Assemblies of God obtains ‘operating license,’ but quest for recognition continues.
HO CHI MINH CITY, October 23 (CDN) — The Assemblies of God (AoG) in Vietnam on Monday (Oct. 19) received an “operating license,” which the government described as “the first step . . . before becoming officially legal.”
This operating license gives permission for all of the congregations of the Vietnam AoG to “carry on religious activity” anywhere in the country for the next year. During this time the church body must prepare a doctrinal statement, a constitution and bylaws and a four-year working plan to be approved by the government before being allowed to hold an organizing assembly. These steps, AoG leaders hope, would lead to legal recognition.
The operating license is the first one granted since five were granted two years ago. The last of those five churches, the Christian Fellowship Church, was finally allowed to hold its organizing assembly in late September. According to an internal 2008 government Protestant Training Manual obtained by church leaders, this assembly was delayed because authorities observed large discrepancies between the number of followers the group claimed and the actual number, as well as other “instability.”
Vietnam News Service reported on Sept. 29 that the Christian Fellowship Church has “30,000 believers nationwide.”
Should the AoG achieve legal recognition, it would be the ninth among some 70 Protestant groups in Vietnam and the seventh since new religion legislation touted to expedite registration was introduced in 2004.
The AoG quest was typically long, and it is not yet over. Though started in the early 1970s before the communist era, the denomination was deemed dormant by authorities after the communist takeover and restarted in 1989. Strangely, the Vietnamese religion law requires a church organization to have 20 years of stable organization before it can even be considered for legal recognition.
Though the AoG had been trying for years to register, only this year did it fulfill the 20-year requirement in the eyes of the government. Sources said AoG’s resistance to strong pressure by the government to eliminate a middle or district level of administration may also have contributed to the delay.
Ironically, the official government news report credits the Vietnam AoG with 40,000 followers, while denominational General Superintendent Samuel Lam told Compass the number is 25,000. He also said he hoped the advantages of registration would outweigh the disadvantages.
With no more operating licenses being granted, the future of registration is in a kind of limbo. Sources said a lower level of registration in which local authorities are supposed to offer permission for local congregations to carry on religious activities while the more complicated higher levels are worked out has largely failed. Only about 10 percent of the many hundreds of applications have received a favorable reply, they said, leaving most house churches vulnerable to arbitrary harassment or worse.
Leaders of all Protestant groups say that they continue to experience government resistance, as well as social pressure, whenever they preach Christ in new areas. They added that evidence is strong that the government’s aim is to contain Protestant growth.
Hmong Christians who fled the Northwest Mountainous Region for the Central Highlands a decade ago, developing very poor land in places such as Dak Nong, reported to Compass that they were singled out for land confiscation just when their fields became productive. They said ethnic Vietnamese made these land grabs with the complicity of the authorities, sometimes multiple times.
At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Oct. 19 that Vietnam has experienced a “sharp backsliding on religious freedom.” Among other incidents, HRW cited the late September crackdown on followers of Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Some 150 monks were forcibly evicted from his sect’s Bat Nha Monastery in Lam Dong province on Sept. 27, and 200 nuns fled in fear the next day. As in recent land disputes with Roman Catholics involving thousands of demonstrators, authorities hired local and imported thugs to do the deed to present the image that ordinary local people were upset with the religion.
After a visit to Vietnam in May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States reinstate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the blacklist of religious liberty offenders. Vietnam had been on the list from 2004 until 2006.
The USCIRF, which experienced less government cooperation that on some previous visits, observed that “Vietnam’s overall human rights record remains poor, and has deteriorated since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007.”
Some key Protestant leaders describe themselves as weary and frustrated at what they termed the government’s lack of sincerity, extreme tardiness and outright duplicity regarding religious freedom. They too said they believe that the lifting of Vietnam’s CPC status was premature and resulted in the loss of a major incentive for Vietnam to improve religious freedom.
Report from Compass Direct News
TSPM offers Bibles and “assistance,” but rights groups say efforts fall short.
DUBLIN, December 9 (Compass Direct News) – In recent months Chinese officials have attempted to build bridges with the Protestant house church movement even as police raided more unregistered congregations, arrested Christian leaders and forced at least 400 college students to swear they would stop attending such worship services.
With rights groups saying more effort is needed to address rights abuses and secure full religious freedom for Chinese Christians, two research institutes – one from the government – organized an unprecedented symposium on Nov. 21-22 that concluded with an agreement for house church leaders to begin a dialogue with government officials.
A delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou provinces attended the seminar, entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of Chinese House Churches,” along with scholars and experts from universities and independent research facilities. Members of the Minorities Development Research Institute, a branch of the China State Council’s Research and Development Centre, and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute co-hosted it.
In a report summarizing the forum, Beijing house church representative Liu Tong Su said that China’s religious institutions and regulations were clearly outdated and inadequate to meet the needs of the church.
At the conclusion of the meeting, house church delegates agreed to dialogue with the government, Liu said, though he insisted, “Only God can control the spirituality of faith. No worldly authorities have the right to control a man’s spirit.”
The government has been entrusted by God with the authority to maintain external public order, Liu added.
“If the government can limit its governing territory to areas of maintaining public order in external conduct, then according to the teachings of the Bible, the house church will definitely obey those in authority within the boundary that God has set,” he said.
Experts presented reports on the rapid development of house church networks, including the number of Christians, geographical distribution, cultural and ethnic make-up and connection with foreign Christians, according to the Gospel Herald.
A month earlier, the chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) – responsible along with the China Christian Council (CCC) for overseeing China’s Protestant churches – told a gathering of 200 Hong Kong church leaders of his desire to assist Chinese house churches and provide them with Bibles, according to Ecumenical News International (ENI).
At the Oct. 22 conference entitled, “Chinese Church – New Leaders, New Challenges,” TSPM Chairman Fu Xianwei declared, “For those house churches without registration, we will try our best to be with them, to recognize them and to help them, so long as they have an orthodox faith, don’t stray from the truth and don’t follow heretics.”
Fu and 11 other members of the newly-elected leadership team of the CCC/TSPM also said they were willing to provide house churches with Bibles, ENI reported.
Bible distribution is largely the responsibility of Amity Press, China’s only official Bible printing company, which recently announced its intention to place more Bibles in the hands of rural Christians. Daniel Willis, CEO of the Bible Society in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, launched an appeal on Nov. 12 to support Amity in this goal.
Speaking at the launch, Willis asserted, “Smuggling Bibles into China places Chinese Christians at risk, and now with the new Amity Press operational in Nanjing, smuggling is a waste of resources.”
Amity opened a new multimillion dollar printing facility in May with a capacity to print 12 million Bibles per year. Most of those Bibles are printed in foreign languages for export outside China.
“China is experiencing a great freedom of worship,” Willis added. “With this wonderful change the church is spreading rapidly … Each Chinese Christian would like to experience the joy … that owning their own Bible brings – but unfortunately for many, obtaining a Bible is difficult and often out of their reach financially.”
The China Aid Association (CAA) issued a statement on Nov. 20 that Amity did not produce enough Bibles to meet the vast needs of the church in China or to replace lost or worn copies. It also pointed out that distribution was still strictly limited to government-approved channels.
Earlier this year, the Rev. Dr. Chow Lien-Hwa, vice-chairman of the board of Amity Press, stated in an interview with the NSW Bible Society that Amity was printing 3 million Bibles per year for mainland China. Chow also outlined a plan to allow Bible distribution through a chain of government bookshops and claimed that house church Christians could buy Bibles from TSPM churches without having to provide personal identity information.
Pastors from both house churches and official TSPM congregations have reported to Compass a shortage of Bibles and other Christian materials in Beijing, the northwest, the northeast, and the southwest. Church growth in tribal areas also has created an urgent need for Bibles in minority languages.
Raids, Arrests Continue
Rights groups pointed to recent raids and arrests, however, as confirmation that Chinese authorities still restrict freedom of worship for local house church Christians.
Police raided a house church gathering in Tai Kang county, Henan province on Dec. 3 and arrested all 50 Christians, CAA reported on Thursday (Dec. 4). Public Security Bureau officers also raided another gathering of 50 house church believers in Xiji town, Zaozhuang city, Shandong province on Dec. 2, arresting 20 Christian leaders and demanding a fine of 2,500 yuan (US$365) per person to secure their release.
CAA also confirmed that police carried out multiple raids on house church gatherings in Beijing and in areas near college campuses in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, from late September to early November, detaining leaders of the Local Church house church network. Four leaders in Zhejiang were sentenced to labor camp for 12 to 18 months.
Officers also arrested at least 400 Christian college students. After intense questioning, police forced each student to write a statement of repentance agreeing to forsake such gatherings.
Commenting on reports of persecution in China, Chow of Amity Press claimed victims were not true Chinese citizens, but Chinese with foreign citizenship who had entered China to carry out illegal activities.
“When we go to another country we must be law-abiding citizens of that country,” Chow insisted. “The law, whether you like it or not, says you can only preach in the churches, you cannot go on the street.”
Some house churches are actively seeking registration with authorities to avoid arrests and inconveniences, ENI reported in October. Such groups, however, prefer to register outside the CCC/TSPM structure, disagreeing that different Protestant beliefs can be reconciled under the TSPM as a self-described “post-denominational” umbrella organization.
House church members also object to the TSPM’s interference in congregational practices, according toe the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008. The report notes that many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members, or fear that it will control sermon content.
Released from Prison
Responding to international pressure, officials on Dec. 2 released house church pastor Zhu Baoguo of Henan province, citing medical reasons. Authorities had raided a house church gathering on Oct. 12, arresting Zhu and four other leaders, before sentencing Zhu on Oct. 30 to one year in labor camp, CAA reported.
Officials also released house church pastor Wang Weiliang from prison on Nov. 25 for medical reasons, according to CAA. Authorities sentenced Wang to three years in prison in December 2006 for protesting the July 2006 destruction of Dangshanwan Christian church in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang province. Seven other believers were arrested at the time; authorities have released all but one, who remains in detention in Hangzhou.
A Breakthrough for China’s House Churches?
At last month’s symposium on Chinese house churches, officials from government research organs, scholars from government think-tanks and universities, independent researchers and an unprecedented delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou attended.
At the groundbreaking conference, sponsored by the Minorities Development Research Institute of the China State Council’s Research and Development Center and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute and entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of the Chinese House Churches,” participants discussed every aspect of the house church movement in China.
Statistics were a key issue, with most agreeing that the number of house church members was vast and rapidly increasing. Estimates ranged from 50 million to 100 million members of Protestant house churches, as compared with approximately 20 million members of registered Protestant churches.
Delegates were surprisingly bold in their discussion and criticism of China’s religious policy, and several put forward practical plans for the abolition of institutions such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs (formerly the Religious Affairs Bureau) and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
They also called for serious and ongoing discussions between the government and house churches, and Christian leaders called for the lifting of a ban on house churches and a review of restrictions on church registration and appointment of pastors.
Many participants agreed that the democratic management of house churches in accordance with the rule of law was a logical step to bring religious policies into line with China’s open-door economic policies.
While certain sectors of leadership may welcome these suggestions, others entrenched in the atheist system of the Communist Party were expected to balk at such reforms.
Report from Compass Direct News