By Stefan J. Bos, Worthy News Chief International Coresspondemt
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM (Worthy News)-- The first American evangelist to openly preach in Vietnam since 1975 says thousands of people have "committed" their lives to Jesus Christ at meetings that were nearly halted by Vietnamese authorities.
Luis Palau, 76, spoke from Ho Chi Minh City where he held massive gatherings this weekend in the city's football Thanh Long Stadium to mark the 100th anniversary of Vietnam's Protestant church.
He acknowledged that authorities almost prevented the long-prepared "festival" of taking place. Officials eventually gave permission for the gathering at a different location. "The tensions went on quit a bit," Palau said in a video message seen by Worthy News Tuesday, April 12.
"At the last minute they had a change of venue...about 45 minutes drive away from the one [larger open field] area where [the Christians] hoped to have it to the [stadium] area where we had it," Palau explained.
It involved moving the stage, sound and light equipment, informing thousands of visitors, and re-directing hundreds of buses, motorbikes and cars within about three hours, he recalled.
Yet, Palau stressed, despite the difficulties "the first night some 2,000 people made a commitment" for Christ, followed by up to "3,500 people" on Sunday, April 10. "There were about 14,000 to 16,000 people each night...so the percentage of people who came to the Lord was great."
The stadium has a reported capacity of 5,000, but many people were seen standing and sitting on the soccer field, BosNewsLife observed.
Palau said the response to a call to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior was also viewed as an encouragement for devoted Vietnamese Christians involved in evangelism. "They hope to see 10 percent [born again] believers in Vietnam by 2020. So they got nine years to win seven or eight million people."
He was to travel to Hanoi Tuesday, April 12, where he hoped to see "a similar if not greater harvest" of Christian converts during another two-day evangelistic festival this weekend.
The Argentina-born evangelist, who became an American citizen, said "the Lord is at work in Vietnam, there is no question about it" despite the wounds of "the history of the Vietnam War" which ended in 1975 with the unification of the Asian nation.
Waving flowers, Palau was met by large crowds shouting words resembling "hallelujah" at Hon Chi Minth City airport where he began his April tour through Vietnam last week. "I talked to the police, and even they were excited," the evangelist said shortly after his arrival.
The gatherings, organized by local church leaders, represent "a growing understanding" between churches and Vietnam's Communist leadership, according to the Oregon-based Luis Palau Evangelistic Association.
But difficulties organizing them underscore concerns among rights activists about reported persecution of especially unregistered "house" churches and churches in Vietnam's Central Highlands, where Montagnard-Degar Christians complain of harassment by local authorities.
Hundreds of Montagnard-Degar Christians and other church leaders are believed to remain behind bars, many of them because of their Christian activities, according to church groups and rights activists.
Officially Vietnam's constitution grants freedom of worship, but in practice registration is required for all religious organizations and churches that do register are tightly controlled by the government.
Vietnam's government has denied wrongdoing and describes reports of a crackdown on Degar-Montagnard and other Christians as Western propaganda.
Palau has not yet publicly addressed the issue of prosecuted Christians. However, "There is great need for prayer, also for the local [church] leaders," in Vietnam, said evangelist Andrew Palau, who accompanies his father in Vietnam.
Vietnam is the latest stop of the traveling preacher.
The Luis Palau Association says Luis Palau has already preached "faith in Jesus Christ" to over 1 billion people through radio, television, the Internet, books and articles, including 28 million people face-to-face in 72 nations.
Palau's daily radio broadcasts are reportedly heard by tens of millions of listeners on over 3,000 radio outlets in 48 countries. He is the author of some 50 books including his latest, 'Changed by Faith', released in March.