EDITOR’S NOTE: Names in this article have been altered to protect identities.
There were meetings I’ll never forget with disciples of Jesus who have had to muster more courage in a year than I’ll likely have to gather my entire lifetime. One of those meetings was with a minister at a hostel in Ho Chi Minh City (named after the Vietnam War revolutionary and politician) where my team and I lived during a mission trip in 2013. Pastor Thanh has had to cope with constant threats, damage to ministry property and violence to his congregants at the hands of governing authorities (or at least, he suspects, instigated by them) for the last two decades, he told me.
In 2000, Pastor Thanh started his church in Vũng Tàu, a city of more than 500,000 residents, in southern Vietnam. Thanh was encouraged by the spiritual influence his ministry seemed to be having during its first two years as dozens of people made first-time professions of faith in Jesus. But those results caught the attention of local police — who are governed by an overarching Communist system that regards all religions as an ideological threat to its supremacy.
Thanh (who is in his late 40s and is married with two children) says that in the summer of 2005, he was confronted by a group numbering 70 police officers who questioned the lawfulness of his evangelistic activities, he recalled during our meeting. In addition to the physical intimidation, they produced 21 documents detailing alleged illegal religious practices. He resisted repeated attempts by the police to force confessions to the charges. But within months, police harassment became so overbearing that he left the city. He then moved to Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam’s largest city, with more than 8 million residents) where he again experienced persecution — which largely subsided there when local police realized Christianity teaches respect for authority and good citizenship.
Thanh is also involved in church planting in the Central Highlands region, where his trainees (of whom there are hundreds) have experienced beatings and had their homes destroyed by hostile neighbors. Thanh believes these civilians were provoked (and perhaps bribed financially) by police to instigate conflict.
Ngoc Nouyen, an evangelist in her late 60s who I met during my time in Vietnam, has also had frequent conflicts with police. She has been repeatedly confronted and warned to stop passing out pamphlets about Jesus around Ho Chi Minh City in the previous decade. Nouyen recalled one memorable exchange with police in 2011.
“They said I’m not allowed to share my faith outside of the church. I challenged them that if I share my faith, their jobs would be easier because there would be less sin in the world,” said Nouyen, who often preaches at hospitals and Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Vietnam with her American husband.
Despite official regulations that should protect them, Thanh and Nouyen’s experiences continue to be common for Christians and other religious communities viewed with suspicion by the Communist government. Not long after I met these Christians, Vietnam adopted a new constitution that ostensibly protects religious freedom. According to an English translation of the document, Article 24 states that “Everyone shall enjoy freedom of belief and religion; he or she can follow any religion or follow none.” Article 25 decrees that “citizen shall enjoy the right to freedom of opinion and speech.” However, the nation passed a law earlier this year that created obstacles to religious practices (including evangelism) by requiring certain religious activities to be registered and approved governmentally before being carried out.
And according to a human rights report on Vietnam issued by the U.S. Department of State earlier this year, “Authorities subjected many religious and political activists to varying degrees of arbitrary detention in their residences, in vehicles, at local police stations, at ‘social protection centers,’ or at local government offices.” A separate report published in June by the department said that “authorities continued to cite general security concerns, such as political destabilization or potential conflict” between religious and ethnic groups as a reason for denying permission to evangelize or other displays of open religiosity.
Despite these and other obstacles, Christianity in Vietnam remains steady. More than 8 percent of the nation’s population is Christian, according to a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, an organization that studies religious trends globally. That’s the best among the six territories of Indochina: Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The church in Vietnam enjoys much greater numbers than in Cambodia and Thailand despite experiencing much greater political and social obstacles than those nations. That, in large measure, has to do with the resilience of Christians there, but is aided by help from brothers in the faith from overseas. Here in the U.S., for example, Desiring God ministries (based out of Minneapolis) has translated many of theologian John Piper’s articles, sermons and conference speeches into Vietnamese. In Touch Ministries (the organization founded by Georgia Pastor Charles Stanley) has reproduced many of its resources in Vietnamese. Voice Media is selling many of renowned late Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe’s books in Vietnamese as well. But, above all, Vietnamese Christians are being sustained by supernatural help, Nouyen said.
“Some of my missionary friends from abroad ask me how I last in Vietnam despite so much opposition against my work for the Lord. I say, ‘Only by the grace of God’” Nouyen told me.
By: Raymond Billy
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