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

Government-Incited Gang Attacks House Church

Youths smash walls, rant against evangelist for building home for worship services.

HO CHI MINH CITY, July 23 (CDN) — A gang of youths on Sunday (July 18) attacked a house church as the congregation worshiped in Xi Thoai village in Phu Yen Province on Vietnam’s south central coast, Christian sources said.

The local youths smashed the walls of the home and wreaked havoc within as they railed against evangelist Mang Vuong for being a Christian and for building his home to be a house church, the sources said. The sources noted that on the night of June 10 the same youths, spurred by local authorities, broke into Vuong’s home in Xuan Lanh Commune, Dong Xuan district, stole more than $3,000 and destroyed household furnishings, utensils and books.

Since then this same gang of local youths has been harassing and threatening Vuong, sources said. The pastor reported death threats.

Vuong, of the Hroi ethnic minority, is a worker for the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), or ECVN(S), Vietnam’s largest government-registered denomination. When the Hroi church at Soi Nga some six kilometers (nearly four miles) away became full, leaders decided to start a congregation in Xi Thoai village where a number of Hroi Christians lived.

In Vietnam, a common approach for church expansion is to build a roomy home for an evangelist to serve also as a meeting place. The evangelist’s house in Xi Thoai was nearly completed when it was first attacked last month.

According to a petition the evangelist sent to commune, district and provincial officials on June 12, it was village officials who assembled young people for a meeting on June 9 and plied them with liquor. Very late at night the youths, including several sons of commune officials, attacked the evangelist’s house.

The petition blames village Chief La Mo Duc, Deputy Chief Le Minh Dien and others for inciting the young people. These two officials are also the local Communist Party leaders.

The gang stole 60 million dong (US$3,091), which had just been borrowed to pay the house contractor, according to the petition. They burned Christian books and either stole or destroyed everything else in the house, including new building materials and the contractor’s tools.

Police from local to provincial levels came to the area several times to “investigate,” visits that village Christians said were attempts to identify the Christians in the village. In the next six weeks, sources said, authorities did nothing to address the crime, and local officials did nothing to stop the daylight raid on Sunday (July 18).

“There was no other reason for this – it is religious persecution, pure and simple, incited and allowed by local government officials,” said one prominent ECVN(S) leader. “The inaction of higher officials casts into doubt our country’s claim to uphold religious freedom.”

A provincial ECVN(S) leader, Pastor Vo Thanh Phe, said that for six weeks he had been urging local and provincial officials to take action, without success. Recently a top national leader of the ECVN(S) visited the village to encourage the beleaguered evangelist and Christians. He informed the provincial ECVN(S) leaders that, having personally verified the facts, he would petition the prime minister.

A source said the ECVN(S) leader needed to make the personal visit as it was assumed that the government had tapped the phones of the local Christians.

Christian groups in Vietnam have found that such petitions rarely accomplish anything. Sources said often the petitions are simply referred back down to local officials, who make life harder on those who have complained.

Phu Yen Province has been the site of other recent abuses. Two ethnic minority Ede evangelists, Y Co and Y Du of the unregistered Vietnam Good News Mission Church, were arrested in January and remain in Phu Lam Prison without charge or trial. This is contrary to Vietnamese law (see, “Vietnamese Christian, Family Forced into Hiding,” April 1).

Their wives reported that officials told them their husbands would be freed if the prisoners renounced their faith.

A government seminar in May on national religion policy in Phu Yen Province has apparently had little effect on some local officials.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, visiting Hanoi on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the normalization of US-Vietnam relations, raised the issue of human rights and religious freedom with Vietnam’s leaders yesterday (July 22). She had been pressed by human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers to raise the cases of jailed democracy and religious rights activists with Vietnam.

Clinton said the U.S. side wanted to work with Vietnam “to support efforts to pursue reforms and protect basic rights and freedoms,” The Associated Press reported yesterday. When the sensitive subject of human rights came up, Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem described it simply as “a difference between Vietnam and the U.S.”

“Since Vietnam achieved its goal of obtaining U.S. trade privileges in 2006 and acceded to the World Trade Organization in 2007, it has hardened its treatment of democracy, rights and religious freedom activists,” said one long-time observer. “Some keen observers of the Vietnam scene do not foresee any positive changes in Vietnam’s human rights record at least until after next January’s five-yearly Communist Party Congress. In preparation for the congress, for which all major decisions are made in advance, no party factions can be seen to be weak on perceived threats to the revolution.”

Report from Compass Direct News


In an unexpected turn of events, Communist authorities in Hanoi have responded to protests and halted construction on a piece of land that a Catholic church claims to have owned since 1928, International Christian Concern reports.

Vietnamese Roman Catholics had held several protests against the construction on land claimed by the Tai Ha Redemptorist parish, including a prayer vigil observed by one thousand people.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung announced the decision of the Hanoi People’s Committee on Tuesday, according to AFP. The committee had told agencies to “stop the implementation of the project and construction works on the land of the Ba Giang lake,” he said.

AFP said that a school has already been constructed on the property, and another building as well as a residential block are also planned.

Vietnam’s Communist government has given mixed signals to Vietnamese Christians in recent months. Last month, it allowed unregistered house church groups and 15,000 people to hold a large, public Easter-related service at Tao Dan Stadium. It had only allowed such an event on one other occasion, at Christmastime in 2007.

On March 11, however, the government abruptly destroyed an historic church building in the Banmethuot om area. It had confiscated the building from the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), or ECVN(S), in 1975.

The ECVN(S) passed a resolution stating that its “Executive Council…is extremely upset and in deep sympathy with the 135,000 believers in Dak Lak province.”

Eight percent of the Vietnamese population is Christian. Of these, 6.46 percent are Catholic, and .89 percent are Protestant.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


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


Government wrecking crews arrive hours after promises of security.

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 9 (Compass Direct News) – Just hours after the prime minister’s office assured denominational leaders that there were no plans to destroy their Protestant church building, authorities in Banmethuot last month demolished the historic structure in the Central Highlands city.

Government work crews arrived at the site just after darkness fell on March 11 and quickly demolished the structure belonging to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), or ECVN(S), according to local sources.

Authorities had confiscated the church building in 1975 after the Communist victory and had removed its cross. But the bright pink church stood prominently, though unused, for many years on Le Duan Boulevard on Banmethuot’s south side. Church authorities many times had asked for its return.

It was the last remaining church building of the Ede ethnic minority, who make up most of Dak Lak’s 135,000 believers.

The demolition was the latest in a series of painful developments. In early March three pastors from ECVN(S)’s Dak Lak provincial committee took up the matter of the church building with local authorities. The officials told the pastors that the request for return would soon be resolved, and that until then the building was secure.

But on March 11, rumors of an imminent plan to demolish the church reached members of the ECVN(S) provincial committee. Alarmed, they called their top leaders at Ho Chi Minh City headquarters. The church president promptly agreed to call the office of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the Ministry of Public Security in Hanoi. Officials told him not to worry, that there was no plan to demolish the church.

“Nothing will happen – we are in control,” an official told the denominational president, according to one Christian source. “The ECVN(S) president called his Dak Lak provincial committee in the evening to pass on this assurance from the very top. Hardly an hour later, after darkness had fallen, government officials supervised destruction of the church building.”

A frustrated ECVN(S) leader called the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Public Security asking how, in the light of the demolition, the church could trust them, sources said.

“He was told, ‘Sorry, but this as an action of the local officials,’” one source said. “This downward deflection of responsibility in regard to religious issues happens regularly.”

A week later, on March 20, the ECVN(S) governing board of 22 members unanimously passed a resolution.

“Numerous times the Executive Council of our church has petitioned the government concerning our many confiscated properties,” the resolution reads. “Most regrettably, not only have the petitions not been satisfactorily dealt with, but on the night of March 11, 2009, officials of Dak Lak province demolished the last remaining Ede church at Gate One in Banmethuot City.

“The Executive Council of the ECVN(S) is extremely upset and in deep sympathy with the 135,000 believers in Dak Lak province. We hereby urgently notify all churches in our fellowship. We are deeply saddened by these events.”

Calling for the church to set aside today for fasting and prayer, the resolution also stated that ECVN(S)’s Executive Council would select representatives to meet with authorities of Dak Lak province and the central government to ask that “they urgently address and solve this matter so that the events described above will not be repeated in other places.”

When the church circulated the urgent bulletin concerning the day of fasting and prayer, government authorities strongly objected, saying they feared it might lead to demonstrations in the Central Highlands. But the church did not back down.

Fallout continues. The three pastors of the ECVN(S) Dak Lak provincial committee, two Ede and one ethnic Vietnamese, have resigned, citing government betrayal. A meeting of the two ECVN(S) vice-presidents with Dak Lak officials this week was described as “very disappointing.”

Dak Lak province was also the location of the demolition of a large new church building in Cu Hat, Krong Bong district in December. It belonged to the Vietnam Good News Church, an unregistered group (see “Authorities Destroy New Church Building,” Dec. 17, 2008). Authorities disguised in civilian clothes destroyed the new structure because they said Christians had illegally cut the lumber used to build it. Virtually all homes and buildings in the area are built using such lumber.

Being unregistered or fully registered as the ECVN(S) seems to make little difference to authorities, a Christian source said.

“Leaders of both registered and unregistered Protestant groups express equal helplessness in the face of such malicious government actions against them,” he said.

Last year the prime minister promised a resolution to a major dispute with Catholics over the long-contested property that once served as the residence of the papal nuncio in Hanoi. The outcome was similar: the confiscated property was not returned, and on Sept. 19, 2008 the residence was destroyed.

Both Protestant and Catholic church leaders in Vietnam say that blatant government duplicity quickly and seriously undermines Vietnam’s recent hard-won gains in perceptions of improvement in religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News


Five Christians injured as officials raze ‘illegally constructed’ worship place.

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 17 (Compass Direct News) – Local government officials in Dak Lak Province this morning made good on their threat to destroy a new wooden church building erected in September by Hmong Christians in Cu Hat village.

At 7 a.m. in Cu Dram Commune, Krong Bong district, a large contingent of government officials, police and demolition workers arrived at the site of a Vietnam Good News Mission and Church, razing it by 8:30 a.m. Police wielding electric cattle prods beat back hundreds of distraught Christians who rushed to the site to protect the building.

Five injured people were taken away in an emergency vehicle authorities had brought to the scene. The injured included a child who suffered a broken arm and a pregnant woman who fainted after being poked in the stomach with an electric cattle prod. Villagers said they fear she may miscarry.

By day’s end one badly injured woman had not yet been returned to the village, and authorities would not divulge where she was.

One sad Vietnamese church leader said that the demolition of the church ahead of Christmas showed the heartlessness of officials toward Christian believers.

“They think no one will notice or do anything about what they do in a remote area,” he said.

Nearly eight years ago a congregation numbering more than 500 Hmong Christians had joined thousands of others fleeing persecution in Vietnam’s northwest provinces, migrating to the Central Highlands. They aspired to construct a church building so they could worship protected from the rain and sun.

In September they were finally able to assemble materials needed to erect a 12-meter by 20-meter church building, large enough for them to meet. Eventually they were able to put a durable tile roof on the building, and with great joy they began worshipping together in a single location.

Although virtually all buildings in this area of Vietnam are erected without building permits, local authorities accused the Christians of “illegal construction” and ordered the congregation to “voluntarily” tear it down. On Dec. 2, Krong Bong district officials made a formal decision to demolish the church within two weeks if the Christians would not do so themselves.

The Vietnam Good News Mission and Church is an organization that for more than a year has tried to register more than a hundred of its congregations without any success. Contrary to Vietnam’s new religion legislation, these requests for registration have either been denied or ignored.


Agony and Ecstasy

In contrast to this hostility toward ethnic minority Christians in a remote area, several Ho Chi Minh City congregations of the legally-recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) on Dec. 12-13 were allowed to hold a large Christmas celebration event in a soccer stadium.

An estimated 10,000 attended on each night of the event. The program, which featured a popular Vietnamese entertainer who recently came to faith in Christ, a U.S. soloist and Korean and Chinese choirs, included an evangelistic invitation to which hundreds responded.

In a country where Christians have suffered under communist attitudes and actions against them for more than 30 years, many Vietnamese Christians were ecstatic that such an event could take place.

Likewise, in Pleiku in Gia Lai Province in mid-October, some 20,000 Jarai ethnic minority Christians gathered to hold an unprecedented celebration of the 65th anniversary of the coming of the gospel to their people. They had sought permission for more than a year, but it was granted only four days before the event. Participants said they suspected officials granted permission chiefly because several high-profile U.S. visitors made it clear they would attend.

In contrast, authorities have worked to limit the spread of Christianity to new areas. In a remote commune of Lao Cai Province, officials pressured new Hmong Christians to recant their new faith and re-establish their ancestral altars (See Compass Direct News, “Vietnamese Authorities Pressure New Christians to Recant,” Nov. 21).

Also, Christians in Dien Bien Province are trying to verify recent reports of the torching of Christian homes in the area.

Vietnam’s large Catholic Church was also reawakened to authorities’ residual hostility toward Christianity this year, with the government reacting violently to sustained but peaceful pressure by thousands to recover church land and buildings confiscated by authorities after the prime minister had agreed to negotiations.

Vietnam gave unusually light, house-arrest sentences to eight Catholics arrested during the prayer vigils-cum-protests. Previously others arrested for similar reasons have been sentenced to prison for years.

“Unfortunately, the mostly urban bright spots are cancelled by the persistence of old-style repression among Vietnam’s ethnic minorities in remote areas,” said one veteran Vietnam observer. “The easier registration of churches promised in 2005 is being granted very selectively and is used as a means of limiting and controlling Christianity.”

That central government authorities responsible for implementing improved religion policy seem to turn a blind eye to old-fashioned thugs at the local level, he added, “is very discouraging to Vietnam’s Christians. Religious freedom reserved for some is not religious freedom.”  

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