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
In 2022, the U.S. government estimated Vietnam’s total population at 103.8 million. According to the Vietnamese government’s 2019 National Population and Housing Census, roughly 86 percent of the nation’s total population have no religious affiliation. 13 million religious adherents account for the remaining 14 percent. At 6 percent of the total population with 6 million believers, Roman Catholics account for 45 percent of the total number of religious adherents. At 5 percent of the overall population with five million adherents, Buddhists registered with the government-recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha account for 35 percent of religious adherents in Vietnam. With 1 million believers, Protestants account for 7 percent of religious adherents in the nation. These statistics—and particularly the percentage of Vietnamese citizens with no religious affiliation—may be inaccurate, as many believers fear that if they acknowledge their religion to the government they may face negative consequences.
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 to experience less repression.
While Vietnam’s communist government has moved away from a Marxist-Leninist economic doctrine, government officials 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, which is considered foreign, not authentically Vietnamese, and therefore suspect.
All religious institutions are strictly regulated by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, a well-resourced bureaucracy with a long reach. A 2004 ordinance on religion marked a shift in the government’s attitude toward religious communities, as the government traded a policy of eradication for one of containment. Vietnam’s 2018 Law on Belief and Religion brought improvements to the 2004 ordinance by granting legal rights to religious organizations and shortening the wait period for religious organizations registering with the state. Nonetheless, the 2018 law left many harsh restrictions in place; the state thus continues to inflict heavy repression and harsh discrimination against religious groups. Officials frequently deny permits to churches and summon leaders of house churches and new converts to listening and “criticism” sessions. Local authorities continue to withhold identification cards and household registration documents from many Hmong and Montagnard Christians, often because these Christians refuse to renounce their faith. This unofficial but deeply entrenched discriminatory practice leaves thousands of Christians effectively stateless and unable to access significant government services.
These problems stem from both local and national government: local leaders often refuse to follow official policies regarding religious tolerance, but national officials tend to overlook their negligence, failing to uphold the rights of religious communities.
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, small, newer evangelical Christian denominations voluntarily joined the dominant Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) in the belief that unity could increase 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 co-opted. 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 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 operated quietly, although a few Catholic bishops regularly spoke out.
Christians in Vietnam have at times been forced to ensure their survival by fleeing. After reunification, 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, over 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, describing the events as “prayer vigils” to circumvent a ban on public demonstrations. One of the most well-known protests 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 large and valuable lot for decades. This issue 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, have not achieved even such half-victories. For example, in 2022 the Roman Catholic parish of An Hoa in northern Vietnam continued for the third year to petition for the return of land owned by the parish. In 1975, the parish had allowed the state to develop the land for manufacturing and farming, but the government gradually repurposed it and in 2019, without consent from the parish, announced that the land would be parceled and sold as residential plots.
During the late 1980s, fraternal contact with church communities abroad was allowed to resume. 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 large stream of petitions against the government from both inside and outside the country. The advocacy and protest of Christian communities has achieved limited but effective 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. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in August 2022.