal Council (Hội thánh), and the Popular Council (Hội Nhơn sanh). They adopted the following motto: “The Nation is glorious, the Way enlightens” (Nước vinh, Đạo sáng). At present, there are the following Cao đài sects: The Ante-Creation (Cao đài Tiên Thiên) Church, the Bright-Verity Way (Cao đài Minh Chơn Đạo) Church, the Cao đài Dazzling Bright (Chiếu Minh Long Châu) Church, the Cao đài Missionary (Truyền giáo) Church, the Cao đài Church of Tây Ninh Province, the Cao đài Correct Path (Ban Chỉnh đạo) Church, the Cao đài White Cloth (Bạch y) Church, the Cao đài Verity (Chơn lý) Church, and the Cao đài Prayer at the Three-Door Temple Gate (Cầu Kho Tam Quan) Church.

During resistance wars against foreign aggression, a majority of leaders and adherents of the various Cao đài sects actively assisted the revolution and contributed their efforts and wealth to the cause of national liberation and unification. Today, Cao đài followers actively take part in Vietnam’s Reform and Renewal and national defense and construction.

2.6. Hòa Hảo Buddhism

Documents show that Hòa Hảo Buddhism first appeared when World War II was about to start. Huỳnh Phú Sổ conducted a ceremony for the founding of Hòa Hảo Buddhism on 4 July 1939. The number of Hòa Hảo believers are few and mainly come from the area surrounding Hòa Hảo Village in An Giang province in the deep South of Vietnam. In 1940, the Southern Uprising broke out and was defeated. French reprisals overwhelmed the South. Many people found consolation and salvation in Hòa Hảo Buddhism. By late 1940, the followers numbered some hundreds of thousands.

Founder Huỳnh Phú Sổ established management boards for Hòa Hảo Buddhism at all levels in 1945. However, because of historical circumstances, only the Contemporary Central Representative Board of Hòa Hảo Buddhism was formally established in 1963 and recognized by the Sài Gòn regime on 5 February 1964. The religious power of Hòa Hảo Buddhism overlapped with the activities of the Dân Xã Party and the armed forces of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism.

Hòa Hảo Buddhists worship Buddha but not relics or pictures of Buddha. The symbol of Hòa Hảo Buddhism is a sheet of brown cloth symbolizing “Buddha is the heart, the heart is Buddha” (Phật tại tâm, tâm tức Phật).

In addition to worshipping Buddha and their ancestors, Hòa Hảo Buddhists honor and worship great national heroes and those who have rendered meritorious service to their communities. Hòa Hảo Buddhists do not worship saints or genies without clear origins. Since Hòa Hảo followers are lay people, worship and practice are very simple and conducted mainly at home. In each follower’s house, there are three altars: The altar to Buddha is in the highest place with only a piece of brown cloth; the altar to the ancestors is below the altar to Buddha; and an altar to Heaven is set up in front of the house. More recently, followers have placed a photograph of Huỳnh Phú Sổ just behind the brown cloth on the altar to Buddha.

A scene from 2nd Congress of Hòa Hảo Buddhist Congregation

in June 2004

The Hòa Hảo Buddhist Congregation has organized two congresses: The first term ran from 1999 to 2004, while the second is from 2004 to 2009.

The “2004 Charter” affirms the orientation of the Hòa Hảo Buddhist Congregation as “For Dharma, for the Nation” (Vì Đạo pháp, vì Dân tộc). The central Hòa Hảo doctrine is: “To study Buddhism to improve ourselves; to worship Buddha at home as lay-followers"; to teach followers about the Four Debts of Gratitude (to our ancestors and parents; to our country; to the Three Treasures – Buddha, Dharma, and the Buddhist Church; and to our fellow countrymen and mankind); to follow the eight teachings directly passed by the Venerable Prophet Huỳnh Phú Sổ; to help the poor and the misfortunate; to assist our compatriots in their businesses, marriages, funerals, and ceremonial affairs; to be useful to society and mankind.

According to the “2004 Charter", the Hòa Hảo Buddhist Congregation is administered by a two-level system of management committees set up at villages, districts and provinces/cities, at the top of which is the Central Management Council and Representatives at the provincial/city level. The Central Management Council consists of 21 members, with assisting departments such as Administration, Finance, Public Education, Organizing and Personnel, Social-Charity, and Monitoring.

The term of the Central Management Council is five years. The terms of the Provincial Representative and District Management Council resemble those of the Central Management Council.

* *

Beside the above mentioned religions, there are some other religions in Vietnam, such as Tịnh độ Cư sĩ Phật hội (The Pure Land Buddhist Home-Practice Association), Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa, Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương, Baha’i, as well as some other Protestant sects.


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