Unprecedented Appearance of Foreign Evangelist in Vietnam

Luis Palau preaches at Protestant centennial in spite of government putting up obstacles to event.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, April 11 (CDN) — The first appearance by a U.S.-based evangelist preaching at a major event since the 1975 communist victory in Vietnam helped the country’s Protestants to celebrate their centennial last weekend after government officials gave last-minute approval.

In what seems to have become standard government procedure in Vietnam, permission requested months in advance was granted – at a venue several kilometers from the one organizers sought – just three hours before the first major celebration of the Centennial of Protestantism in Vietnam (1911-2011) at Thanh Long Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday (April 9) was scheduled to begin. Argentine-born Luis Palau, who has preached in person to 28 million people in 72 countries, delivered the gospel

A second night of celebration began at 7 p.m. on Sunday.

The venue change meant equipment staged in one part of the city had to be moved to the new location before it could be assembled, church leaders said. It also meant notifying many thousands of people invited to one venue about the change to the other, they said.

Given the lack of government cooperation, the leader of Vietnam’s Evangelical Fellowship (of house churches) said the fact that the event went ahead at all was “an absolute miracle.”

By word-of-mouth, Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and especially phone texting, thousands of people got word of the change as technicians and hundreds of volunteers made heroic efforts to ready the stadium. Vietnamese police proved surprisingly helpful in redirecting people from the original site to the new location.

At 9 p.m. – two hours after the schedule start – huge banners reading “PRAY FOR VIETNAM” and “GOD LOVES VIETNAM” were unfurled to welcome the Luis Palau Team and thousands of people to the festival, which joyfully combined the centennial celebration with Easter.

After opening prayers and welcome by Vietnamese leaders, Palau’s son Andrew Palau gave testimony to how God delivered him from alcoholism and drug addiction and called him to Christian service. An Intel Corp. vice-president also gave testimony to how God blessed his life and his business. Pastor-musician Don Moen, known for songs such as “Give Thanks,” “God is so Good,” and “God will Make a Way,” provided inspirational music followed by exuberant congregational singing.

Palau began his message at 11 p.m., delivering a concise and clear evangelistic sermon, and about 800 came forward as he invited people to receive Christ. It was after midnight before people began to depart for their homes.

The second celebration proceeded Sunday evening (April 10) in a more orderly and timely fashion. More than 12,000 people filled the seats and most of the chairs set up on the stadium field. In response to Palau’s second message, more than 1,000 people, according to one organizer, came forward in response to the call to follow Christ.

Photos and Vietnamese text on the events are readily available at http://www.hoithanh.com, and clips of the arrival of Palau and Moen in Vietnam may be found on YouTube. They were welcomed at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhut airport by hundreds of enthusiastic young people carrying banners and flowers.

Dr. Nguyen Xuan Duc, president of the Vietnam World Christian Fellowship, said he was very encouraged about the future of the church in Vietnam.

“These are watershed days for Protestantism in Vietnam,” he said. “There is no fear, but rather wonderful spontaneity and irrepressible joy. Events like this happen in spite of the government and without the blessing of some overly conservative church leaders. What we see is young, vibrant, lay-led, internationally connected and very media-savvy.”

While Moen, Palau and others spoke on Sunday night, also appearing in Ho Chi Minh City was iconic singer/songwriter Bob Dylan – whose performance sold only about half of the 8,000 seats at RMIT university.

A week before in Beijing, censors who reviewed Dylan’s song list allowed an unabashedly Christian song beginning, “Jesus said be ready for you know not the hour in which I come,” but did not allow “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” according to The Associated Press. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch complained that, in an earlier day, Dylan – whose music contributed to opposition to the Vietnam War – would never have let a government tell him what to sing, according to the AP.  

Vietnamese organizers and the Palau team now travel north to Hanoi for similar events on Friday and Saturday (April 15-16). As yet there is no indication whether authorities there will be more accommodating than they were in Ho Chi Minh City.

Report from Compass Direct News

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

Authorities Move to Stop Protestant Christmas Events

Apparent central government crackdown puts halt to Yuletide celebrations in five areas.

HANOI, Vietnam, December 20 (CDN) — In what appeared to be part of a central government crackdown on Protestant Christianity in Vietnam, hundreds of Christians from 10 northern provinces were locked out of a Christmas celebration that was supposed to take place here yesterday.

The throngs who arrived at the National Convention Center (NCC) in the Tu Kiem district of Hanoi for the Christmas event found the doors locked and a phalanx of police trying to send them away, sources said. Deeply disappointed, some of the Christians began singing and praying in the square in front to the center, they said.

Police moved in, striking some Christians with fists and night sticks in the melee that followed. A number of video clips of the action were posted online by Monday morning (Dec. 20), Hanoi time. Christian leaders worked to calm the disappointed crowd, which eventually left, but not before at least six people – including the Rev. Nguyen Huu Bao, the scheduled speaker at the event – were arrested. They had not been released at press time.

Similar incidents occurred on Christmas Sunday (Dec. 19) in at least four other places throughout the country.

Unregistered house churches under the umbrella of the Hanoi Christian Fellowship rented the auditorium in the name of one of their members. A copy of the six-page contract obtained by Compass says the event was to be a reunion of Vietnamese who had worked in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Many of northern Vietnam’s house church leaders became Christians during their time there.

While it was understood that this was to be a Christmas event, the managers of the state-owned facility did not want to put this in writing. Organizers had hoped that some 4,000 people would come.

The contract called for at least five days’ written notice before the event if either side wanted to terminate the contract. According to one source, the NCC informed event organizers on Dec. 15, four days before the event, that the contract was voided but gave no reasons as the contract required. The organizers, having completed major preparations and distributed several thousand invitations, considered this a breach of contract and decided to try to go ahead.

When the first Christians arrived Sunday afternoon, they found the doors of the NCC locked. According to a source at the scene, a sign indicated a wedding was taking place. When more than 1,000 people had arrived, some decided to sing and pray in the square in front of the NCC. Police called for reinforcements.

One witness said “possibly hundreds” of uniformed and plainclothes personnel came to try to disperse the growing crowd. Reports from the scene and video clips on the Web show pushing and shoving, with some Christian leaders trying desperately to calm the agitated crowd. Some witnesses said officials punched some Christians, and others were struck hard with night sticks. Late police reinforcements carried electric cattle prods, according to one source. In one clip, people can be seen comforting an 86-year-old woman who was knocked down.

Gradually the Christians dispersed. For many Christians who tried to come – some from great distances and at great personal expense – this would have marked the first time they had ever worshipped in a large gathering.

Sources in Vietnam told Compass that similar stoppages also took place yesterday (Dec. 19) in Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and Quang Nam provinces, and in the city of Danang in central Vietnam.

In Thanh Hoa province, Christians of various house church denominations planned a joint celebration yesterday at the home of a woman identified only as Tuyet in Dong Phu commune. Pastor Ho Van Thom sent an appeal to the church worldwide asking for the prayers. He arrived at the scene to find some Christians had been beaten and wounded by police intent on preventing their Christmas worship.

In Danang city in central Vietnam, the Rev. Ho Tan Khoa, superintendent of the unregistered United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam, was invited to preach at a house church Christmas celebration yesterday. Pastor Khoa reported that a distraught church leader told him authorities had come that morning and, without a warrant, carted off the chairs, the pulpit and the sound system. They also tore down the Christmas decorations including a backdrop painstakingly decorated by church members, he said.

In Ho Chi Minh City, house churches have received permission for a public Christmas celebration both from authorities of the central government in Hanoi and of Ho Chi Minh City for an event on Dec. 26.  But church leaders say that potential venue owners, obviously under threat, will not dare rent to them.

Even those who closely follow Protestant church developments in Vietnam were somewhat surprised at the severity of the crackdown. One well-respected overseas Vietnam leader observed that it is now clear that this was a coordinated, well-planned and executed crackdown involving top Communist Party and government officials.

He noted that sometimes officials in remote areas of the country are excused when they persecute Christians on the grounds they do not yet know the new, more enlightened religion policies of the central government.

“In this case,” he said, “the strong actions against Christians are taking place in Vietnam’s three largest cities. They can’t use that excuse.”

Another observer said that authorities likely became alarmed at the size and attraction of the Christmas events in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi last Christmas. The events in those two cities attracted more than 50,000 people. They were organized by unregistered house churches that somehow obtained permission in spite of prohibitions of such events by Vietnam’s Decree 22, which governs religion.

One key church leader in Vietnam informed Compass that Directive No. 75, a secret Ministry of Interior document dated Oct. 15, ordered the crackdown on unregistered groups.

Unregistered groups are caught in limbo. Denominations with a history before the 1975 communist takeover of Vietnam have now been registered, but many groups that began in the 1980s and later have tried but failed to register their congregations as provided by Vietnam’s regulations. Their requests have mostly been ignored or denied, leaving them vulnerable to capricious repression.

As Christmas Day draws near, it appears the 400,000 or so Protestants that belong to unregistered churches will be denied celebrating together.

Report from Compass Direct News

Vietnamese Authorities Demolish Home, Church Headquarters

Long-harassed Mennonite leader fought expropriation; 20 Bible students arrested, sent home.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, December 17 (CDN) — An estimated 500 soldiers and police here cordoned off the church headquarters and home of the Rev. Nguyen Hong Quang on Tuesday (Dec. 14), and then heavy equipment operators quickly demolished the two-story building, sources said.  

Mennonite Pastor Quang and his followers did not interfere with the demolition, the local sources said, but an altercation occurred away from the scene in which authorities knocked him unconscious after he objected to the arrest of some 20 Bible school students. Though police tried hard to confiscate cameras and cell phones, the demolition and the church’s version of events made it onto videos available online.

The demolition was the culmination an expropriation battle over the property. The area of the city where the Mennonite center was located, Thu Thiem in District 2, has been zoned for urban development, and the government has been expropriating land for this purpose. Those who had built before 1992 got a set price per meter, and those like Pastor Quang who built after the government purportedly announced development plans were offered only half that amount.  

Pastor Quang, who has legal training, appealed and helped a number of neighbors to do so as well.

Victims of the Mennonite church expropriation said the government was using legal means as a pretext for suppressing their church.

“They are always looking for such excuses to suppress us,” said one leader who requested anonymity. “This event was carefully planned since at least September, when they started slandering Pastor Quang in the newspapers.”

Prior to the demolition, he said, various officials barged into the center and “terrorized” Pastor Quang’s family.   

“The demolition itself, involving hundreds of government people, was pulled off with great precision,” he said. “During the demolition, they not only cordoned off the site, but we hear they also disabled the cell phones of some other church leaders in the city.”

With a history of confronting government injustices and providing moral support to dissident groups, Pastor Quang has long been the object of official resentment. He and other Mennonites were arrested in 2004, and several spent time in prison for “resisting an officer doing his duty.” Strong international advocacy secured an early release for him.

On Tuesday (Dec. 14) he was moving 20 or so resident Bible school students to a place he had rented nearby in the event of heavy-handed action by the government. He peacefully objected to the arrest of the students, sources said, but police punched him and knocked him unconscious. He was taken to a nearby police lockup and released later that day.

Pastor Quang reluctantly accepted a key to a run-down apartment in a government resettlement block in order to provide shelter for his family. Authorities put the students on buses to their homes and warned them not to return to Ho Chi Minh City.

This year officials decided to attack Pastor Quang first with a smear campaign. Since September the state media, including the Saigon Giai Phong (Liberation) newspaper, have run articles falsely accusing him of sexual misconduct, including names of his alleged partners, among other allegations. They falsely accused him of being a counterfeit pastor who ordained himself and ran what appears to be a fabricated “testimony” of a Christian who condemns Pastor Quang’s character.  

One article in Saigon Giai Phong quotes Pastor Nguyen Quang Trung, the leader of another Vietnam Mennonite church group officially recognized in 2007, as saying Pastor Quang was expelled from the denomination for misconduct. Sources said this was false, but that five years ago the two men had a falling-out that resulted in a split into two Vietnam Mennonite Churches. A member of Pastor Quang’s leadership committee told Compass that their group has more than 5,000 Christians in six districts around the country.  

Rumors of the demolition circulated for a couple of days before the event took place, allowing the Mennonites to safely take away some but not all of their documents and equipment.

Today (Dec. 16) Saigon Giai Phong and other newspapers ran long, detailed articles on the “forced expropriation” event, portraying it only as a land issue and citing the relevant laws and the court documents. The description of the events surrounding the demolition differs radically from church accounts posted on the Web and verbal accounts given to Compass. The state media account says Pastor Quang fell, knocking himself out. Christians who witnessed the event said he was brutally punched.

“Apart from the malicious slandering of Pastor Quang in the state media, the authorities in this case were very clever in trying to stay within Vietnamese ‘law’ to take action against him,” said one house church leader. “And it is no accident that the Mennonite center was the first place targeted for forced demolition, even though other property owners are also appealing.”

Some Mennonites managed to contact a foreign embassy during the demolition. Embassy staff members contacted city officials who told them it was an action of the local District 2 and they could do nothing about it.

A leader of an unregistered house church denomination told Compass that Pastor Quang draws mistreatment by being too confrontational with officials on justice issues. Pastor Quang has long tried to help Vietnam’s powerless ethnic minority Stieng people, for example; his research showed their land was illegally taken by greedy officials.

After his release from prison in 2005, Pastor Quang had several confrontations with authorities over alleged violation of building codes, and sources said it was not surprising that authorities were deeply irritated when he appealed the expropriation offer and helped neighbors to do so as well. Authorities at one point dismantled part of the improvements he had made to his property, though Pastor Quang had argued that he had done no differently than all his neighbors who erected and improved their homes at a time when regulations were not clear.

Pastor Quang does not believe Mennonite leaders should be involved in politics per se. On Nov. 9 he published a statement called, “Basic Principles Guiding the Conduct of Mennonite Pastors,” in which he eschews involvement in politics and strongly reiterates the Mennonite position of nonviolence but affirms defending basic human rights and justice.  

Mennonite leaders admit to being discouraged at receiving the “Christmas gift” of the demolition but said they would regroup as soon as possible to carry on their work.  

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Evangelists in Vietnam Sentenced to Prison

Christians receive six and four years respectively for ‘undermining national unity.’

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, November 30 (CDN) — Two Christian evangelists, Ksor Y Du, 47, and Kpa Y Co, 30, were sentenced this month to six and four years in prison respectively for “undermining national unity.”

Ksor and Kpa, of the Vietnam Good News Mission (VGNM) church, received the harsh sentences on Nov. 15. House arrest of four and two years respectively also was added to the sentences, according to church sources and Vietnam’s Phap Luat (Law) newspaper. Both evangelists, who are of the Ede minority, live in Song Hinh district of Phu Yen Province, where there are some 20 VGNM congregations.

Ksor was one of many thousands of ethnic minority people in Vietnam’s Central Highland that participated in demonstrations in 2004 against religious oppression and illegal confiscation of their traditional lands. Many of the demonstrators were Christians. Along with hundreds of others, he was caught trying to flee to Cambodia following the harsh military crackdown after the demonstrations. He spent four years in prison and another year under house arrest.

In May of 2009, Ksor joined the VGNM, a house church network that has grown from 14 congregations meeting in homes in 2007 to 360 today. In spite of many attempts to register house churches, as provided by Vietnam’s religion regulations, only three congregations have been given local permission to carry on religious activities.

In September 2009, Ksor underwent three weeks of interrogation, and authorities pressured him to refrain from making international phone calls. His imprisonment had left him destitute and in poor health, and he has said he told authorities that he only called a relative in the United States three times to ask for funds for medicine and to repair his dilapidated house.

Phap Luat reported that he made 58 international phone calls, a gross exaggeration according to Ksor’s family. The newspaper reported that Ksor made the calls to take orders from abroad to incite people to join the illegal “Dega” church, which allegedly aimed to cause political unrest and demand independence for ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands.

Vietnamese authorities remain extremely suspicious of anyone who has dared to participate in demonstrations, especially if they become church leaders.

The two evangelists were arrested on Jan. 27. Ksor was on his way to the police station to answer yet another summons when he was intercepted by police, who tied his hands and dragged him behind a motorcycle to the station, according to village sources. He fell many times and arrived bloodied and bruised.

Both men were held 10 months without charges until their Nov. 15 trial, the area sources said. Authorities brought Ksor’s teenage daughter to prison and told her to testify that her father had made many overseas phone calls, according to VGNM leaders. When she refused, a female officer twice slapped her hard across the face before sending her away, the church leaders said.

During interrogation, authorities ordered both evangelists to accuse VGNM leaders of illegally starting the organization and to accuse Pastor Mai Hong Sanh of opening an illegal Bible school in Buonmathuot, sources said. The authorities grew angry when they refused.

During Ksor’s pre-trial incarceration, police from the commune, district and province visited his wife many times and pressured her to renounce her Christian faith, sources said. She steadfastly refused. They tried to entice her by telling her that if the family recanted they would be provided a monthly sack of rice, a new house and that her husband would be released immediately.

Ksor’s wife, A Le H’Gioi, attended the trial even though she had not been provided permission as required by Vietnamese law. She told church leaders that the presiding judge of the People’s Court addressed the matter of their faith directly, asking her husband, “Do you still insist on following the religion?” The judge also asked him, “After serving in prison already, do you still insist on staying with the Vietnam Good News Mission?”

She said her husband answered that he would not give up his faith in God even if it meant death. Christian leaders said the line of questioning contradicted assertions that the conviction and sentencing of the two evangelists had nothing to do with religion.

VGNM leaders said there were many other irregularities in the arrest and trial of the two evangelists, such as authorities’ failure to provide legal papers to their families as required by law.


Land Seized

In another incident against Protestants this month, some 200 police, local defense forces and young thugs attempted to seize church land in Quang Ngai city in Central Vietnam on Nov. 11, assaulting the pastor’s wife in the process. Authorities called off the land seizure that evening.

The property belongs to the Vietnam Christian Mission, a church with full legal recognition since 2007. Though the Quang Ngai congregation has complete legal papers for the property, local authorities have been threatening to seize it for some time, according to the long-time pastor of the church, Nguyen Luan Ke.

Pastor Nguyen, in his early 80s, reported that the assailants assaulted his wife, causing her to faint and fall. Details and photos were posted on the Nguoi Viet Web site. Authorities seized two of Pastor Nguyen’s sons and put them in a paddy wagon but left the door unlocked, a church source said.

The two men escaped, taking refuge in the parsonage along with other members of the pastor’s family, and frantically phoned for help. One call reached a Christian leader who was in Hanoi. This leader alerted central government authorities, who promised to look into the incident. Pastor Nguyen said the mob withdrew at the end of the day, having terrified him and his family.

Vietnam has come under heightened international scrutiny for the confiscation in May of a century-old Catholic cemetery in Con Dau, near Danang in central Vietnam, that resulted in one death. Authorities reportedly intend to turn the property over to a private company to build a tourist resort. The incident led to the flight of more than 40 Catholics to Thailand.

On Oct. 27, six parishioners were sentenced to prison, some for 12 months and some for nine. This event has garnered much more international publicity than the Protestant ones above.

In its annual report on religious freedom released on Nov. 17, the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom pointed to some progress in Vietnam but devoted several pages to religious liberty violations, noticeably against Protestants.

Vietnam’s state-controlled media reacted strongly. The Nov. 20 issue of Lao Dong (Workers) newspaper published an article entitled, “Abusing Religion Issues to Sabotage Vietnam.” It described religion as connected with “imperialist and hostile forces.”

The same day, Nhan Dan (People’s Daily) accused the state department report of being based on “distorted information.” It called on U.S. officials “to verify the events right in Vietnam,” the very thing many observers say U.S. diplomats in Vietnam do.

On Nov. 22, a Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People’s Army) article described critics of religious liberty abuses as “black hearts under the name of angels.”

Some observers believe that the Five-Year Communist Party Congress to take place in early 2011 is contributing to an uptick in harsh measures against religions and human rights activists.

Protestant church leaders in Vietnam lament that no officials who have taken heavy-handed actions against religious groups and their leaders have ever been called to account, thus violating Vietnam’s own laws and regulations.

Report from Compass Direct News

Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say

Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

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 http://www.compassdirect.org, “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

Vietnamese Christian, Family, Forced into Hiding

Officials expel them from village; elsewhere, pastor dragged behind motorbike.

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 1 (CDN) — Suffering severe abuse from villagers and local Vietnamese officials, Hmong Christian Sung Cua Po fled into the forest with his family on March 19.

An expulsion order had been issued to his family, an area Christian leader said.

Since Compass reported on Jan. 18 that Po, who embraced Christianity in November, received some 70 blows to his head and back after local officials in northwest Vietnam’s Dien Bien Province arrested him on Dec. 1, 2009, he suffered physical attacks by police of Nam Son Commune on Feb. 10 and the confiscation of his motorbike.

The Christian leader said that police have threatened that if he did not recant they would beat him till only his tongue was intact.

Around the Lunar New Year in mid-February, Po had an altercation with his father over offerings to family ancestors. Hmong Christians see no continuity between the old worship of ancestral spirits and their new faith in Jesus; for them it a spiritual power encounter with no possibility of compromise, and Po held fast to his allegiance to Christ, refusing to sacrifice to his ancestors. 

On Feb. 20, Nam Son district police were authorized by Dien Bien Dong district authorities to demolish Po’s house if deemed necessary. On Feb. 21, community members backed by police confiscated 40 sacks of paddy rice, the family’s one-year supply. The villagers also took all cooking and eating utensils from the family.

Pressure against Po, a member of the Sung clan that has long been resistant to Christianity, comes both from traditionalists in his ethnic community and the government, though the government officials have tried to hide their involvement. Primarily hostile toward the Po family have been Officer Hang Giang Chen of the Dien Bien district police and Officer Sung Boua Long of the Nam Son Commune police.

A source close to Po reported that local authorities and villagers tore down the family’s house on March 14. On March 19 the dispossessed Po couple fled into forest with their three children. Their relatives and community members say they do not know where they are. If previous experience holds true, they were likely given refuge by some of the many Christians in the region.

The same source reported that a foreign delegation visited the village on March 25 asking about Sung Cua Po. No Christians were allowed to meet the delegation. The source added that police had been there earlier to coach all villagers to say there was no government involvement in the mistreatment of the Po family and had issued dire threats for non-compliance.

Such antagonism has continued even though several western governments have raised the issue of the persecution of the Po family with high central government officials.

“The only conclusion one can draw,” said one knowledgeable Vietnam source, “is that the central government is either unwilling or unable to intervene and enforce the published national standards for religious tolerance.”

A Christian leader in the area told Compass yesterday that earlier this week authorities had burned 14 houses of Christians in another commune in Dien Bien Dong district, and that he was trying to arrange shelter for the affected families. The leader said the authorities of Dien Bien Dong district completely exempt themselves from Vietnam’s laws on religion and suffer no reprimand from above. 

After Po was first detained on Dec. 1, Dien Bien Dong District and Na Son Commune police and soldiers led by policeman Hang A Senh took him and his wife to the Na Son Commune People’s Committee office after police earlier incited local residents to abuse and stone them and other Christian families. After Po and his wife were beaten at 1 a.m. that night, he was fined 8 million dong (US$430) and a pig of at least 16 kilos.

Abuses Elsewhere

In Phu Yen Province in the south of Vietnam, religious intolerance was also on display as local police dragged a pastor behind a motorbike, Christian leaders reported.

Village police summoned Y Du, a 55-year-old pastor also from the Ede ethnic group, to a police station for questioning on Jan. 27. While driving his motorbike to the station, Pastor Du was stopped by village police who chained his hands together and then attached the chain by rope to his motorbike.

Christian sources said they forced Pastor Du to run behind the motorbike that they had commandeered, and he fell over many times, dragged along the ground. He was beaten and forced to keep running.

Local villagers at Hai Rieng witnessed what was happening and, fearing for the pastor’s life, shouted to the police to stop, the Christian leaders said. Du was then carried to the police station and was incarcerated in Phu Lam prison, Phu Lam district, Phu Yen Province. No formal charges were brought against him.

Local police subsequently visited his wife at their home, looking for evidence of illegal activity, Christian leaders reported. The officers said they suspected ties with organizers of demonstrations against confiscation of minority land and lack of religious freedom that were held six years ago.

Christian leaders said the police officers tried to bribe Pastor Du’s wife to renounce her Christian faith, saying, “If you renounce your faith, we will build you a new house and give you rice.” The family is poor and lives in a bamboo house. She replied, “I would rather die than renounce my faith.”

In mid-February, local police told Pastor Du’s wife that they could not find anything with which to charge her husband. But they said they continued to hold him because he refused to denounce the leader of a Bible school in Dak Lak Province, Pastor Mai Hong Sanh. Pastor Du was regularly beaten, Christians leaders reported.

Another evangelist, Pastor Y Co also from the Ede ethnic group, had also been held at Phu Lam prison, Phu Lam district, Phu Yen Province in the same conditions, they said. Pastor Du and Pastor Co had the opportunity to be released if they had signed "confessions," but they refused to do so, especially as they are not fluently literate in Vietnamese.

Both Pastor Du and Co are evangelists with the Vietnam Good News Mission Church.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pro-Democracy Advocate Released from Prison

Her new Christian faith deepens; authorities allow evangelist Luis Palau to address pastors.

HO CHI MINH CITY, March 30 (CDN) — A Protestant prisoner of conscience who had called for democratic freedoms in Vietnam was released earlier this month after serving a three-year sentence for “propagandizing to destroy the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

Attorney Le Thi Cong Nhan’s sentence had been reduced by one year after an international outcry over her sentencing. She was released on March 6. Remaining in prison for another year is her colleague, Christian lawyer Nguyen Van Dai.

The 31-year-old Cong Nhan had also supported a labor union that sought to be independent. Now serving an additional three-year house arrest sentence, Cong Nhan said in a surprisingly frank interview with Voice of America’s Vietnamese language broadcast on March 9 that she has no intention of giving up her struggle for a just and free Vietnam and accepts that there may be a further price to pay.

Cong Nhan, arrested in March 2007, received a Vietnamese Bible from a visiting delegation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – with official permission from Vietnam’s minister of Public Security – early in her incarceration, but she had to struggle constantly to retain it. Twice she went on a hunger strike when authorities took the Bible away from her.

She had become a Christian shortly before her arrest, and she told Voice of America that while in prison she was able to read the entire Bible.

“In prison the Lord became my closest friend, my teacher, and the one who carried my burdens with me,” she said. “When I was released from prison, I received many words of praise and of love and respect – I became a bit worried about this, as I do not consider myself worthy of such. I believe I must live an even better and more worthy life.”

Her prison experience has confirmed her calling and faith, she said.

“As a direct result of my prison experience, I am more convinced than ever that the path that I have chosen is the right one,” Cong Nhan said. “Before prison I was just like a thin arrow, but now I have become a strong fort.”

Luis Palau Allowed to Speak

While Christians in several parts of Vietnam are still subject to abuse from local officials, the country’s national authorities have continued to allow high-profile Christian events. On March 17, renowned U.S. evangelist Luis Palau was allowed to address more than 400 pastors in a day-long event at the New World Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

Palau, who had arrived in Hanoi with his entourage on March 13, had addressed nearly 200 Hanoi area pastors at an evening event at the Hanoi Hilton on March 14. The two events were streamed live on http://www.hoithanh.com, a popular website that reports on Protestant news in Vietnam. Hundreds of Vietnamese in Vietnam and abroad were estimated to have watched the presentations.

The events were deemed significant, if not historic, by Vietnam’s Christian leaders. Very rarely is a prominent foreign Protestant leader allowed to address Vietnamese leaders, especially one from the United States.

The events were significant also in that they brought together leaders from virtually all segments of Vietnam’s fractured and sometimes conflicted Protestant groups, Christian leaders said. The gatherings included leaders of open churches and house churches, registered and unregistered churches, and urban and even ethnic minority groups from Vietnam’s remote mountainous regions.

Two representatives of a Mennonite church headed by activist pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, however, were turned away by police. 

Palau and Mike McIntosh, pastor of San Diego mega-church Horizon Christian Fellowship, strongly challenged the Vietnamese church leaders to strive for unity. The assembled pastors were challenged to put aside past conflicts and suspicions for the sake of the Kingdom of God in Vietnam, with Palau saying that unity was a requirement for God’s blessing on their churches and nation.

Some Vietnamese leaders responded by expressing remorse for their divisions and committed to start working toward reconciliation.

Organizers and participants said they hope such short events will lead to larger gains. Though the Luis Palau Association had originally planned for a two-day event for 2,000 pastors, most agreed this was an unprecedented first step toward a bigger goal. With an invitation from all segments of the Protestant community in Vietnam in hand, the Luis Palau Association is prepared to help organize evangelistic festivals in Vietnam in 2011, the centenary of Protestantism in Vietnam.

“There is still a long way to go, but we are seeing miracles piling up,” said one senior Vietnamese leader. “It could happen!”

One prominent overseas Vietnamese leader wondered if Palau’s visit to Vietnam could be compared to Billy Graham’s visit to Moscow during the Soviet Communist era.

Also sharing testimonies during the March 17 event were Rick Colsen, a top Intel executive, and John Dalton, Secretary of the Navy under President Clinton.

Report from Compass Direct News