Compromise Reached in Vietnam Church Dispute

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Evangelicals Still Severely Restricted in Rural and Mountainous Areas

HO CHI MINH CITY, July 17 (Compass) -- The Thu Thiem congregation in District 2 of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) has persisted in finishing construction of its new church building despite a police order in early June halting work at the site. Pastor Truong Van Nganh and his congregation began worshipping in the attractive sanctuary in early July.

During the first week of July, officials of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) ECVN (S), Pastor Nganh’s denomination, advised him that the government wanted him to “temporarily stop meeting in the church.” Again, Pastor Nganh and his congregation refused to stop using the attractive, newly completed building for worship.

On the afternoon of July 10, a month and a day after the original incident, Pastor Nganh and his congregational leaders responded to an “invitation” to meet with officials at the city’s Bureau of Religious Affairs office. Government officials were surprisingly conciliatory.

The Bureau admitted that local government offices and authorities had “shortcomings” and had not expeditiously processed the church’s request for a building permit. Pastor Nganh agreed he too had “shortcomings.” He had begun the building project without the final approval on transferring the land from agricultural to urban use. Also, he started building without all the required permits. The mutual admissions opened the way for compromise.

Thu Thiem church members promised the authorities to carry on their religious activities in a peaceful way and agreed to the “government’s ideas” on how to resolve the outstanding issues. They also agreed to withdraw their complaint petition sent to higher authorities and to pay the fees required by the district.

The authorities agreed to let the congregation continue worshipping at the new church provided Pastor Nganh accept responsibility on behalf of his denomination for public order while the needed approvals were obtained.

In more remote areas inaccessible to foreign travel or influence, there are few restraints on government authorities. From September to December 2002, authorities in the Dak Lak province systematically and harshly disbanded over 400 Protestant churches.

Since Christmas of 2002, officials in Dak Rlap district of Dak Lak province have destroyed five chapels belonging to congregations of the Mnong minority and ordered all Mnong churches there to disband.

While minority tribal Christians have borne the brunt of repression, ethnic Vietnamese are not exempt. Recently in the southernmost province of Ca Mau, six churches in Thuan Hoa, Lung Say, Xom Ruong, Hiep Du, Nguyen Huan and Bon Bon were pressured by local authorities to dismantle their church buildings and disband their congregations. All six were official members of the legally recognized ECVN (S) denomination.

“The compromise over the church building in Ho Chi Minh City, reached after Christians confronted the authorities, is good news for the Thu Thiem congregation,” a leading Christian activist in Vietnam remarked. “But don’t forget that many others away from the city are still not only losing their buildings, but even their ability to meet for worship.”