After the fall
Relatively free in the cities but persecuted in the countryside, the church in Vietnam has grown rapidly in grace and numbers
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HO CHI MINH CITY and HANOI, Vietnam—Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is a mix of the past and present. Motorbikes whizz past a French-colonial-style post office; a red banner with a yellow hammer and sickle hangs from a lamppost next to a sleek skyscraper; slender women in flowing ao dai (a traditional silk tunic) snap selfies in front of a bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh.
Because of Roman Catholicism’s long history in Vietnam, cathedrals like the historic red-brick Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica make striking statements throughout the city. Protestant churches are harder to find: American missionaries arrived in Vietnam three centuries after the Catholics and only had 64 years to take root before the Communist government took over South Vietnam in 1975.
Since then, the government has shuttered hundreds of churches and banned the construction of new ones, so many Christians meet in homes. Yet tucked in an alleyway off a main road is a white building with the sign “United Gospel Outreach Church.” Inside, the 200-seat sanctuary bustles with activity every day: various church services, interchurch gatherings, and outreach events.
The United Gospel Outreach Church’s building, which is open to all Christian groups in the city, is one of the few church buildings built since 1975 with the government’s tacit approval. For such a place to exist was unthinkable 15 years ago and is a sign of expanding religious freedom in the country’s big cities. Yet for believers belonging to ethnic minorities (who make up 75 percent of Vietnam’s evangelicals) or who live in the remote provinces, persecution remains a daily fact of life, even as Vietnam puts on a tolerant front for the international community.
Overall, since 1975, the evangelical population in Vietnam has multiplied nearly tenfold from 160,000 to 1.57 million, according to Operation World.
PROTESTANT CHRISTIANITY FIRST CAME to Danang, Vietnam, in 1911 through missionaries from the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) denomination. France ruled Vietnam at the time, and the missionaries were free to work throughout the country. By 1929, the Vietnamese churches established the independent Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) only to have it split in 1954, when the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into the Communist North and the nominally democratic South. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics and Protestants moved south to avoid persecution.
With the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the new Communist government kicked out foreign missionaries, commandeered Christian schools and hospitals, and closed churches. Some Vietnamese pastors fearfully fled the country on U.S. military planes, leaving their flocks without shepherds. Seventh-day Adventist Pastor Tran Thanh Truyen recalled every pastor in his denomination fled the country, forcing “laypeople to become pastors themselves.”
Pastor Huy Le of Grace Baptist Church, who was 7 years old at the time, recalls the hunger and suffering his family faced those first few years. The North plundered the resource-rich South and implemented collectivist rice farming, which led to extreme food shortages. Local officials often called in Le’s father, then the pastor at Grace Baptist Church, for interrogations. Authorities closed all the Baptist churches except for Grace Baptist (which only experienced a temporary closure). Le believes it was spared because of its location in Ho Chi Minh City and because his father decided to stay.
With the world around them in disarray, many in the South felt hopeless. “At the time, a lot of people just came to church with a pure heart to seek peace and hope,” Le said, “and they found love and salvation in God.” In those days, only a few dozen people filled the pews, yet the number grew steadily.
Restrictions for churches in the city eased in the late ’80s as Vietnam pursued market reforms and began to open up to the West. In 2001, the government officially recognized the ECVN (South) and then the Vietnam Baptist Convention in 2008. Today Grace Baptist Church has 500 members, and there are 70 Baptist churches in the country. The renovated church is located on a busy road with a cylindrical glass exterior and steps winding up to the front door.
In Le’s office, his young son runs in and out, insistently offering visitors water, cookies, and chocolate. On the wall is a photo of Le with five other human rights activists meeting with former President Barack Obama during his visit to Hanoi in 2016. Police initially barred Le from attending the meeting, yet lobbying from the U.S. Consulate pressured the government to relent.
Vietnamese government officials now invite Le and other church leaders to attend roundtable discussions when they are considering new religious decrees, including the new Law on Belief and Religion that went into effect this year. While the government only incorporated some of their suggestions into the final draft of the law, Le notes the government is making an effort to understand the church.
While Le’s church is registered with the government, United Gospel Outreach Church is not. Pastor Daniel Pham has applied for registration but has not yet received approval. That hasn’t stopped the church from meeting, evangelizing, and growing: Today the United Gospel Outreach Church has 300 house churches in 42 provinces in Vietnam.
Pham, who grew up in the Central Highlands, is also the son of a pastor. In 1977, officials imprisoned his father for seven years and closed up all the churches in the region serving the Montagnard ethnic groups. A few years later, Pham entered the ministry himself, serving under the tutelage of a pastor in Ho Chi Minh City.
A house church movement arose in 1988 out of a conflict within the ECVN(S) that began in 1988: Some pastors grew suspicious of the denomination leaders’ ties to the government. At the same time, several fast-growing churches experienced spiritual revival, and members began speaking in tongues. As the churches grew more Pentecostal, their leaders butted heads with the more conservative ECVN(S).
These pastors broke off from the traditional church and started house church groups, which multiplied rapidly. At the time, Pham led a Bible study at his home, which he turned into a house church. Police tried to intimidate church members, and it worked in some cases, yet the church continued to grow and plant new churches.
Although Vietnam was isolated from the rest of the world at the time, missionaries from Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines would periodically sneak into the country to train Pham and other church leaders. In 1996, several house church leaders met and wrote a letter to the Hanoi government asking for the freedom to worship openly. They never received a response.
Undeterred, the leaders created the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF), which met monthly so pastors could join together to pray, share information, and encourage one another. The group, growing to include 30 church networks, developed relations with the U.S. Consulate and informed the consulate of cases of persecution toward house churches. “It’s better to stop the persecution,” Pham told local police. “Because as pastors we can’t lie.”
In 2006, the Vietnamese government gave the house churches permission to meet, albeit unofficially. By the time Pham raised funds to build the United Gospel Outreach Church building on a rented piece of land in 2011, he and the local police had developed a respectful relationship over the course of 25 years. When Pham announced that he would move his church group into the building, the officials kept silent, not officially approving but also not stopping him.
WHILE IT FEELS LIKE SUMMER in February in Ho Chi Minh City, fly two hours north to the capital of Hanoi and it’s overcast and drizzly. The seat of Communist power, the city relishes memories of the past: Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body lies in a cool mausoleum surrounded by soldiers in white uniforms. The crumbling Maison Centrale—a prison used first by the French to hold Vietnamese revolutionaries then by North Vietnam to hold U.S. prisoners of war—invites tourists to walk through its cells.
After the country split in 1954, Saigon flourished as a prosperous international city while Hanoi fell behind the Communist curtain and developed more slowly. Especially after the bitter Vietnam War, people in the North and the South resented one another.
Yet as the house church movement grew in the South, more and more pastors felt called to share the gospel with their kinsmen in the North. John Nguyen (we used a pseudonym to protect his identity), a house church pastor in Ho Chi Minh City, said that like most Southerners, he grew up hating Northerners. Yet after hearing about miracles God performed in the lives of other pastors who moved north, Nguyen decided to move to Hanoi.
At the time, Hanoi only had one or two registered ECVN (North) churches and very few house churches. Evangelism was difficult as people bought into the propaganda that Christianity was an American religion and thus an enemy of the state. Nguyen and other Southern pastors faced harsh persecution: Authorities arrested Nguyen more than 20 times, usually releasing him after a few days. Yet a year after coming to Hanoi, Nguyen started a small seven-member house church. By 1998, it had grown to 20. Many times God kept Nguyen from getting caught: Police would show up at a Bible training minutes after he stepped out of the room. Once while walking to a training, he saw police rushing toward their meeting location, so he stayed back. For a time, Nguyen moved his Sunday service to 5 a.m. so it would be over by the time the police started their workday.
“After being persecuted severely, more churches have been planted,” Nguyen said. “Some places only had one church, but after persecution, it became five. Facing difficulties cannot deter the growth of the church.”
One ministry contributing to church growth in the North is a group of Christian drug rehab centers. Vietnam has a growing drug problem, and addicts in the 132 state-sponsored rehab centers are treated like criminals, according to rights groups. Almost all of them end up relapsing after leaving the centers.
Christians opened their own drug rehab centers that rely on prayer, the Bible, and the love of Christians to help addicts. Many addicts profess faith at the centers, and about half stay off drugs after they leave. Their dramatic testimonies have led family members and friends to profess faith in Christ, and dozens of former drug addicts have started their own house churches and rehab centers: Today the country has 60 Christian drug rehab centers.
One drug-addict-turned-pastor, Nam Quoc Trung, was also a member of the delegation that met with Obama in 2016. Trung had been in and out of government rehabs 14 times, yet only found freedom from his addiction after professing Christ at a Christian rehab center. After leaving rehab, he started his own house church as well as a Christian rehab center that houses 90 addicts. While the center isn’t legally registered, Hanoi authorities acknowledge the effectiveness of his work: Officials invite him to speak at state-sponsored rehab centers and police training meetings. Each time, he shares the gospel.
‘After being persecuted severely, more churches have been planted. … Facing difficulties cannot deter the growth of the church.’
HEARING STORIES from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City gives the impression that religious freedom has come a long way in Vietnam. Yet Open Doors’ World Watch List places Vietnam as the 18th worst country for Christians, much worse than China, which ranks 43rd. That’s because the persecution of the church in Vietnam happens not in high-profile cities, but in the outer provinces and especially among ethnic minorities.
Vietnam is home to 54 ethnic groups, with many of the local ethnic minorities living in the mountains. The majority Kinh people have long looked down on them as poor, uneducated, “backward” people who follow folk religions. While they make up 14 percent of the population, they account for 75 percent of the country’s Christians.
The ethnic group with the largest growth of Christianity is the Hmong people who live near Vietnam’s northern border: Today an estimated 400,000 Hmong have professed Christ. The gospel first reached the Hmong in the late ’80s through a Hmong-language program from the Far East Broadcasting Company. Traditionally, the Hmong are animists who engage in ancestor worship and constantly live in fear of facing the wrath of angry spirits. Yet once they believed in Jesus, they found they were freed from these fears. Village leaders and even former shamans came to profess Christ, yet they had no Bible and no church, only the radio to learn about their new faith.
The radio program instructed the Hmong believers to find churches in Hanoi, and Vietnamese pastors helped smuggle in Hmong Bibles and trained the church leaders in underground Bible schools. Yet the rapid growth of Christianity among the Hmong concerned the local government, who long viewed the Hmong with distrust: The Hmong in Laos sided with the United States in the Vietnam War, and they feared this mass conversion to an “American” religion would rally a Hmong independence movement. Officially, they claimed they wanted to prevent the Hmong from abandoning their traditional culture.
To deter conversions, authorities threw pastors into prison, tortured them, and left them for dead, while taking the land of Christians and kicking them out of villages. Police broke up church meetings and arrested Vietnamese Christians who dared travel to Hmong villages to preach—although that hasn’t stopped them from going.
Christianity transformed the Hmong communities: Twenty years ago it was difficult to find one Hmong villager who had graduated high school, while today most of the Hmong do, with some also earning their bachelor’s or master’s degree. Many Hmong Christians learned to read Vietnamese through reading the Bible. And because they no longer need to prepare expensive sacrifices to the spirits, the Hmong were able to raise their standard of living.
Hmong Christians have also gone on to share the gospel with neighboring tribes such as the Dao, who now have 24,000 believers in the ECVN(N) denomination alone. Today, about 400 of the 1,000 Hmong churches are registered, and existing churches face less harassment than in the past. However, the local government still persecutes new churches and churches in previously unreached areas.
ON JAN. 1, the Vietnamese government enacted the Law on Belief and Religion, the first law to govern religion since the founding of Vietnam’s Communist government. Christian groups, especially those in remote areas, are concerned as the law requires all groups to register with authorities and report their activities or else face fines. The law includes a clause that prohibits groups from using religion to threaten “the national great unity, harm state defense, national security, public order, and social morale,” which Human Rights Watch believes the government can use as an excuse to persecute Christian groups.
The law could benefit registered churches as it allows churches to establish medical, educational, and social institutions. Former decrees required a church to exist for 20 years without breaking the law before it could register, but the new law shortens the time to five years (although the existence of an unregistered church is against this law). As always, the actual effects of the law on churches will depend on how local authorities implement it.
“Vietnam is an unpredictable country regarding its direction, its economy, its politics, and even [its view of] religion,” said Le, the Baptist pastor. “We’ve seen this so many times: We look at tomorrow and are expecting a better future, but then suddenly something happens that overshadows any positive changes.”
This story has been updated to correct the description of when American Protestant missionaries first arrived in Vietnam, and to correct the description of the Montagnard ethnic groups.
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