Twelve Vietnamese members of the Cao Dai religious sect were held at the Interior Ministry Wednesday, a day after the group was arrested while attempting to deliver a statement to Asean lawmakers calling on Vietnam to let them worship at a popular temple.
Dressed in long white religious robes, the six men and six women were stopped by police Tuesday morning as they walked down Mao Tse Toung Boulevard toward the Hotel InterContinental, site of this year’s Asean Inter-Parliamentary Organization meeting.
The suspects confessed to entering Cambodia illegally after traveling overland and by boat from their homes in Vietnam’s Tay Ninh province, said Kong Saron, an official with the immigration police.
The group, whose members do not possess passports, traveled up the Mekong River into Cambodia and then drove to a Cao Dai temple near the Hotel InterContinental, where they stayed for one night, said Sim Vuthy, deputy police chief of Chamkar Mon district.
The small group of religious adherents hoped to deliver a message, written in Vietnamese, to AIPO delegates, and also to the UN, he added.
“The statement, written in Vietnamese, asked Vietnam to reopen the Cao Dai temple in their native Tay Ninh province,” Sim Vuthy said.
Vietnamese Embassy press attache Nguyen Thanh Duc said that Vietnam respects religious freedom and that those arrested on Tuesday “are not legitimate representatives of any religious sect.”
“We don’t care about their actions,” he said Wednesday. “They tried to disturb the regional conference, and this is the response of the Cambodian authorities.”
Founded in Tay Ninh in 1926, Cao Daism combines a vast range of religious ideas, including Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Confucianism. Throughout its early years, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese converted to Cao Daism, and it turned into a political force during World War II and the war in Vietnam.
“After the fall of Saigon in 1975…Hanoi authorities were keen to reorganize all religious communities in southern Vietnam in such a way as to destroy them as autonomous social organizations,” wrote Christopher Hartney, a University of Sydney professor, in a paper on the Cao Dai sect, published last year.
Unable to worship freely,
many Cao Daists have fled Tay Ninh since the 1970s. Hartney wrote that Vietnam has prohibited worship at Cao Dai temples—even turning some into “fun parks” featuring loud secular music and “toy trains, slippery dips and swings.”