American evangelistic preacher Luis Palau is making a whirlwind tour of Vietnam, in time for the 100th anniversary of the country’s Protestant Church.
Palau was mobbed by throngs of excited well-wishers bearing flowers and banners welcoming his arrival at Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) Tuesday evening.
“With this great excitement we’re going to see a great harvest,” Palau said, referring to the thousands of Vietnamese people he believes will convert to Christianity. “So, back home you [U.S. Christians] better be praying, maybe start praising.”
The world-famous preacher hopes to receive final government permission to host region-wide evangelistic gatherings in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. According to an update on Friday, "key church leaders in Vietnam continue to work with government officials on final plans and permits" for the events this weekend.
"Given certain indicators, although we are still awaiting official approval, festival leaders feel confident that events will take place as planned and are moving forward with great faith. As they await final approval, believers throughout the city have been gathering for nightly prayer meetings."
If approved, the planned events will be the first of their kind since Vietnam’s communist government unified the country in 1975. Local leaders estimate that attendance at the events may reach into the hundreds of thousands.
This marks the second time Palau has visited Vietnam, the first time being at a historic conference with more than 500 Vietnamese pastors last year. At the previous gathering, Palau encouraged Vietnamese pastors to respect government leaders and pray for them, according to Christian Broadcasting Network. He also told pastors to make greater plans and pray great prayers.
Vietnam ranks No. 18 on Open Doors’ list of countries where the worst Christian persecution exists. Although the communist nation has taken noticeable steps toward improving religious freedom in past years, reports persist of government brutality and repression directed against unregistered Christians.
Last Friday, Human Rights Watch released findings documenting Hanoi’s decades-long repression of Montagnard tribesmen, whose members are predominantly evangelical Protestant or Catholic.
Traditionally animalist, Montagnards of Vietnam’s rural Central Highlands converted to Christianity in droves when the religion was introduced first by French Catholic missionaries in the 19th century, and later by U.S. Protestants in the 1950-60s.
Fiercely independent, the highland Christians often meet clandestinely in house churches that are outside government supervision. Many distrust the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam, the state-authorized Protestant church in the Central Highlands.
The main authority in Hanoi has actively attempted to stamp out house churches by deploying specialized paramilitary units to assist provincial policemen, who routinely conduct arbitrary arrests. Officials often stage communal struggle sessions to humiliate and coerce Christians into renouncing their faith.
Under Vietnamese laws governing religion, the freedom to worship is seen as a privilege instead of a fundamental human right.
The atheist communist government started allowing religious practices in the early 1990s, but only for groups that had registered with authorities. Even so, authorized groups had to operate under official guidelines. Though the government had approved some evangelical Protestant churches in the last decade, virtually none of the 400 highland churches were recognized.
Vietnam’s central government has also been accused of persecuting majority-lowland Vietnamese Christians in the cities.
During Christmas celebrations in December last year, authorities stopped thousands of Christians from gathering at the National Conference Center in Hanoi. Police had beaten revelers with fists and nightsticks, and arrested six people including event speaker the Rev. Nguyen Huu Bao.
In a separate incident the same month in Ho Chi Minh City, officers struck Mennonite pastor Nguyen Hong Quang unconscious, and bulldozed his unregistered Bible school to the ground.
The United States had previously designated Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for religious freedom in 2004, but removed it from the list two years later. However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom repeatedly recommends that Vietnam be placed back on the CPC list in light of reports revealing human rights violations in the communist nation.
Despite Vietnam’s questionable human rights record, Palau continues to exhibit optimism for his visit to the communist country.
“These events represent a tremendous advance within the nation, showing the goodwill that has been built among government leadership and the church community,” the Luis Palau Association remarked in a news release earlier. “It also represents the first time all denominations have come together in unity and partnership.”
Since 1999, Luis Palau evangelistic festivals have drawn more than 8.8 million people, according to the Luis Palau Association. The evangelist, who was born in Argentina and now lives in the Portland area of Oregon, claims to have shared the Gospel to more than a billion people through radio, television, the Internet, books and articles.