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 , 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, “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


Converts from ancestral animism threatened with violence, imprisonment.

HO CHI MINH CITY, November 21 (Compass Direct News) – In violation of Vietnam’s new religion policy, authorities in Lao Cai Province in Vietnam’s far north are pressuring new Christians among the Hmong minority to recant their faith and to re-establish ancestral altars, according to area church leaders.

Local authorities have warned that on Sunday (Nov. 23) they will come in force to Ban Gia Commune and Lu Siu Tung village, Bac Ha district, where the Christians reside, but they did not say what they would do.

When the authorities in Bac Ha district in Vietnam’s Northwest Mountainous Region discovered that villagers had converted to Christianity and discarded their altars, they sent “work teams’ to the area to apply pressure. Earlier this month they sent seven high officials – including Ban Gia Deputy Commune Chief Thao Seo Pao, district Police Chief A. Cuong and district Security Chief A. Son – to try to convince the converts that the government considered becoming a Christian a very serious offense.

Christian leaders in the area said threats included being cut off from any government services. When this failed to deter the new Christians, they said, the officials threatened to drive the Christians from their homes and fields, harm them physically and put them in prison.

When the Christians refused to buckle under the threats, a leader of the Christians, Chau Seo Giao, was summoned daily to the commune headquarters for interrogation. He refused to agree to lead his people back to their animistic beliefs and practices.

Giao asked the authorities to put their orders to recant the Christian faith into writing. The officials declined, with one saying, “We have complete authority in this place. We do not have to put our orders into writing.”

They held Giao for a day and night without food and water before releasing him. He is still required to report daily for “work sessions.”

In September, Hmong evangelists of the Vietnam Good News Church had traveled to the remote Ban Gia Commune where it borders Ha Giang province. Within a month, some 20 families numbering 108 people in Lu Siu Tung village had become Christians and had chosen Giao to be their leading elder.

Rapid growth of Christianity among Vietnam’s ethnic minorities in the northwest provinces has long worried authorities. There were no Protestant believers in the region in 1988, and today there are an estimated 300,000 in many hundreds of congregations. As recently as 2003, official government policy, according to top secret documents acquired by Vietnam Christians leaders, was the “eradication” of Christianity.

Under international pressure, however, a new, more enlightened religion policy was promulgated by Vietnam beginning in late 2004. Part of the new approach was an effort to eliminate forced renunciations of faith. The provisions and benefits of such legislation, however, have been very unevenly applied and have not reached many places such as Ban Gia Commune.

Vietnam’s Bureau of Religious Affairs prepared a special instruction manual for officials in the Northwest Mountainous Region on how to deal with the Protestant movement. Published in 2006 and entitled “Concerning the Task of the Protestant Religion in the Northwest Mountainous Region,” this document included plainly worded instructions for authorities to use all means to persuade new believers to return to their traditional beliefs and practices.

This document directly contravened Vietnam’s undertaking to outlaw any forcible change of religion. Under international pressure, the manual was revised and some language softened, but according to an analysis of the 2007 revision of the manual released in February by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the language still communicates the goal of containing existing Christianity and leaves the door open to actively stop the spread of Christianity.

The Central Bureau of Religious Affairs instruction manual for training officials shows no change to the 2006 document’s core objective to “solve the Protestant problem” by subduing its development, concluded the February report by CSW and the International Society for Human Rights.

The 2006 manual had outlined a government plan to “resolutely subdue the abnormally rapid and spontaneous development of the Protestant religion in the region.”

“Whereas the 2006 manual provided specific legitimacy for local officials to force renunciations of faith among members of less well-established congregations, the 2007 edition imposes an undefined and arbitrary condition of stability upon the freedom of a congregation to operate,” the CSW report says. “Therefore, the treatment of any congregation deemed not to ‘stably practice religion’ is implicitly left to the arbitration of local officials, who had previously been mandated to force renunciations of faith.”

Without a full and unconditional prohibition on forcing renunciations of faith, the report concludes, the amended manual does not go far enough to redress problems in the 2006 original.

Officials in the remote village of Ban Gia felt no compunction to resort to strong-arm methods to halt the growth of Christianity, said one long-time Vietnam observer.

“When a church leader advised the central government of the problem in Ban Gia Commune, the pressure only increased,” he said. “The unavoidable conclusion is that it is still acceptable in Vietnam for officials to force recantations of Christian faith.”

Report from Compass Direct News


On same day, Mennonite denomination receives legal recognition; pastors wary.

LOS ANGELES, November 20 (Compass Direct News) – At a chapel on the remaining patch of Thai Ha Redemptorist property in Hanoi that the Vietnamese government had yet to confiscate, at 10 p.m. on Saturday night (Nov. 15) an official came to summon the priests to an “urgent meeting.” According to website and other church sources, it proved to be a ruse to draw them away from the property while government-inspired gangs attacked St. Gerardo Chapel.

As the gangs ravaged the chapel, Father Joseph Dinh told Independent Catholic News, some people at the church began ringing the church bells to signal for help while others sent urgent e-mail and text messages asking Catholics to defend it.

Hundreds of police with stun guns tried to keep the arriving faithful from entering the chapel to stop the destruction. The hundreds of Catholics who arrived eventually overwhelmed officers, going past police to scare off the attackers. Witnesses reportedly said that government, police and security officials had stood by doing nothing to protect the chapel.

They also said that fleeing gang members shouted obscenities threatening to kill the priests and the faithful, as well as the archbishop.

“It is significant that the government attack against the monastery came on the eve of the celebration of the Feast of Vietnamese Martyrs,” a local priest told “This attack reminds people that since the outset, the seed of faith in Vietnam’s soil was mixed with the abundant blood of Catholic martyrs from all walks of life – from courageous missionaries to local clergy and the Christian faithful.”

The priest concluded by decrying the deterioration of conditions for Vietnamese Catholics.

A government spokesman later denied that the Vietnamese forces or authorities were involved in the attack.

As the government had achieved its objective of taking over the contested land, the well-coordinated attack came as a surprise to many. In September, Vietnam had resorted to force to answer months of growing but peaceful prayer vigils over long-confiscated Catholic properties in Hanoi, reneging on a promise to negotiate a settlement. Unilaterally, the government quickly turned the papal nunciature and the rest of the Thai Ha Redemptorist property into public parks.

The solidarity demonstrated by Catholics throughout the country appeared to have alarmed authorities. They reverted to classic attacks of disinformation and slander against Catholic leaders, and even after they had halted the prayer vigils, taken the contested land and allowed previous gangs to ransack the Redemptorist chapel, authorities demanded the removal of the archbishop of Hanoi, Ngo Quang Kiet, whom they accused of inciting riots against the state.

A Protestant pastor in Hanoi said the government’s recent conflict with Catholics has had a ripple affect on other churches and religions.

“Though it is the Catholics who are being most lambasted in the state media, Protestants are also maligned along with Catholics by government propaganda,” he said. “Secondly, all religious leaders are again subject to closer surveillance.”


Mennonite Church Recognized

Ironically, only a few hours earlier on the same day the chapel was attacked, the Vietnam Mennonite Church was allowed to hold its organizing general assembly in Ho Chi Minh City, becoming the fifth smaller church body to receive full legal recognition in 2008.

While registration can mark an improvement in the way the government treats a church, it is not to be confused with full religious freedom, church leaders said, as it is sometimes used as a means of control. The dubious benefits of registration have led many Protestant groups to simply quit seeking it.

Other Protestant groups to receive legal recognition in 2008 were the Grace Baptist Church, the Vietnam Presbyterian Church, the Vietnam Baptist Church, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. This brought the total number of fully recognized Protestant denominations to eight. Two of the eight bodies, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), received legal recognition before the new religion legislation initiated in late 2004.

None of the 24 house church organizations of the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF), however, has received even the lower-level “national registration to carry out religious activity.” Only one in seven of its congregations even have permission to operate locally.

Of the total 2,148 VEF congregations, 1,498 have applied for local permission to carry out religious activity, but only 334 have received it. Another house church organization has had 80 congregations apply for local permission to operate and has received only refusals or no answer at all. Other groups report a similar experience.

A hint of the government’s attitude toward registered churches, pastors said, was evident in its official news release on the Vietnam Mennonite Church general assembly. The Vietnam News Agency release of Nov. 15 enjoining the church to “serve both God and the nation” and to “unite with other people in the course of national reconstruction” struck some church leaders as an expectation that their congregations will serve political ends.

Christian leaders detected government fear of churches’ international connections in the official claim that, “For more than three decades, the Vietnam Mennonite Church has operated independently from foreign Mennonite churches.”

As is customary, the ceremony included an address by a representative of the Bureau of Religious Affairs. Nguyen Thanh Xuan said he expects the Mennonite Church “to bring into full play good characteristics of Protestantism, uphold the tradition of charity, and join hands with other religious and non-religious people to build a country of stability and prosperity.”

The heavy-handed treatment of Catholics over the disputed property and the offering of legal registration to more Protestant groups does not present the contrast it may first appear, said one long-time observer.

“Catholics outnumber Protestants about five to one and are a much more formidable and unified organization than Vietnam’s fractured Protestants,” he said. “Alarmed at the largest countrywide Catholic solidarity ever demonstrated, nonplussed security authorities ordered a classic, harsh crackdown and incited ‘punishment’ disguised as citizens’ outrage.”

Protestants, he said, are less numerous, more divided and rarely capable of joint action, so they do not pose a serious threat.

“For example, the oft-repeated requests and ultimatums by the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) on their 265 confiscated properties are simply ignored,” he said. “And don’t forget that the majority of Protestants are ethnic minorities in remote areas who remain closely watched by the government.”  

Report from Compass Direct News