Increasingly wary of church growth in Vietnam, communist authorities are again enforcing laws against Christian activities after a period of slack, the leader of an indigenous ministry said.
In recent months officials have slapped many who attend unregistered churches with fines of $25, about a quarter of the average monthly income of many of the ethnic Hmong in the Central Highlands, said the ministry director, Su*. The Hmong have been especially targeted as the government fears widespread church growth among the tribal, largely animist people, he said.
“Among the Hmong, when one person believes in God, the whole village will follow God,” Su said. “So the government fears them, because entire villages will become Christian, and the government fears they might become a separatist movement and try to develop their own territory.”
A January 2013 religion law prohibits “manipulation of freedom of belief and religion” to “undermine national unity,” and the Hmong have therefore been subject to an increase in monitoring, harassment and sometimes violent crackdowns on unregistered churches, according to a report released this week by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Highland people accused of religious ‘evil ways’ and politically ‘autonomous thoughts’ have been subjected to intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and mistreatment in custody,” the HRW report states.
Leaders of unregistered churches can be imprisoned for as much as 15 years. Su said he personally knows 87 Christian prisoners in jail for their faith, up from 68 last October. Legally their family members are allowed to visit them once a month, but most can afford to visit them only twice a year at most. Prisoners are kept far from their homes, and the average cost to visit them is about $100, Su said.
The leader, who oversees the work of 40 church-planting pastors and 12 training centers with one leader and 50 teachers at each center, has first-hand knowledge of Vietnamese prison life. Between 1975 and 1985 he spent a total of seven years and two months in prison for associating with foreign missionaries or leading house churches. Then as now, he said, prisoners spend the first five months alone in a small, windowless cell, where they are subject to interrogation and beatings.
“They call you up every couple hours to ask questions, and you get abused physically and mentally,” he said. “They’re very smart – they know that they will lose if they try to tell you to deny Christianity. They will never win. So the purpose of putting the Christians in prison is they want to know what organization they work with, so they can arrest more people.”
The foreign missionaries that Su knew were assumed to be with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and since Su had no connections with any agents, he could not tell them what they wanted.
“They beat you up really bad if you don’t tell them what they want,” Su said. “Three of the pastors that I knew personally died in the prison, and several of them, when they were released, were paralyzed or had head trauma. They got mental problems, and they were not able to function at all.”
Su was nearly executed in prison. After receiving word that authorities were going to kill 10 inmates in his section, he prayed as he heard gunshots kill prisoners, one by one, in six cells before his. He waited in prayer.
The shooting mysteriously stopped, and the authorities left.
The five months of interrogation and torture is followed by a mock trial at which no attorney is present, and sentence is arbitrarily pronounced, he said. Years of hard labor follow.
“They put you into a labor camp, and usually they put you far, far away from where you originally were, so they cut off all association,” Su said. “They label you as a political prisoner, not religious, because you’re ‘breaking the unity of the people,’ a political thing. You supposedly tried to go against the government.”
Su’s time in prison enabled him to inform other prisoners’ relatives of their whereabouts, a Vietnamese Christian said.
“Because he was in prison, he got connected with a lot of people, including my father-in-law,” said the Christian, who requested anonymity. “So when he got out, whenever he came upon some family members who did not know where a husband or brother was, he would know where they were, so he helped the family go visit them. He helped my own mother-in-law two or three times.”
Leaders of unregistered churches will be thrown into prison if they are caught collecting an offering, gathering a group of any kind, or presiding over baptisms, Holy Communion, funerals and weddings. A church that applies for and receives registration – many never receive it – is subject to government controls and interference, such as official approval of who can preach.
One way the government exercises control is to require unregistered house churches to merge with a larger registered church. Such a scenario came to pass this year after Su’s ministry managed to proclaim Christ to one of Vietnam’s 22 unreached people groups, the Giay, in Ha Giang Province on the border with China.
A Hmong member of the indigenous ministry knew the Giay’s language, and he was trained and sent to the tribe, which practices ancestor and spirit worship. He went to a village where no missionary had ever gone, and 29 people there put their faith in Christ, Su said.
“Then when they got together and worshipped God, the government came, warning them, ‘There’s never been a church or house church in this tribal group – you can’t do that,'” he said.
Authorities told the congregation, which speaks and understands only the Giay language, that if they wished to worship, they had to go to a registered Hmong church. Only the Hmong language is spoken at the church. The 29 new believers now worship there.
Su’s ministry has also been key in making available a 12-part discipleship manual called Theological Education Extension (TEE). Helping to train Christians across the country over a four-year period, TEE is foremost on his mind when he considers his ministry’s needs. Besides seeking funds for motorcycles to reach the unreached, support for indigenous missionaries and help covering costs for visits to imprisoned family members, he seeks backing to print the second set of six books in the 12-book program.
“In order to go to a seminary that the government approves right now, you need to finish two levels of TEE to get into the official program to be a pastor,” Su said. “Thank God that Christian Aid has helped us; with $10,000 we were able to print 6,000 sets. One set is six books. And we were able to give it out to the people in the mountain area in the small villages, where they don’t have money to buy those books.”
* (name changed for security reasons)