Agents hired by Vietnamese police on Wednesday splashed excrement on followers of an unofficial branch of the Cao Dai minority religious movement and chained the wheels of their motor vehicles as part of government intimidation on non-sanctioned religious groups, Cao Dai officials said.
Nguyen Xuan Mai, one of the leaders of the church based in southern Vietnam’s Tay Ninh province, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that local authorities and officials from a local government body that oversees state-sanctioned churches had ordered the attack.
“Police and the Church Administrative Council had thugs throw shrimp paste and excrement at our members when they were practicing a ritual” at the house of a church follower, Pham Van Dam, who is based in Tay Ninh’s Chau Thanh district, Mai said.
“Police also told the thugs to chain the wheels of the vehicles of members who traveled there from other areas,” he said.
Mai said that the group had reported the incident to the authorities, but that no police had showed up to investigate.
The attack followed a warning by local police three days earlier not to proceed with the ritual, he said.
Vo Thanh Cong, head of the Tay Ninh provincial religious affairs office, refused to comment on the incident when contacted by RFA, saying he was “in a meeting” and didn’t have time to talk.
Vietnam’s government officially recognizes the Cao Dai religion, which combines elements of many religions, but imposes harsh controls on dissenting groups who do not follow the state-sanctioned branches.
Wednesday’s incident marks the first time Cao Dai followers have been attacked with sewage and other foul-smelling items—a tactic routinely used against members of Vietnam’s dissident community.
In July last year, local authorities in the Mekong Delta region’s Tien Giang province violently broke into the temple of another unofficial Cao Dai branch, detaining a leader and several members of the sect.
The raid on the Long Binh temple was launched by security officers of local authorities and administrators of the government-approved Tien Giang provincial Cao Dai church and came after temple members had refused earlier demands to surrender the facility.
Last month, Heiner Bielefeldt, a special U.N. envoy on a mission to Vietnam, accused the country’s authoritarian government of “serious violations” of religious freedom and said police harassed and intimidated people he had wanted to meet in the course of his investigations.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion said during his 11-day visit that the violations affected independent groups of Buddhists, including Hoa Hao-Buddhists, and of the Cao Dai religion, some Protestant communities, and activists within the Catholic Church.
In an annual report on international religious freedoms released in July, the U.S. State Department said that Vietnam showed signs of improvement in 2013, but highlighted a number of continuing concerns.
The State Department included Vietnam on its list of Countries of Particular Concern for abuses of religious freedom in 2004 but removed it from the blacklist two years later.
It has since ignored repeated calls by rights groups and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) to reinstate the country’s designation.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.