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Religion in Vietnam



The great Buddha statue in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

The earliest established religions in Vietnam are Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism (called the triple religion or tam gi?o). Significant minorities of adherents to Roman Catholicism, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao and smaller minorities of adherents to Protestantism, Islam, Hinduism, and Theravada Buddhism were established later, in recent centuries.

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.

Overview

Although most Vietnamese list themselves as having no religious affiliation,[1][2] religion, as defined by shared beliefs and practices, remains an integral part of Vietnamese life, dictating the social behaviours and spiritual practices of Vietnamese individuals in Vietnam and abroad. The triple religion (Vietnamese: tam gi?o), referring to the syncretic combination of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism remains a strong influence on the beliefs and practices of the Vietnamese, even if the levels of formal membership in these religious communities may not reflect that influence. One of the most notable and universal spiritual practices common to Vietnamese is ancestor veneration, a practice shared with Chinese and most other Asian cultures. Practically all Vietnamese, regardless of formal religious affiliation, have an altar in their home or business where prayers are offered to their ancestors. These offerings and practices are done frequently during important traditional or religious celebrations (e.g., death anniversaries), the starting of a new business, or even when a family member needs guidance or counsel. Belief in ghosts and spirits is common; it is commonly believed that failing to perform the proper rituals for one's ancestors will cause them to become hungry ghosts (Vietnamese: ma ??i).

A 2002 Pew Research Center report claimed that only 24% of the population of Vietnam view religion as "very important".

History

The earliest forms of Vietnamese religious practice were animistic and totemic in nature.[4] The decorations on Dong Son bronze drums, generally agreed to have ceremonial and possibly religious value[nb 2], depict the figures of birds, leading historians to believe birds were objects of worship for the early Vietnamese. Dragons were another frequently recurring figure in Vietnamese art, arising from the veneration of L?c Long Qu?n, a mythical dragon-king who is said to be the father of the Vietnamese people. The Golden Turtle God Kim Qui was said to appear to kings in times of crisis, notably to L? L?i, from whom he took the legendary sword Thu?n Thi?n after it had been dropped into Hoan Kiem Lake. Besides animals, mountains, rivers, and other entities of the natural environment were believed to have spirits, protecting humans who worshipped adequately and punishing those whose worship was lacking. Contact with Chinese civilization, and the introduction of the triple religion of Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, added a further ethical and moral dimension to the indigenous Vietnamese religion.

Religious freedom

The Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam formally allows religious freedom.[5] In 2007, Viet Nam News reported that Viet Nam has six religions recognised by the State: (Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao), but that the Baha?i Community of Viet Nam had been awarded a "certificate of operation" from the Government's Committee for Religious Affairs. In 2007, the Committee for Religious Affairs was reported to have granted operation registration certificates to three new religions and a religious sect in addition to six existing religions. Every citizen is declared to be allowed to freely follow no, one, or more religions, practice religion without violating the law, be treated equally regardless of their religion, be protected from being violated in their religious freedom, but is prohibited to use religion to violate the law.

In fact, there are some limitations in religious practice in Vietnam. Foreign missionaries legally are not allowed to proselytize or perform religious activities. No other religions than those 8 are allowed to propagate. Preachers and religious associations are prohibited to use religion to propagate ideologies that are against the government. Many Vietnamese preachers who fled for America and other countries say that they were suppressed by the Communist government for no or unreasonable reasons. However, legal preachers and religious associations working in Vietnam today are aided and honored by the government.

The Vietnamese government has been criticized for its religious violations mostly by the United States, the Vatican, and among overseas Vietnamese who oppose the Communist government. However, due to recent improvements in liberty of religion, the United States no longer considers Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern. The Vatican has also considered negotiations with Vietnam about freedom for Vietnamese Catholics.

Despite some substantial tries by the Vietnamese government to improve its international image and ease restrictions on religious freedom, the cases of dissident religious leaders persecution did not stop in the last years. The general secretary of the Mennonite Church in Vietnam and religious freedom advocate Nguyen Hong Quang was arrested in 2004, and his house razed to the ground [7]. Christian Montagnards and their house churches continue to suffer from state control and restrictions.[8] In March, 2007, a member of the main Hanoi congregation of the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) Nguyen Van Dai was arrested for accusations relating to his defense of religious freedom, including disseminating alleged "infractions" of religious liberty [9].

 Buddhism

H? N?i's One Pillar Pagoda, a historic Buddhist temple.

Buddhism came to Vietnam as early as the second century CE through the North from central Asia and via Southern routes from India.[10] Mahayana Buddhism first spread from China to Vietnam's Red River Delta region around 300 BC. Theravada Buddhism arrived from India into the southern Mekong Delta region many years later, between 300-600 AD. Buddhism as practiced by the ethnic Vietnamese is mainly of the Mahayana school, although some ethnic minorities (such as the Khmer Krom in the southern Delta region of Vietnam) adhere to the Theravada school.

Buddhist practice in Vietnam differs from that of other Asian countries, and does not contain the same institutional structures, hierarchy, or sanghas that exist in other traditional Buddhist settings. It has instead grown from a symbiotic relationship with Taoism, Chinese spirituality, and the indigenous Vietnamese religion, with the majority of Buddhist practitioners focusing on devotional rituals rather than meditation.

Most, if not all, demographic estimates list Buddhism as the dominant religious belief system in Vietnam, although, due to the unique nature of Vietnamese Buddhist practice, exact membership figures vary. Recent estimates given by Vietnamese sources seem to indicate that, of Vietnam's 20 million religionists, 50%?10 million?were registered Buddhist "followers". Other estimates may vary greatly depending on methodology; some claim that between three-quarters to half of Vietnam's population are at least "nominally Buddhist", whereas others give figures as low as 9% . Scholars have argued that the higher figures would indicate that, even if they fail to identify themselves as followers, a preponderance of Vietnamese at least define their spiritual needs using a Buddhist world view, regardless of differences in practice.

Pure Land

Pure Land Buddhism is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism and is said to be one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in Vietnam, in which practitioners commonly recite sutras, chants and dharanis looking to gain protection from bodhisattvas or Dharma-Protectors. While Pure Land traditions, practices and concepts are found within Mahayana cosmology, and form an important component of Buddhist traditions in Vietnam, Pure Land Buddhism was not independently recognized as a sect of Buddhism (as Pure Land schools have been recognized, for example, in Japan) until 2007, with the official recognition of the Vietnamese Pure Land Buddhism Association as an independent and legal religious organization.

H?a H?o

H?a H?o is a religious tradition, based on Buddhism, founded in 1939 by Hu?nh Ph? S?, a native of the Mekong River Delta region of southern Vietnam. Adherents consider So to be a prophet, and H?a H?o a continuation of a 19th-century Buddhist ministry known as Buu Son Ky Huong ("Strange Perfume from Precious Mountains", referring to the That Son range on the Vietnam-Cambodia border). The founders of these traditions are regarded by H?a H?o followers as living Buddhas?destined to save mankind from suffering and to protect the Vietnamese nation. An important characteristic of H?a H?o is its emphasis on peasant farmers, exemplified by the old slogan "Practicing Buddhism While Farming Your Land." H?a H?o also stresses the practice of Buddhism by lay people in the home, rather than focusing primarily on temple worship and ordination. Aid to the poor is favored over pagoda building or expensive rituals.

Today, as an officially recognized religion, it claims approximately two million followers throughout Vietnam; in certain parts of the Mekong Delta, as many as 90 percent of the population practice this tradition. Since many of the teachings of Hu?nh Ph? S? related in some way to Vietnamese nationalism, adherence to H?a H?o outside of Vietnam has been minimal, with a largely quiescent group of followers presumed to exist among the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States.

T? ?n Hi?u Ngh?a

T? ?n Hi?u Ngh?a ("Four Debts of Gratitude"), a Buddhist sect based in An Giang Province, is one of the most recently registered religions in Vietnam. It is based on the teachings of Ng? L?i (1831?1890). Official government statistics report that T? ?n Hi?u Ngh?a claimed over 70,000 registered followers and 476 religious leaders as of 2005, centred in 76 places of worship spread across 14 provinces, mainly in Southern Vietnam.[13][19]

Christianity

Roman Catholicism

Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

By far the most widespread Christian religion in Vietnam, Roman Catholicism first entered the country through Portuguese catholic missionaries in the 16th century and strengthened its influence during French colonial rule. While the earliest missions were only mildly successful at gaining converts, later missions by Jesuit missionaries eventually saw the definitive establishment of Christian centres within the local population.

Jesuit missionary Alexandre De Rhodes, who worked in Vietnam between 1624 and 1644, was perhaps the most notable missionary of this period. Among other achievements, he made a significant and lasting contribution to Vietnamese culture by developing a written system of Vietnamese language in concert with Vietnamese scholars. The use of this system, which largely used the Roman alphabet with added diacritic markings, was originally intended to help reinforce teaching and evangelization efforts. This system, which was based on the work of earlier Portuguese missionaries, is still in use today, and is now referred to as Qu?c Ng? (national language).

The French missionary priest Pigneau de Behaine played a key role in Vietnamese history towards the end of the 18th century by befriending Nguy?n ?nh, the most senior of the ruling Nguy?n lords to have escaped the rebellion of the T?y S?n brothers in 1777. Becoming Nguy?n ?nh's loyal confidant, benefactor and military advisor during his time of need, he was able to gain a great deal of favor for the Church. During Nguy?n ?nh's subsequent rule as Emperor Gia Long, the Catholic faith was permitted unimpeded missionary activities out of his respect to his benefactors. By the time of the Emperor's accession in 1802, Vietnam had 3 Catholic dioceses with 320,000 members and over 120 Vietnamese priests.[32]

According to the Catholic Hierarchy Catalog, there are currently 5,658,000 Catholics in Vietnam, representing 6.87% of the total population.[33] There are 26 dioceses (including three archdioceses) with 2228 parishes and 2668 priests.[33]

Protestantism

Protestantism was introduced to Da Nang in 1911 by a Canadian missionary named Robert A. Jaffray; over the years, he was followed by more than 100 missionaries, members of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an Evangelical Protestant denomination. The two officially recognized Protestant organizations recognized by the government are the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV), recognized in 2001, and the smaller Evangelical Church of Vietnam North (ECVN), recognized since 1963.

Present estimates of the number of Protestants range from the official government figure of 500,000 to claims by churches of 1 million. Growth has been most pronounced among members of minority peoples (montagnards) such as the Mnong, Ede, Jarai, and Bahnar, with internal estimates claiming two-thirds of all Protestants in Vietnam are members of ethnic minorities. By some estimates, the growth of Protestant believers in Vietnam has been as much as 600 percent over the past ten years. Some of the new converts belong to unregistered evangelical house churches, whose followers are said to total about 200,000.

Baptist and Mennonite movements were officially recognized by Hanoi in October, 2007, which was seen as a notable improvement in the level of religious freedom enjoyed by Vietnamese Protestants. Similarly, in October 2009, the Assemblies of God movement received official government permission to operate, which is the first step to becoming a legal organization. The Assemblies of God were said to consist of around 40,000 followers in 2009, the Baptist Church around 18,400 followers with 500 ministers in 2007, and The Mennonite Church around 10,000 followers.

Russian Orthodox

The Russian Orthodox Church is represented in V?ng T?u, Vietnam, mainly among the Russian-speaking employees of the Russian-Vietnamese joint venture "Vietsovpetro". The parish is named after Our Lady of Kazan icon was opened in 2002 with the blessing of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been given in Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra. The representatives of the foreign relations department of the Russian Orthodox Church come to V?ng T?u from time to time to conduct the Orthodox divine service[38].

Vietnam is also mentioned as territory under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Hong Kong & Southeast Asia Nikitas (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople), though there is no information on its organized activities there.

Cao ??i

Monks praying in the Cao ??i Holy See in T?y Ninh, Vietnam.

Cao ??i is a relatively new, syncretist, monotheistic religion, officially established in the city of T?y Ninh, southern Vietnam, in 1926. The term Cao ??i literally means "Kingdom of Heaven", or figuratively, the highest place where God reigns. Adherents credit God as the religion's founder, believing the teachings, symbolism and organization were communicated directly from God. Cao ??i's first disciples, Ng? V?n Chi?u, Cao Qu?nh C?, Ph?m C?ng T?c and Cao Ho?i Sang, claimed to have received direct communications from God, who gave them explicit instructions for establishing a new religion that would commence the Third Era of Religious Amnesty. Adherents engage in ethical practices such as prayer, veneration of ancestors, nonviolence, and vegetarianism with the minimum goal of rejoining God the Father in Heaven and the ultimate goal of freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

Official government records counted 2.2 million registered Cao ??i followers in 2005; most outside sources give 2 to 3 million. Some estimates are as high as 8 million adherents in Vietnam. An additional 30,000 (numbers may vary) (primarily ethnic Vietnamese) live in the United States, Europe, and Australia.

Islam

Mosque in An Giang

Adherence to Islam in Vietnam is primarily associated with the Cham ethnic minority, although there is also a Muslim population of mixed ethnic origins, also known as Cham, or Cham Muslims, in the southwest (Mekong Delta) of the country. Islam is assumed to have come to Vietnam much after its arrival in China during the Tang Dynasty (618?907), through contact with Arab traders. The number of followers began to increase as contacts with Sultanate of Malacca broadened in the wake of the 1471 collapse of the Champa Kingdom, but Islam would not become widespread among the Cham until the mid-17th century. In the mid-19th century, many Muslims Chams emigrated from Cambodia and settled in the Mekong River Delta region, further bolstering the presence of Islam in Vietnam.

Vietnam's Muslims remained relatively isolated from the mainstream of world Islam, and their isolation, combined with the lack of religious schools, caused the practice of Islam in Vietnam to become syncretic. Although the Chams follow a localised adaptation of Islamic theology, they consider themselves Muslims. However, they pray only on Fridays and celebrate Ramadan for only three days. Circumcision is performed not physically, but symbolically, with a religious leader making the gestures of circumcision with a wooden toy knife.[39]

Vietnam's largest mosque was opened in January 2006 in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai Province; its construction was partially funded by donations from Saudi Arabia.

A 2005 census counted over 66,000 Muslims in Vietnam, up from 63,000 in 1999. Over 77% lived in the Southeast Region, with 34% in Ninh Thuan Province, 24% in Binh Thuan Province, and 9% in Ho Chi Minh City; another 22% lived in the Mekong River Delta region, primarily in An Giang Province. In Ninh Thuan Province, where most of the Cham in Vietnam reside, Cham Bani (Muslim Cham) number close to 22,000. Out of the 22 villages in Ninh Thuan, 7 are Muslim.

Hinduism

Much like Islam, adherence to Hinduism in Vietnam is associated with the Cham ethnic minority; the first religion of the Champa kingdom was a form of Shaivite Hinduism, brought by sea from India. The Cham people erected Hindu temples (Bimong) throughout Central Vietnam, many of which are still in use today; the now-abandoned M? S?n, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is perhaps the most well-known of Cham temple complexes.

Approximately 50,000 ethnic Cham in the south-central coastal area practice a devotional form of Hinduism. Most of the Cham Hindus belong to the Nagavamshi Kshatriya caste[43], but a considerable minority are Brahmins. Another 4,000 Hindus (mostly Tamil, and otherwise of Cham or mixed Indian-Vietnamese descent) live in Ho Chi Minh City, where the Mariamman Temple acts as a focal point for the community. In Ninh Thuan Province, where most of the Cham in Vietnam reside, Cham Balamon (Hindu Cham) numbers 32,000; Out of the 22 villages in Ninh Thuan, 15 are Hindu.

Judaism

The first Jews to visit Vietnam likely arrived following the French colonization of the country, in the latter half of the 19th century. There are a handful of references to Jewish settlement in Saigon sprinkled through the pages of the Jewish Chronicle in the 1860s and 1870s.

As late as 1939, the estimated combined population of the Jewish communities of Haiphong, Hanoi, Saigon and Tourane in French Indo-China numbered approximately 1,000 individuals. In 1940 the anti-Semitic Vichy-France "Statute on Jews" was implemented in French Indo-China (Vietnam), leading to increased restrictions and widespread discrimination against Jews. The anti-Jewish laws were repealed in January 1945

Prior to the French evacuation of Indochina in 1954, the Jewish population in Indochina (which encompassed Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) was reportedly 1,500; most of these Jews were said to have left with the French, leaving behind no organized Jewish communal structure. In 1971, about 12 French Jews still remained in South Vietnam, all in Saigon. In 2005, the U.S. State Department's "International Religious Freedom Report" noted "There were no reported anti-Semitic incidents during the period covered by this report. The country's small Jewish population is comprised almost entirely of expatriates."

Bah?'? Faith

Established in the 1950s, the Vietnamese Bah?'? community once claimed upwards of 200,000 followers, mainly concentrated in the South. The number of followers dwindled as a result of the banning of the practice of the Bah?'? Faith after the Vietnam War. After years of negotiation, the Bah?'? Faith was registered nationally in 2007, once again receiving full recognition as a religious community. In 2009 it was reported that the Bah?'? community has about 7,000 followers and 73 assemblies.


 
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