HO CHI MINH CITY, March 19 (Compass) -- In what may be a small breakthrough for religious liberty, Vietnam's religion authorities invited five leaders of Protestant house church organizations and non-denominational missions to Hanoi for informal talksâ€ in early March.
Such a meeting is rare in Vietnam, where the Bureau of Religious Affairs and other governmental bodies rarely consult the religious groups they are supposed to control.
The governmentâ€™s Institute for the Study of Religion invited the Protestant delegation to participate in a seminar on Protestantism on March 5. The group attended the seminar for a half day and met with representatives of the Fatherland Front, a Party and state organization with the responsibility to mobilize so-called â€œmass organizations,â€ including religions, to support the Party line and government policies. It often helps carry out anti-Christian activity at the local level.
The delegation also met with the special A38 unit of the Ministry of Public Security that deals with religious matters.
Members of the Protestant delegation were the Rev. Nguyen Duy Thang of the Church of God, the Rev. Dinh Thien Tu and the Rev. Huynh Huyen Vu of the Christian Inter-Fellowship Church, the Rev. Duong Thanh Lam of the Vietnam Assemblies of God Church, and the Rev. Doan Trung Tin, leader of the Vietnam Good News Mission.
Together these groups represent more than 1,400 illegal house congregations and hundreds of evangelists.
The Protestant leaders reported that â€œfrank and sincere discussions took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect.â€ They raised the sensitive issue of the intense persecution of minority Montagnard Protestant Christians in Vietnamâ€™s Central Highlands. They also suggested that authorities in Hanoi should arrange a larger dialogue between Protestant leaders and the various government bodies that exercise jurisdiction over religious affairs.
The meeting took place at a time when Vietnam has markedly increased its activities against minority Montagnard Christians in the Central Highlands and against Hmong Christians in northwest provinces.
Since September 2002, authorities have ordered the disbanding of more than 400 Ede minority churches in Dak Lak province alone. Recent reports also detail the destruction by chainsaws of wood pole chapels of the Mnong minority in the same province. In another Highland province, Gia Lai, only four of some 370 churches have been legally recognized.
The vast majority of these troubled churches belong to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) that was officially recognized in April of 2001. The government, however, refuses to recognize this historical relationship between the ECVN (S) and the minority churches. Instead they interrogate and threaten minority church leaders and hold public ceremonies in which the leaders are forced to declare their illegality and pledge to cease Christian activities.
In one September 2002 government television broadcast of such an event, Christians were shown to be â€œvoluntarilyâ€ surrendering their Bibles and other Christian books.