Officials permit rare, open-air Easter event by unregistered groups.

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 22 (Compass Direct News) – In what religious freedom advocates regarded as a breakthrough in Vietnam, authorities granted rare permission to unregistered house church groups to hold a large, public Easter-related service here last night.

More than 15,000 people gathered at Tao Dan Stadium to worship God, proclaim Christ and experience a rare sense of large-scale Christian unity, especially house church members accustomed to meeting in small groups. The only other such event granted to unregistered groups was an open-air meeting during Christmas of 2007 sponsored by the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF, a house church umbrella group).

At the event last night, the VEF endeavored to include all house churches, not just its own members, sources said.

Unregistered groups holding an event that includes worship and evangelism outside a church building violates Vietnam’s restrictive religion laws, and the celebration – in which 1,200 people indicated they had decided to follow Christ – did not happen without struggles. Reluctant to endorse such Christian unity events, authorities demanded and got the removal of one of the organizers – pastor Nguyen Ngoc Hien, who heads a Baptist house church and a group called the Christian Fellowship of Vietnam – as a condition to consider approval.

Officials did not grant permission until 4 p.m., just three hours before the event was to begin, though event organizers had requested permission several months prior. Authorities had assured them that permission was forthcoming, but organizers were understandably nervous. Adding to their concerns was the rain that hit just before the service began, though the rainy season has yet to arrive.

Since the celebration was held in the open air, a heavy rain would have been more than inconvenient. It rained just enough to refresh the air, stopping as the service began – an answer to prayer for participants. The celebration began with congregational worship; participants said the huge crowd sang with enthusiasm and joy.

“I never heard any singing like this, even in a Billy Graham crusade,” said one overseas Vietnamese Christian leader. “It was as if they offered to God all the praise and worship stored up in their hearts during many years of oppression.”

Worship included a dance group, and a 120-voice choir sang with gusto. Pastor Duong Thanh Lam of the Assemblies of God served as master of ceremonies, pastor Vo Van Lac of the Full Gospel Church preached a gospel message and pastor Pham Dinh Nhan of the United Gospel Outreach Church made an evangelistic appeal. People responded with loud applause and raised their hands in praise, and those who decided to follow Christ included old and young, students and teachers, rank-and-file workers and some disabled people. Witnesses said some were healed as leaders prayed for them.

Leaders of the celebration and religious freedom advocates in Vietnam said the event was significant in that unregistered house churches were allowed to hold a large public celebration. They added that authorities must have felt enough pressure to consider the event less harmful than possible negative publicity from denying permission.

The sources also said the event showed that Vietnam’s house churches, widely known for divisiveness and provincialism, could cooperate with good results.

“Those who have long urged and worked for unity can be pleased,” said one advocate. “While there is still a long way to go for Vietnamese Christian groups in practicing collaboration and partnership, this Easter celebration is seen as a significant step forward.”

A prominent overseas Vietnam leader who founded the Vietnam World Christian Fellowship witnessed the event and highly commended the leadership of pastor Ho Tan Khoa, chairman of the VEF, and his committee.

Some former Vietnam missionaries were incredulous that such events can take place in Vietnam, which until recently has had a place among the world’s top persecutors of religion. Prior to the Easter-related event organized by unregistered house churches, Christmas events were similarly held by the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) last December.

“That a successful Christian celebration with mass evangelism approved by the government can take place in Vietnam where in some places Christians are still heavily persecuted shows the ongoing inconsistency of Vietnam’s religion policy,” said one source. “Vietnam Christian leaders have long prayed for such opportunities. They see these events as direct answers from God, whom they believe holds the hearts of rulers in his hands.”

Three representatives of a house church group in China were present at the service; they expressed amazement. They promised Vietnamese church leaders to send missionaries to help in the evangelization of Vietnam and invited Vietnamese church leaders to visit China to learn about the church there.

Vietnamese participants said the celebration was inspiring, describing it as “spectacular,” “splendid,” “glorious” and “phenomenal.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Militia destroys church building in the Nuba Mountains

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 8 (Compass Direct News) — Support for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in the wake of an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant is fast turning into orchestrated attacks on Christians.

A thatched-grass building in the Nuba Mountains village of Chat, used by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Sudanese Church of Christ, is one of the latest targets of such attacks.

The building was destroyed by fire on March 27 by a suspected government militia. Pro-Bashir mobs have attacked those they believe support the ICC’s determination to prosecute Bashir for atrocities in the Darfur region.

As support for President Bashir escalates, especially in the North, the church faces one of the worst threats to its existence in the recent past. Today, it struggles simply to survive.

Drivers on the streets of Khartoum, even the road leading toward the airport, see huge pictures of Bashir staring down from billboards with pro-Bashir messages, such as “Mr. President, we are with you” and “You are not alone.”

Kuwa Shamal, acting director of the Sudanese Church of Christ, says of the billboard campaign: “I wish the same government assuring support to the president could have the same encouraging message for the struggling church.”


Chief Accused of Leading Attack

The Sudanese Church of Christ was forced to conclude a morning worship service prematurely on March 27 when a hostile group attacked. An eyewitness said this militia was led by the area chief, Kafi Tahir, who supports an Islamist agenda and is said to receive government support.

The eyewitness, a Muslim who requested anonymity, said the chief and his accomplices were armed. Helpless church members fled the structure, which had a capacity of about 500. The chief then ordered his accomplices to set the church ablaze and church members ran for their lives, the eyewitness said.

“The Sudanese Church of Christ is concerned of the government move to frustrate the activities of the churches in Nuba Mountains,” said Barnabas Maitias, president of the Sudanese Church of Christ. “It is alleged that the Ministry of Defense has distributed a number of weapons to individuals who are out to support Islamic agenda and the government in Nuba Mountains, including Chief Kafi Tahir of Chat village, who recently led a group of unknown people to destroy our church.”

Indeed, many Christians are worried as a new wave of intolerance sweeps the region. The intolerance could worsen as ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo continues to press for a court trial of Bashir.

Matta Mubarak, general secretary of the Sudanese Church of Christ, told Compass that the villagers of Chat have previously opposed the chief, who then destroyed the church building in retaliation.

“The chief fled for his life to Kadugli and he is living a comfortable life. As a result, justice for the church in Nuba Mountains has been thrown out of the window,” Mubarak said. “What kind of a world are we living in, where criminals are not charged? The church feels that the Sudanese government is not concerned about the rights of Christians in the North. The future of the church in the North is uncertain.”


Worshiping Without Buildings or Land

For a month now, members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church have worshiped outdoors and without the help of an evangelist who had led them.

Shamal said that evangelist Aburahaman Tai of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was attacked in early March outside the church by the same group that later destroyed the building.

“He was beaten and sustained head injuries and was treated at a local dispensary before being discharged,” Shamal said. “He is still recovering. Indeed, it is a big blow to the church, to have no place to worship and to lack a pastor. This is a big tragedy.”

Mubarak said that in some parts of Sudan, Islam has conquered the church. “In Northern Sudan, at a place called Dongola, the church building has been converted into a mosque and the few Christians forced to convert to Islam,” Mubarak said.

Church struggles extend even to land ownership. Maitias told Compass that after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the Sudan Inter-religious Council petitioned the government for a piece of land to be allocated to the church for worship. He said three churches were allowed to apply for land allocation for the purpose of building houses of worship: the Sudanese Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church of Sudan and the Catholic Church.

But to their surprise, the offer was given with some conditions: every year, the government must cross-check church operations and is free to repossess land at will.

“We as the church find our free operation not guaranteed,” Maitias said.

Andrea Amet Ubiu, who works with the Sudan Council of Churches in Khartoum, bought a piece of land from Zinab Adut in 1994 and constructed a temporary house at Salma village, which is about two miles from Khartoum.

“In 2005 the government began demolishing temporary structures in the area with a view of carrying out reallocations. To my surprise, when this [reallocation] was done, I was left out and was informed that the land I bought was not legitimate since the lady who sold the land to me was not entitled to it because she had no husband or children,” Ubiu said.

“But I knew it was a calculated move by the local authorities to deny me the land, because all along I had not supported the government before the signing of the peace agreement between the North and the South,” Ubiu added. “Life for me in Salma has been harsh, so I decided to forget the issue of the land and moved to a new location called Hagyouf area, five kilometers [three miles] from the town center.”

Maitias sees such discrimination as common for Christians in northern Sudan.

“Here in the North, the Church is discriminated [against] in almost everything, even including education,” Maitias said. “Christian institutions are not recognized by the government. Christian religious education is not taught in government schools. Christian programs are only given less than three hours in the national media on Sundays and Christian workers given only two hours for Sunday worship. Christmas celebrations are restricted to a day for celebrations, like marching with police security.”

Christians who wish to operate a restaurant during Ramadan must obtain a permit from authorities. “We always ask ourselves, why all this? Our identity as Christians is an anathema,” Maitias said. “Instead, the government prefers calling us ‘non-Muslims.’”

A dozen non-governmental organizations have been expelled from the country because of their vocal opposition to human rights abuses in Darfur.  

Report from Compass Direct News