Church Registration in Vietnam Inches Along

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 


Local authorities complicit or turn blind eye to assaults on Christians.

LOS ANGELES, May 11 (Compass Direct News) – A Hmong man in Vietnam’s Northwest Mountainous Region who murdered his mother in February because she had become a Christian has assaulted another Christian, leaving him critically wounded, according to area Christian sources.

Lao Lia Po on April 25 allegedly attacked Koua Lo of Meo Vac district, Ha Giang Province because he had become a Christian, according to a local church leader. Koua sustained severe head injuries; according to witnesses, his head was split open in two places with parts of his brain visible.

Koua was taken to a hospital, but after three days doctors said they could do nothing more for him and sent him home. As his injuries were life-threatening, those close to Koua did not expect him to recover.

The alleged attacker, Lao, is still at large and has not been charged. The assault took place in Sung Can Village, Sung Tra Commune, Meo Vac district, Ha Giang Province.

In the same area two years ago, a 74-year-old woman became the first Christian in the village. Today there are about 100 families who follow Christ, but the cost has been high. Stories of harassment and abuse of Christians in Meo Vac district have circulated for several months, with local Christians saying government officials are either complicit or look the other way.

On Feb. 3, local Christians said, Lao murdered his mother in a similarly brutal fashion, smashing her head until she died. Police only held him overnight before releasing him without charge. The day he was released, local sources said, he again threatened Christians with death.

A Vietnamese pastor petitioned the government to investigate – with no result. Another leader informed U.S. diplomats of the details. Some Vietnamese Christians have complained to Vietnam diplomatic missions abroad, all to no avail.

Advocates of religious freedom in Vietnam say such impunity puts a serious blot on Vietnam’s slowly improving religious liberty record.

Following heavy international scrutiny of Vietnam’s oppression of religion in general and Protestantism in particular, Vietnam promulgated new religion legislation in 2004 and 2005. To date this has led to the legal recognition of six church/denominational organizations, raising the total to eight out of about 70. Additionally, a few hundred of Vietnam’s thousands of house church congregations have been given interim permission to carry on religious activities, and large-scale government campaigns to force ethnic minority Christians to recant their faith have ceased.

High hopes for improvement following the new religion legislation led the U.S. Department of State to take Vietnam off its blacklist of the worst violators of religious freedom in late 2006, which enabled the U.S. government to endorse Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization. And Christian support organization Open Doors this year dropped Vietnam to No. 23 on its World Watch List ranking of religion persecutors. In eight of the last 12 years, Vietnam had been placed among the organization’s top 10 worst religious persecutors.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), however, found exceptions to progress so widespread that it again recommended naming Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) this year. The recommendation by USCIRF, responsible for monitoring state department compliance with the U.S. 1998 Law on International Religious Freedom, was announced on May 1.

The commission’s report recognizes progress but notes, “There continue to be far too many serious abuses and restrictions of religious freedom in the country. Individuals continue to be imprisoned or detained for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy; police and government officials are not held fully accountable for abuses; independent religious activity remains illegal; and legal protections for government-approved religious organizations are both vague and subject to arbitrary or discriminatory interpretations based on political factors.”

Given the uneven pace of religious freedom progress after removing Vietnam from the list of CPCs, continued detention of prisoners of conscience, and an overall deteriorating human rights situation, USCIRF recommended that Vietnam be re-designated as a CPC.

In Tra Vinh Province in the Mekong Delta Region of southern Vietnam, another Christian was murdered on April 5. Thugs ambushed Thach Thanh No, described as a young and enthusiastic church elder, on his way home from Sunday worship, according to local Christian sources. His family was unable to find him quickly, and he died from his injuries as he was transported to a hospital.

The congregation in Ngoc Bien Commune to which he belonged has long been harassed and threatened by local thugs supported by militant Buddhists, according to area Christians, who emphasized that authorities have done nothing to intervene.

Indeed, in Thach’s case, rather than prosecute the killers, the Ministry of Public Security’s World Security newspaper published an article on April 24 – concocted without any factual basis, according to area Christians – which portrayed him as dying from crashing his motorbike while drunk. His motorbike, however, was found entirely unmarked without any signs of a crash, and his body showed clear signs of a vicious beating, according to area Christians.

“In one case the law winks at the murder of a Christian and does nothing to punish the murderer – in another, authorities actively work to cover up a murder with elaborate lies,” said one long-time advocate for religious freedom in Vietnam. “Such behavior on the part of authorities convinces many Vietnamese Christians that their country’s top officials are still not sincere about improving religious freedom for all.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Converts from ancestral animism threatened with violence, imprisonment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News