Vietnam: Churches Learn of Registrations Indirectly

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

(Compass Direct News) – Vietnamese authorities advised the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi that 18 Vietnamese churches had been registered while not informing the churches themselves. Observers believe this is an indication that the country has stepped up efforts to convince the United States of improvements in its religious freedom record as two key U.S. decisions approach.

The United States soon will decide whether to include Vietnam among the list of worst violators of religious freedom, and a vote in Congress on permanent normal trading relationship is also imminent. Also adding pressure is the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference to be held in Hanoi November 12-19, followed by a state visit from President George W. Bush.

Christian leaders both in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City told Compass that they heard about registration of some of their churches first from U.S. officials who contacted them.

On September 18, the general secretary of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) received a fax from the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi with a list of 18 Hmong churches said to have been registered. The embassy had received the list from the Central Bureau of Religious Affairs and was inquiring as to the status of the registration from ECVN (N) leaders.

During the last year, these leaders had helped 534 Hmong churches submit applications for registration with local officials in accordance with new religion legislation. But the churches had not received any acknowledgement of the registration requests until learning of the fax to the U.S. Embassy.

The Vietnamese church leaders said that such dysfunctional communications lead them to doubt the government’s intention to change repressive policies toward the Hmong and other ethnic minorities in Vietnam’s mountainous Northwestern provinces.

The experience of the churches since registering heightens that doubt, they said. Being forced to list their members by name, since registration their churches have suffered numerous and wide-ranging threats and intrusive actions by local authorities. Police and officials who long persecuted the Hmong, for example, now sit in some of their church services as observers. In some churches, authorities prohibit anyone under 14 years old from attending.

In other churches, authorities did not accept the leadership and forced congregations to choose another under their supervision. Authorities have also checked the attendance of some churches against membership lists and expelled any visitors or guests, the leaders said. Government officials have tried to stop the movement of respected church leaders and teachers, and they have even dictated the order of service.

Observers have noted that authorities chose to register 18 smaller churches, most with leaders not considered strong. Leaders of larger, more vigorous Hmong churches have said they will refuse to register if these are the “benefits” of doing so.

Still, some diplomats feel this is progress over past attitudes. As late as early 2005, authorities denied there were any Christians in the Northwest provinces. The government now admits there are 110,000 Protestant Christians, though church sources said the number is twice that number and likely higher.

Doubtful Sincerity

In mid-October in Ho Chi Minh City, a prominent house church leader received a call from a U.S. diplomat informing him that a number of house churches were to be registered. The house church leader had not heard of this.

On October 17, an article in the morning edition of the Saigon Giai Phong (Liberated Saigon) newspaper informed readers that “25 Protestant denominations” had received “certificates to carry on religious activities.” The word “denominations” was said to be a disingenuous error as it should have read “congregations.” Subsequently, certificates were indeed delivered to 25 congregations belonging to some nine house church organizations.

Some church leaders said that the way they learned of these registrations – first from the U.S. Embassy, then from the newspaper, before being informed directly – indicated that Vietnam was more interested in putting on a show for the world than in honest, good-faith relations with religious believers.

Others are slightly more optimistic. The same week that the churches learned of these registrations, one church leader, long and openly critical of religious repression, received a polite personal visit at his home from a high official of the Central Bureau of Religious Affairs. The official urged the leader to register his churches.

The next day, when the leader called the HCM City Bureau of Religious Affairs, he was asked to “Please forget what happened before 2003” and was told that a new and more liberal religion policy would be implemented. The leader, though still cautious, said that he and others would take the government up on this and attempt to register their house church congregations.

One observer told Compass, “Church leaders in Vietnam are under no illusion that the registration of their churches equal religious freedom. Indeed, the experience of the Hmong churches recently registered indicates that registration can be used as a tool for interference and for limiting the church.”

But there can be benefits, he added, to being considered legal, “as the idea of the rule of law is being forced on Vietnam as it joins the global economic family.”

House church leaders told Compass that they will resolutely refuse to list their members when they register their groups; they cite the experience of the Hmong churches as a key reason.

In the case of both Hmong churches and house churches, the registrations described represent scarcely more than 1 percent of the total number of congregations.

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