April 6, 2001
HO CHI MINH CITY, April 5 (Compass) — For the first time since the communist takeover in 1975, authorities in Vietnam have granted legal recognition to a Protestant organization in the south. Most observers see the move as a positive development, but they warn it is only one step on the long road to religious freedom in this Southeast Asian nation.
“There’s still well-documented persecution of Christians in Vietnam, but as a trend, this is important,” a Western diplomat told a correspondent from Knight Ridder Newspapers.
In a document dated March 16, the government’s Bureau of Religious Affairs (BRA) stated that the southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) “may operate within the framework of the laws of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Yet these are the same “laws” that are often unclear and subjectively interpreted by local officials. They have been used in the past to prevent religious activity.
“This is the main weakness in Vietnam’s concept and practice in the area of religious freedom,” said a Vietnam observer told Compass. “Clear laws and an independent judiciary are still needed.”
It remains to be seen whether the ECVN will now be given the freedom to train clergy, print Christian materials, build and repair meeting places and connect with Christians outside the country.
The BRA document cited Decree on Religion 26/1999 as a basis for granting the ECVN legal recognition, a decree that has been cited as recently as February to prevent Christians from meeting in homes. This is a major concern, since there are many more informal house churches affiliated with the ECVN than there are congregations that meet in recognized church buildings.
Some church sources believe this legal recognition might, in the minds of the authorities, be limited to a maximum of 200,000 of Vietnam’s nearly one million evangelicals.
The vast majority of the ethnic minority churches — ethnic minorities of the Western Highlands where Christians recently participated in demonstrations concerning land and religious freedom, the large Christian movement among the Hmong minority, and some house churches that include both ethnic Vietnamese and ethnic minorities — appear to be excluded from legal recognition.
“Vietnam cannot expect that criticism will cease with this modest concession that covers only a fraction of Vietnam’s evangelical Protestant believers,” the Vietnam observer said. “The ECVN south should move courageously into the new space being offered it, and reach out to the large excluded parts of their faith community.”
A ceremony to formalize the legal recognition of the church, which involved government representatives, was held on the morning of April 3 at the Saigon Church located on 155 Tran Hung Dao Boulevard in Ho Chi Minh City (formally Saigon). In the evening, ECVN leaders held a special celebration to mark the 90th anniversary of the coming of the Protestant faith to Vietnam, the World Evangelical Fellowship Religious Liberty Conference reported.
Copyright Â© 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.