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Cao Dai follower detained for hours after returning from U.S. religious summit

The follower of a Vietnamese religious group which has as many as two million believers faced more than six hours of interrogation on returning to the country from a conference in the U.S.

1926 Pure Cao Dai member Nguyen Xuan Mai went to Washington, D.C. to attend the 2022 International Religious Freedom Summit which took place from June 28 to 30. She also met with many international organizations to call for religious freedom in Vietnam.

On her return to Ho Chi Minh City’s international airport on Friday evening she was asked by airport security to talk with nine officials, Mai told RFA on Saturday morning.

“I was there from 8 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. the next day,” she said. “They [airport security] invited me to follow them over some issue, so I followed. There were nine people working, including one policeman from Vinh Long province and two policemen from Hanoi, one named Tran Dai.”

The officers took her phone and checked her messages, printed all her emails and forced her to sign a letter of confirmation, Mai said.

“My emails were already deleted, but they were still in the trash,” Mai said. “They took 90 of my documents and then printed them out asking me to sign to confirm that those people sent me emails.

There was nothing wrong with my emails, just material for classes on human rights, and international and Vietnamese religious law. I honestly told them that, so it would be quick and wouldn’t create any difficulties for me.”

“They said we should work together to see if I was sincere or hiding anything. I said I wasn’t denying anything. In general, I did not do anything to break the law.”

Two riot police cars were parked outside the international terminal’s exit according to Mai’s daughter Nguyen Mai Tram. She said nearly a dozen people in plain clothes filmed and took pictures of a group of Cao Dai followers who had come to welcome Mai.

“There were two riot police cars parked outside. A policeman walked around behind me filming and taking pictures of me, but he didn’t ask anything,” she said.

Fellow Cao Dai member Tran Ngoc Suong said he and many fellow believers had to avoid police guards at their homes to get to the airport.

Suong said while he was at the airport, a police officer in Tien Giang province named Manh, who didn’t give his family name, called a member of the delegation to “advise” everyone to go home because Mai was being held for interrogation and he was not sure when she would be released:

“He said he saw me sitting to greet Xuan Mai, and advised me to go home because Mrs. Xuan Mai would be detained and could not return,” Suong said.

The 1926 Pure Cao Dai group says the name of the religion is based on the year of its founding and it is an original religion, not under the direction of the State, and not part of the Cao Dai state-affiliated religious sect established by the Vietnamese government in 1997.

Followers of 1926 Pure Cao Dai in Tien Giang province say they have frequently been harassed for many years by a policeman named Manh. He forced them to give up their religion to join a religious sect established by the government, Suong said.

During her visit to Washington Mai met with some U.S. religious officials to raise the status of Pure Cao Dai followers who had been beaten and suffered years of repression. She met U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain and Katrina Lantos-Swett, co-chair of the International Religious Freedom Summit Steering Committee.

Former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback wrote on Twitter:

“It is very worrying about the news that Ms. Mai disappeared after returning to Vietnam. She was released by the police after six hours of questioning. Thankfully she is on her way home but this is a completely unwarranted form of harassment by the government.”