Vietnam Grants Last-Minute Permit for Christmas Event


Officials present several obstacles to large-scale worship service.

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 29 (CDN) — Granted permission only five hours before a scheduled Christmas event, house church leaders turned an empty field into a rudimentary stadium and welcomed some 20,000 people for a time of worship and evangelism on Sunday (Dec. 26) in Vietnam’s largest city.

The last-minute permission for the event in Ho Chi Minh City reflected the byzantine manner in which authorities have applied Vietnam’s religions laws. The central government’s Bureau of Religious Affairs (BRA) in Hanoi, the body charged with managing religion in communist Vietnam, gave permission for the event to the newly registered Vietnam Assemblies of God (AOG) organization in early December. The Vietnam AOG represents a large grouping of mostly unregistered house churches in the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF).

Organizers were grateful for the early permission this year – last year they received only 42 hours notice for an event that 40,000 people attended – but when the AOG superintendent, Pastor Duong Thanh Lam, and other VEF leaders began working out particulars with the Ho Chi Minh City BRA, they met with considerable resistance. After the Ho Chi Minh City BRA finally consented, church leaders said, the organizers found that landlords with potential venues, clearly under pressure, refused to rent them space.

The stand-off lasted until Christmas Day. Meantime, based on the permission from Hanoi, organizers sent invitations to many thousands of Christians in the city and surrounding provinces, and Christians were preparing to come with friends and neighbors to the event, sources said. Some 300 buses, each carrying 60 to 70 passengers, were to bring people from the provinces, they said.

By 11 a.m. on Christmas Day, in spite of official promises, the required permission papers had not yet been granted, church leaders said. Organizers debated whether to push ahead or call off the event – wondering whether communicating word of a cancellation was even possible at that point. Finally at 5 p.m., in an emergency meeting with the city’s ruling People’s Committee, they got a verbal go-ahead and a promise of a written permit.

They said this meant they had only 24 hours to build a perimeter around the field, bring in electricity and water, prepare sanitary facilities, set up chairs, erect a stage, and install the sound and lighting systems.

But the next morning – the Sunday of the planned event – authorities informed organizers that the permission was not for their program but only to provide a place where the buses and people could come so organizers could explain, apologize and send them home, sources said. Organizers said it was another in a series of deeply discouraging betrayals, but that many Christians in Vietnam and worldwide were praying fervently.

Just before noon, a church leader went to the BRA office in a last-ditch attempt to get written permission. He urged officials to think through the possible consequences of many thousands of people arriving in the city for a much anticipated event and finding nothing. Finally at 1 p.m., just five hours before the event was scheduled to start, the BRA issued written permission for a gathering of 5,000 people.

Permission at last in hand, organizers called and text-messaged the many people standing by to help set up to come to the venue in district 12. Sources said they came quickly, like a small army, encountering huge cement culverts and pilings on roads as they approached the venue. These had to be manually removed to allow buses and trucks to enter.

Too late now to set up properly, they said, they did only what was absolutely necessary. They brought in 14,000 chairs on flatbed trucks, and one of the trucks served as the stage. As a backdrop they had time only to put up a large red cross with a white border that, when lit, sources said, stood starkly and powerfully against the night sky.

Crews and volunteers worked feverishly erecting towers and installing sound and lighting systems. Christmas worshippers began arriving in large numbers at 5 p.m., even though people reported authorities had prevented a significant number of buses from embarking on their journey, and that others were intercepted and forced to turn around.

The program began only 30 minutes later than the announced start time of 6 p.m., which organizers regarded as a miracle, and people continued to pour into the venue until well after 7 p.m. while worship music was underway. Those attending enthusiastically participated in loud and joyful praise, and sources cited as especially moving a local choir of hundreds singing “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”

As they did last year, the Jackson family of six from the United States sang at the rally. The state-controlled media had earlier given ample coverage to the unique sight of the Christian group giving away their CDs in a busy downtown area.

Pastor Ho Tan Khoa was well into his evangelistic message when the lights went out, although sources said that, miraculously, the sound system was not affected. Thousands of people in the crowd opened their cell phones, lighting the darkness with their digital candles. The failure – or cutting – of the electricity did affect the live video broadcast on www.hoithanh.com , but within about 15 minutes power was restored.

After a song and prayer for healing, Pastor Pham Dinh Nhan asked those who wanted to follow Christ to come forward. Hundreds streamed up, and sources said those who arrived first rushed onto the flatbed truck serving as a stage and clung to the large cross. Organizers estimated 2,000 people indicated a first-time decision to follow Christ.

In a fitting closing song, the Jackson family sang both in Vietnamese and English, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Pastor Duong Thanh Lam then graciously thanked the relevant government departments for “recognizing our need to worship” and for “creating the conditions for this event to happen.”

Those who follow religion in Vietnam were puzzled that the government went to such lengths to hinder the gathering. They cited the government lock-out of a scheduled Christmas celebration in Hanoi on Dec. 19 as an example of interference that will also long be remembered (see http://www.compassdirect.org, “Vietnam Authorities Move to Stop Protestant Christmas Events,” Dec. 20).

“It seems Vietnam squandered an excellent public relations opportunity at a time when there are renewed efforts in the U.S. Congress to put Vietnam back on the religious liberty blacklist,” said one long-time observer.

Some Vietnamese church leaders and international observers have said they believe officials have clamped down on Christmas celebrations this year because they were alarmed at the size of last year’s Christmas events.

One church leader told Compass of Directive No. 75 of the Ministry of Interior, an Oct. 15 order that presumably forbids such gatherings. Though no church leader has been shown the directive, an official considered to be sympathetic to Christians told a pastor that the directive orders strict adherence to the Decree on Religion 22. This 2005 decree, the main law governing religion, forbids Christians in unregistered groups from any public gatherings, restricting their religious activity to
single family worship in their household.

In practice, sources said, many house churches have experienced considerably more freedom than that. Last year many unregistered groups were allowed, though reluctantly, to hold large public Christmas gatherings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The unregistered house churches are becoming increasingly frustrated. Most have tried to register their congregations according to existing laws but have either been refused or ignored. The freedoms that members of registered churches enjoy are not available for unregistered Christians, sources said, and unregistered Christians are unable to register.

Many speculate that concern over security in the run-up to the January 2011 Party Congress, held every five years, is one reason for the government’s approach. Whatever the reason, all concerned church leaders agreed that the efforts to stop the large Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City Christmas events this year were ordered from the top level of government. No leaders said they believe the obstacles resulted merely from disagreements and delays among government departments, as it was sometimes made
to appear.

A number of other events held in public venues by the registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) went ahead peacefully. The largest one in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 17 attracted an estimated 9,000 people, with about 1,000 indicating a desire to follow Christ.

In some places, unregistered house church organizations held small Christmas events without difficulty. According to one count, at least 6,000 people throughout Vietnam indicated a first-time decision to follow Christ in this year’s Christmas events.

Report from Compass Direct News

Unprecedented Christmas Gathering Held in Vietnam


With permission little and late, organizers work by faith to accommodate crowds.

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 14 (CDN) — On Friday evening (Dec. 11), history was made in communist Vietnam.

Christian sources reported that some 40,000 people gathered in a hastily constructed venue in Ho Chi Minh City to worship God, celebrate Christmas, and hear a gospel message – an event of unprecedented magnitude in Vietnam.

A popular Vietnamese Christian website and other reports indicated up to 8,000 people responded to the gospel message indicating a desire to follow Christ.

For the last two years, authorities surprisingly granted permission to unregistered house churches in Ho Chi Minh City to hold public Christmas rallies, and last year more than 10,000 people participated in one in Tao Dan Stadium.

This year visionary house church leaders approached the government in October and asked for a sports stadium seating 30,000; they were refused. Authorities offered a sports venue holding only 3,000, located 13 kilometers (eight miles) out of the city. This was unacceptable to the organizers. They pressed for another stadium in the city holding about 15,000, and officials gave them a verbal promise that they could have it.

The verbal promise did not translate into the written permission that is critical in the country – church leaders say such promises are empty until “we have the permission paper in our hand.” Christian leaders believed event planning had to proceed without permission and sent out invitations far and wide – only to have authorities deny the stadium they had promised.

Led by Pastor Ho Tan Khoa, chairman of a large fellowship of house church organizations, organizers were forced to look for alternatives. They found a large open field in the Go Vap district of the city. When permission was still not granted five days before the planned event, several church leaders literally camped for three days outside city hall, pressing for an answer.

Authorities, who often work to sabotage united action among Christians, tried urgently to find ways to talk the leaders out of going ahead, promising future concessions if they would cancel the event. Organizers stood firm. Ultimately they told the deputy mayor that refusal to grant permission at that point would have far-ranging, negative ramifications in Vietnam as well as internationally.

Finally, at the close of business on Dec. 9, just 48 hours before the scheduled event, officials granted permission that required clearance all the way to Hanoi. But the permission was only for 3,000 people, and many more had been invited.

Organizers had less than two days to turn a vacant field into something that would accommodate a stadium-size crowd. They had to bring in ample electricity, construct a giant stage, rent 20,000 chairs, and set up the sound and lighting. The extremely short time frame caused contractors to double the prices they would have charged with ample time.

Organizers also rented hundreds of busses to bring Christians and their non-Christian friends from provinces near the city. Thousands of students sacrificed classes to help with last-minute preparations and to join the celebration.

Just after noon on Friday (Dec. 11), word came that police had stopped busses carrying 300 Steing minority people from the west to the event scheduled for that day. Organizers, fearing all busses would be stopped, put out an emergency worldwide prayer request.

Christian sources said that authorities either did not or could not stop busses from other directions, and that by evening the venue became the biggest “bus station” in all of Vietnam. By 6 p.m. the venue was full to capacity, and at least 2,000 had to be turned away.

Christians described the event, entitled, “With Our Whole Hearts,” in superlative terms. For house churches, large gatherings are both very rare and very special, and for many this was their first glimpse of the strength of Vietnam’s growing Christian movement. Thousands of Christians joined a choir of more 1,000 singers in loud and joyful praise.

Sources said that the main speaker, the Rev. Duong Thanh Lam, head of the Assemblies of God house churches “preached with anointing” and people responding to his gospel invitation poured to the front of the stage “like a waterfall.” With space in front of the stage insufficient, the sources said, many others in their seats also indicated their desire to receive Christ.

Organizers along with many participants were overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude as the event closed. People spontaneously hugged each other and cried, “Lord, bring revival to all of Vietnam!” Other comments included, “Beyond our fondest imagination,” and, “Nothing could stop the hand of the Lord.”

The event raised more than 60 million dong (US$3,280) for a charity helping needy children. People were quite surprised to read a positive article on the event in the state-controlled press, which often vilifies Christians.

House churches in the north were hopeful that they could hold a similar event. Organizers in Hanoi have heard encouraging reports that they will get permission to use the national My Dinh sports stadium for a Christmas celebration, though they do not have it in hand. Sources said they have sent out invitations across a broad area to an event scheduled for Dec. 20.

Friday’s event also made history in that it was streamed live on the Vietnamese website www.hoithanh.com and viewed by thousands more in Vietnam and by Vietnamese people around the world.

Report from Compass Direct News 

VIETNAM: MASSIVE CHRISTIAN CELEBRATION ALLOWED


Officials permit rare, open-air Easter event by unregistered groups.

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 22 (Compass Direct News) – In what religious freedom advocates regarded as a breakthrough in Vietnam, authorities granted rare permission to unregistered house church groups to hold a large, public Easter-related service here last night.

More than 15,000 people gathered at Tao Dan Stadium to worship God, proclaim Christ and experience a rare sense of large-scale Christian unity, especially house church members accustomed to meeting in small groups. The only other such event granted to unregistered groups was an open-air meeting during Christmas of 2007 sponsored by the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF, a house church umbrella group).

At the event last night, the VEF endeavored to include all house churches, not just its own members, sources said.

Unregistered groups holding an event that includes worship and evangelism outside a church building violates Vietnam’s restrictive religion laws, and the celebration – in which 1,200 people indicated they had decided to follow Christ – did not happen without struggles. Reluctant to endorse such Christian unity events, authorities demanded and got the removal of one of the organizers – pastor Nguyen Ngoc Hien, who heads a Baptist house church and a group called the Christian Fellowship of Vietnam – as a condition to consider approval.

Officials did not grant permission until 4 p.m., just three hours before the event was to begin, though event organizers had requested permission several months prior. Authorities had assured them that permission was forthcoming, but organizers were understandably nervous. Adding to their concerns was the rain that hit just before the service began, though the rainy season has yet to arrive.

Since the celebration was held in the open air, a heavy rain would have been more than inconvenient. It rained just enough to refresh the air, stopping as the service began – an answer to prayer for participants. The celebration began with congregational worship; participants said the huge crowd sang with enthusiasm and joy.

“I never heard any singing like this, even in a Billy Graham crusade,” said one overseas Vietnamese Christian leader. “It was as if they offered to God all the praise and worship stored up in their hearts during many years of oppression.”

Worship included a dance group, and a 120-voice choir sang with gusto. Pastor Duong Thanh Lam of the Assemblies of God served as master of ceremonies, pastor Vo Van Lac of the Full Gospel Church preached a gospel message and pastor Pham Dinh Nhan of the United Gospel Outreach Church made an evangelistic appeal. People responded with loud applause and raised their hands in praise, and those who decided to follow Christ included old and young, students and teachers, rank-and-file workers and some disabled people. Witnesses said some were healed as leaders prayed for them.

Leaders of the celebration and religious freedom advocates in Vietnam said the event was significant in that unregistered house churches were allowed to hold a large public celebration. They added that authorities must have felt enough pressure to consider the event less harmful than possible negative publicity from denying permission.

The sources also said the event showed that Vietnam’s house churches, widely known for divisiveness and provincialism, could cooperate with good results.

“Those who have long urged and worked for unity can be pleased,” said one advocate. “While there is still a long way to go for Vietnamese Christian groups in practicing collaboration and partnership, this Easter celebration is seen as a significant step forward.”

A prominent overseas Vietnam leader who founded the Vietnam World Christian Fellowship witnessed the event and highly commended the leadership of pastor Ho Tan Khoa, chairman of the VEF, and his committee.

Some former Vietnam missionaries were incredulous that such events can take place in Vietnam, which until recently has had a place among the world’s top persecutors of religion. Prior to the Easter-related event organized by unregistered house churches, Christmas events were similarly held by the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) last December.

“That a successful Christian celebration with mass evangelism approved by the government can take place in Vietnam where in some places Christians are still heavily persecuted shows the ongoing inconsistency of Vietnam’s religion policy,” said one source. “Vietnam Christian leaders have long prayed for such opportunities. They see these events as direct answers from God, whom they believe holds the hearts of rulers in his hands.”

Three representatives of a house church group in China were present at the service; they expressed amazement. They promised Vietnamese church leaders to send missionaries to help in the evangelization of Vietnam and invited Vietnamese church leaders to visit China to learn about the church there.

Vietnamese participants said the celebration was inspiring, describing it as “spectacular,” “splendid,” “glorious” and “phenomenal.”  

Report from Compass Direct News