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

Christians in Middle East Fear Violence from Anti-Quran Protests

Those in the West who provoke Muslim extremists are not the ones who will suffer, they say.

ISTANBUL, October 5 (CDN) — Christians across the Middle East said they will be the ones to suffer if a group of anti-Islamic protestors in the United States goes through with its plans to publicly tear up or otherwise desecrate the Quran.

They roundly condemned the proposed actions as political stunts that are unwise, unnecessary and unchristian.

“This kind of negative propaganda is very harmful to our situation in Muslim countries,” said Atef Samy, assistant pastor for networking at Kasr El Dobara, the largest Protestant congregation in Egypt. “It generates uncontrollable anger among the people around us and gives the impression that all Christians feel this way about Islam.”

Samy said U.S. Christians who are protesting Islam need to think about the results of their “irrational actions.” The desecration, he said, will lead to protests and will incite people to commit anti-Christian violence.

“How do they expect Muslims to react?” he said. “And has anybody thought how we will pay for their actions or even their words?”

Tomorrow and Thursday (Oct. 6 and 7), political activist Randall Terry will host “Hear Muhammad Speak!” a series of demonstrations across the United States that he said are meant to “ignite national and world-wide debate/dialogue/education on the anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and at times violent message of the Quran.” During these protests, Terry plans to tear out pages from the Quran and encourage others to do the same.

He has said he is conducting the protest because he wants to focus attention also on the Hadith and the Sunnah, the recorded sayings and actions of Muhammad that Muslims use to guide their lives. Terry said these religious documents call “for the murder, beheadings, etc. of Christians and Jews, and the suppression of religious freedom.”

Known for his incendiary political approach, Terry is founder of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion rights group. After stepping down from Operation Rescue, he publicly supported the actions of Scott Roeder, who murdered a Kansas physician who performed late-term abortions. Terry also arranged to have a protestor present an aborted fetus to then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

On this year’s anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Terry stood outside the White House and denounced Islam as one of five other protestors ripped out pages from the Quran and threw them into a plastic trash bag, which along with Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ planned (though ultimately cancelled) Quran-burning provoked isolated attacks across the Islamic world that left at least 19 dead.

Terry is part of a seemingly growing tide of people destroying or threatening to destroy the Quran as an act of protest against Islam or “Islamic extremism.”



Terry has said that he wants to “highlight the suffering of Christians inflicted by Muslims” and to call on Islamic leaders “to stop persecuting and killing Christians and Jews, and well as ‘apostates’ who leave Islam.”

But Christian leaders in the Middle East said protests in which the Quran is desecrated have the opposite effect. They are bracing themselves for more attacks. Protestors in the West can speak freely – about free speech, among other things – but it’s Christians in the Middle East who will be doing the dying, they said.

“This message of hate antagonizes Muslims and promotes hatred,” said Samia Sidhom, a Christian and managing editor of the Cairo-based newspaper Watani. “Thus churches and Christians become targets of counter-hate and violence. Islam is in no way chastised, nor Christianity exalted. Only hate is strengthened. Churches and Christians here find they need to defend themselves against the allegations of being hateful and against the hate and violence directed at them.”

Martin Accad, a Lebanese Christian and director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, agreed with Sidhom.

“We are held guilty by association by extremist Muslims, even though the vast majority of Muslims will be able to dissociate between crazy American right-wingers and true followers of Jesus,” he said.

Leaders in the Arabic-speaking Christian world said Terry’s protests and others like it do nothing positive. Such provocations won’t make violent Muslim extremists re-examine their beliefs or go away.

“Islam will not disappear because we call it names,” said Samy, of the Egyptian Protestant church. “So we must witness to our belief in Jesus without aggressively attacking the others.”

Accad, a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations and also associate professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, said positive engagement is the best approach for Christians to take toward Islam.

“Visit their places of worship and get to know them, and invite them to yours,” Accad said. “Educate your own congregation about Islam in a balanced way. Engage in transformational partnerships with moderate Muslim leaders who are working towards a more peaceful world.”

The element of the protests that most baffled Christians living in the Muslim world was that burning or tearing another religion’s book seemed so unchristian, they said.

“In what way can burning or ripping the Quran serve Christianity or Christians?” Sidhom of Watani said. “It is not an action fit for a servant of Christianity. It merely expresses hate and sends out a message of extreme hostility to Islam.”

Accad called publicly desecrating the Quran an act of “sheer moral and ethical absurdity.”

“These are not acts committed by followers of a Jesus ethic,” Accad said. “They will affect the image of Christianity as badly as the destruction of the World Trade Center affected the image of Islam.”

Accad added, “Since when do followers of Jesus rip an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?”

Such protests also defeat the purposes of churches in Islamic nations, Christians said. H. Ramdani, a church leader in Algeria, said Christians must strive to build bridges with Muslims in order to proclaim Christ.

“It’s destroying what we are doing and what we are planning to do,” he said of the protests. “People refuse to hear the gospel, but they ask the reason for the event. Muslims are more radical and sometimes they are brutal.”

At press time Compass was unable to reach Terry by phone or e-mail for a reply to the Middle Eastern Christians’ complaints about the planned protests, but after he staged a Sept. 11 Quran-tearing event he released a statement expressing “great sadness” over the deaths that followed while denying that it was right for Muslims to react violently to such protests.

“Such logic is like saying that a woman who is abused by her boyfriend or husband is guilty of bringing violence on herself because she said or did something that irritated him,” Terry stated.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack, Terry Jones, leader of a small congregation in Gainesville, Fla., made his mark in the media by threatening to burn a stack of Qurans in protest of Islam. At the last minute, after wide condemnation from around the world, Jones stated that he felt “God is telling us to stop” and backed out of the protest.

Despite Jones’ retreat, protestors unaffiliated with him burned Qurans in New York and Tennessee, and demonstrations swept across the Muslim world. In the relatively isolated attacks that ensued, protestors set fire to a Christian school and various government buildings, burning the school and the other structures to the ground. In Kashmir, 17 people were killed in Islamic assaults, and two protestors were killed in demonstrations in Afghanistan.

Report from Compass Direct News

Court Impedes Effort to Rescue Kidnapped Girl in Bangladesh

Muslim men abduct Christian eighth-grader, force her to convert and marry.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, November 3 (CDN) — A bail order in Bangladesh has impeded police from rescuing a young Christian girl who was abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry one of her kidnappers, according to police.

Four Muslim men abducted eighth-grade student Silvia Merry Sarker on July 30 as she made her way home from school in west Sujankathi village, under Agoiljhara police jurisdiction, in Barisal district in southern Bangladesh, according to her father, Julian Sarker.

Sarker filed a case under the Women and Children Repression Act against Al-Amin Faria, 24, Shamim Faria, 22, Sahadat Faria, 20, and Sattar Faria, 50.

“My daughter was abducted by Faria with the help of his cousins and other relatives,” said Sarker.

Sarker filed a First Information Report (FIR) charging that the men abducted his daughter initially to “indulge Al-Amin Faria’s evil desire.” Later she was forced to convert to Islam and marry Al-Amin Faria, which Sarker said was part of an attempt to take over his land and property.

Local police inspector Ashok Kumar Nandi told Compass that police were continuing efforts to arrest the kidnappers but had yet to find them, as the unusually early bail order had blocked their efforts.

“There are four names as prime suspects in the case,” Nandi said. “We arrested three of them, but the court released them on bail. If the court had given them to us on remand, we might have found the girl, or at least we would get much information to rescue the girl.”

Generally suspects in cases under the Women and Children Repression Act are not granted bail so early for the sake of investigations, Nandi said.

“We do not know why they were released on bail,” he said. “Those released persons are moving freely in the village. We cannot arrest them again without an order.”

Attorney Rabindra Ghosh, president of Bangladesh Minority Watch and an activist for Dutch human rights organization Global Human Rights Defense, told Compass that the granting of bail to the suspects also poses threats to the victim’s family.

“They are threatening the victim’s family to withdraw the case,” said Ghosh. “Release of the abductors on bail so early is a travesty – the abductors got impunity due to the early bail order. For the sake of the girl’s rescue, the court could have sent the arrestees to police on remand to find more information about their hideout.”

Gnosh concurred that an accused person under the Women and Children Repression Act case does not get bail so early without first getting necessary information from them.

False Document

A few days after the kidnapping, Sarker said, the abductors provided Nimchandra Bepari, a Hindu neighbor, an affidavit claiming that Sarker’s daughter was 19 years old. Bepari gave the affidavit to the local police inspector. The kidnappers also contacted sub-district chairman Mortuza Khan.

“My daughter is 13 years old, but the abductors made an affidavit of her age showing 19 years old,” Sarker said.

The headmaster of Agoiljhara Shrimoti Matrimangal Girls High School, where the girl is a student, issued a certificate denoting that Silvia Merry Sarker is even younger than 13 – born on Dec. 24, 1997, which would mean she is not yet 12 years old.

The fabricated affidavit provided by the kidnappers states that she accepted Islam and has married, said Sarker.

“I am shocked how a minor girl is shown as an adult in the affidavit,” Ghosh said. “It is illegal, and there should be proper action against this kind of illegal activity.”

Al-Amin Faria had tried to get the girl’s two older sisters to marry him, but their early marriages saved them from falling prey to him, Sarker said.

“I married off my two elder daughters at an early age immediately after finishing their schooling,” said Sarker.

Before they married, Sarker said he felt helpless to keep Faria and his family from accosting and harassing his other daughters.

“I could not take any legal action against them since we are the only Christian family here,” he said. “I tolerated everything. I did not inform it to police or they would get infuriated.”

When Faria “targeted” his second daughter for marriage, Sarker informed the headmaster of the school and its managing committee, and they warned the Muslim not to disturb the family, Sarker said. Nevertheless, he said, he felt he couldn’t send his older daughters to school because he feared Faria would harm them.

“The relation of us with those Muslim neighbors is ‘predator-and-prey,’” he said. “I saved my other family members from his lechery, but I could not save my youngest daughter.”

Sarker said he felt alone and helpless as a Christian minority but that he doesn’t understand how the entire justice system also can be so helpless.

“Why and how can the court, law enforcement agencies, police, administration, society and the country be helpless against him? Why can’t they rescue my daughter?” he said.

Dilip Gabriel Bepari, an activist for Bangladesh Minority Watch, told Compass that the group had informed national and international officials in seeking help to find the girl.

“We informed it to various ministers, political leaders and police high officials,” Bepari said. “We also informed it to the Vatican ambassador in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the girl is still missing.”

Archbishop Paulinus Costa of Bangladesh said the Catholic Church’s impassioned plea to the government is to rescue her as soon as possible and bring the kidnappers to justice.

“It is unfortunate that the girl is not rescued yet in three months,” Costa said. “There must be negligence and indifference to the Christians from the government, otherwise the girl would be rescued.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) this year removed Bangladesh from its “Watch List” of countries requiring close monitoring of religious freedom violations, but it urged the new Awami League administration to strengthen protections for all Bangladeshis.

USCIRF also indicates that it hopes the government of Bangladesh will investigate and prosecute perpetrators of violent acts against members of minority religious communities.

Report from Compass Direct News