While Vietnam’s communist government has moved away from Marxist-Leninist doctrine in the realm of economics, they continue to regard religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as a threat to the social order. All religious institutions are strictly regulated by the Government Committee of Religious Affairs, a well-resourced bureaucracy with a long reach. Since a 2004 ordinance on religion, the government has shifted from a policy of “eradication” to one of “containment,” but it continues to inflict heavy repression and harsh discrimination.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Vietnam
India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan, Indonesia
Panel: Findings from South Asia, with Dr. Paul Bhatti, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for Minority Affairs
Moderator: Chad Bauman, Butler University
Speakers: Robert Hefner, Boston University
James Ponniah, University of Madras
Reginald Reimer, Expert on Christianity in Vietnam & Laos
Sara Singha, Georgetown University
About nine million—or ten percent—of Vietnam’s population of 93 million are Christians, and of these approximately seven million are Roman Catholic and two million are evangelical Protestants. Catholics in Vietnam are predominantly Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese), while a full three quarters of evangelicals belong to Vietnam’s many ethnic minorities, which comprise only 14 percent of the total population. The most rapid growth of Christian communities is among these minority groups.
History of the Vietnamese Christian Community
Catholicism has been present in the country since the 1600s, but evangelical Protestantism arrived more recently, around the turn of the last century. In the mid-1970s, North and South Vietnam were unified under a single communist regime, drastically changing the country’s religious experience. The first decade after the communist takeover—often called the “dark decade” by those who survived it—was marked by brutal anti-Christian actions, and many Catholics and evangelicals ceased gathering for congregational worship. A number of Kinh Catholic priests and evangelical pastors were jailed, but the large contingent of Montagnard evangelicals in Vietnam’s Central Highlands suffered the most. Virtually all Montagnard churches were closed, congregations disbanded, and church leaders imprisoned under harsh conditions.
The late 80s and early 90s, however, saw rapid growth in the number of Christians among both the Montagnard and Hmong ethnic minorities, encouraged by evangelical house church leaders who refused to cease evangelization. This precipitated a systematic government campaign to force recent converts to renounce their faith and return to traditional animism. Some converts recanted, but many more quietly continued to practice Christianity or else fled to other regions of the country where they hoped repression would be less.
While Vietnam’s communist government has moved away from Marxist-Leninist doctrine in the realm of economics, they continue to regard religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as a threat to the social order. This bias against religion is augmented by the legacy of the Vietnam War, which affects Vietnam’s attitude toward and treatment of evangelical Christianity especially; it is considered foreign, not authentically Vietnamese, and therefore suspect. All religious institutions are strictly regulated by the Government Committee of Religious Affairs, a well-resourced bureaucracy with a long reach.
Since a 2004 ordinance on religion, the government has shifted from a policy of “eradication” to one of “containment,” but it continues to inflict heavy repression and harsh discrimination, including denying permits to churches and the identification cards required for a wide range of services to individuals. Leaders of house church as well as new converts are frequently summoned for interrogation sessions. These problems stem from both the bottom and the top levels of government; local leaders often refuse to follow official policies regarding religious tolerance, but national officials tend to overlook their negligence, providing little in the way of enforcement.
A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in Vietnam
The dominant response of Vietnamese Christians to religious repression has been that of survival and endurance, but in more recent years, as persecution has eased slightly, they have also engaged in strategies of association and confrontation.
In the early years after the communist takeover, evangelical Christians focused on survival. Fearing the worst from communism, the small, newer denominations voluntarily joined the dominant Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) in the belief that unity could provide some safety. The ECVN(S) itself took a passive-aggressive position. In 1976 it managed to resist an attempt of the government to form a state-controlled, patriotic, United Evangelical Church, though a few of its pastors were coopted. For more than a decade, mistrust between the fearful church and the hostile government remained so deep that useful dialogue did not occur.
Catholics in Vietnam, under the agile leadership of their bishops, took a slightly different approach and did not fare as badly as evangelicals after unification under communism. Though they had been anti-communist stalwarts, after the communist victory Catholic bishops announced that they would not resist the new reality and would do their part to help build a better post-war society. Though viewed suspiciously by the authorities, the gesture was nevertheless remembered. Additionally, the millions of Catholics represented a critical mass which gave the new rulers pause. For the most part, the main diocesan structure went quietly about its business, although a few Catholic bishops regularly spoke out.
At times, Christians in Vietnam have been forced to ensure their survival by fleeing. After reunification, for instance, as the ramifications of communism became clear, many evangelicals and Catholics left the country. Another wave of refugees fled in the early 2000s after a heavy crackdown on Montagnard Christians who had protested confiscation of land and other acts of repression. Additionally, the intense and sustained persecution of the Hmong evangelical movement contributed directly to the decision of Hmong in the Northwest Mountainous Region to flee to the Central Highlands. Since this migration began in the mid-1990s, not fewer than 45,000 Christian Hmong have made this 800-mile journey.
Vietnamese Christians who have chosen to remain and endure have developed strategies for maintaining existing communities. During waves of crackdown, as in the late 1990s when many house churches were raided and leaders interrogated, evangelicals found that by breaking into smaller groups, rotating locations, and changing meeting times they could often evade authorities. Some even found opportunities to respectfully explain their faith to their interrogators, although, in the face of persecution and fear, others recanted.
Christians have also responded to discrimination, persecution, and repression by pushing back against it. This can range from quiet appeals to Vietnam’s constitution and laws, to tough but respectful negotiations with authorities, to large demonstrations, and even to confrontational public shaming of officials guilty of gross injustices. These approaches developed slowly in the communist era but became more pervasive than some observers expected. The most successful strategies involve building respectful relationships with government officials and nudging for small, incremental changes; however, success remains modest.
Vietnam’s Catholics have at times employed confrontational strategies by organizing protests over land confiscation (though as demonstrations were not allowed, they called the events “prayer vigils”). Perhaps the best known such protest occurred in central Hanoi in late 2007 when the government announced it would sell to developers the Papal nunciature which had stood vacant on a valuable large lot for decades. It became a rallying point for Catholics who gathered in the thousands for prayer vigils at the site. After very tense confrontations, the Catholic demonstrators achieved a victory of sorts. The government, instead of making a multi- million-dollar sale that stank of corruption, felt pressured to turn the building into a public library and surrounding park. Other protests over historic Catholic property, however, did not achieve even such half-victories.
Since the late 1980s, fraternal contact with church communities abroad have also resumed. Victims of persecution could be directly interviewed, and details about Christian persecution became more widely known. Indigenous believers were trained to accurately record persecution stories and write petitions to officials. In one instance, activists obtained access to government documents revealing plans to suppress Christianity in Vietnam. The activists then formed alliances with supporters abroad, eliciting a stream of petitions against the government from both inside and outside the country. Generally, though, advocacy and protest have limited results.
This country profile draws on research by Reginald Reimer and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.