HO CHI MINH CITY (Compass Direct News) – The Assemblies of God (AoG) in Vietnam on Monday (Oct. 19) received an "operating license," which the government described as "the first step . . . before becoming officially legal."
This operating license gives permission for all of the congregations of the Vietnam AoG to "carry on religious activity" anywhere in the country for the next year. During this time the church body must prepare a doctrinal statement, a constitution and bylaws and a four-year working plan to be approved by the government before being allowed to hold an organizing assembly. These steps, AoG leaders hope, would lead to legal recognition.
The operating license is the first one granted since five were granted two years ago. The last of those five churches, the Christian Fellowship Church, was finally allowed to hold its organizing assembly in late September. According to an internal 2008 government Protestant Training Manual obtained by church leaders, this assembly was delayed because authorities observed large discrepancies between the number of followers the group claimed and the actual number, as well as other "instability."
Vietnam News Service reported on Sept. 29 that the Christian Fellowship Church has "30,000 believers nationwide."
Should the AoG achieve legal recognition, it would be the ninth among some 70 Protestant groups in Vietnam and the seventh since new religion legislation touted to expedite registration was introduced in 2004.
The AoG quest was typically long, and it is not yet over. Though started in the early 1970s before the communist era, the denomination was deemed dormant by authorities after the communist takeover and restarted in 1989. Strangely, the Vietnamese religion law requires a church organization to have 20 years of stable organization before it can even be considered for legal recognition.
Though the AoG had been trying for years to register, only this year did it fulfill the 20-year requirement in the eyes of the government. Sources said AoG's resistance to strong pressure by the government to eliminate a middle or district level of administration may also have contributed to the delay.
Ironically, the official government news report credits the Vietnam AoG with 40,000 followers, while denominational General Superintendent Samuel Lam told Compass the number is 25,000. He also said he hoped the advantages of registration would outweigh the disadvantages.
With no more operating licenses being granted, the future of registration is in a kind of limbo. Sources said a lower level of registration in which local authorities are supposed to offer permission for local congregations to carry on religious activities while the more complicated higher levels are worked out has largely failed. Only about 10 percent of the many hundreds of applications have received a favorable reply, they said, leaving most house churches vulnerable to arbitrary harassment or worse.
Leaders of all Protestant groups say that they continue to experience government resistance, as well as social pressure, whenever they preach Christ in new areas. They added that evidence is strong that the government's aim is to contain Protestant growth.
Hmong Christians who fled the Northwest Mountainous Region for the Central Highlands a decade ago, developing very poor land in places such as Dak Nong, reported to Compass that they were singled out for land confiscation just when their fields became productive. They said ethnic Vietnamese made these land grabs with the complicity of the authorities, sometimes multiple times.
At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Oct. 19 that Vietnam has experienced a "sharp backsliding on religious freedom." Among other incidents, HRW cited the late September crackdown on followers of Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Some 150 monks were forcibly evicted from his sect's Bat Nha Monastery in Lam Dong province on Sept. 27, and 200 nuns fled in fear the next day. As in recent land disputes with Roman Catholics involving thousands of demonstrators, authorities hired local and imported thugs to do the deed to present the image that ordinary local people were upset with the religion.
After a visit to Vietnam in May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States reinstate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the blacklist of religious liberty offenders. Vietnam had been on the list from 2004 until 2006.
The USCIRF, which experienced less government cooperation that on some previous visits, observed that "Vietnam's overall human rights record remains poor, and has deteriorated since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007."
Some key Protestant leaders describe themselves as weary and frustrated at what they termed the government's lack of sincerity, extreme tardiness and outright duplicity regarding religious freedom. They too said they believe that the lifting of Vietnam's CPC status was premature and resulted in the loss of a major incentive for Vietnam to improve religious freedom.