Religious freedom, Vietnam, and the church–differing views.

By September 25, 2006

Vietnam (MNN)–Vietnam has been praised for its strides toward religious freedom. In fact, there were hints that the country could be taken off the U.S. list of the world’s worst religious liberty offenders.

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford made a startling statement at a September 15th briefing.

After years of known persecution, he believes that “Vietnam has turned the corner and made enormous progress on religious freedom.”

But what kind of freedom? According to Compass Direct, shortly after this announcement, church leaders called to express doubts about the verity of the statement.

Granted, about 50 house church organizations have agreed that they should try to register their activities as is provided for in new religion legislation promulgated in the last two years.

But they say that the highly intrusive nature of some of the questions they must answer are unnecessary and incompatible with religious freedom.

The procedure also requires the signing of a pledge not only to obey the law but also the decrees of local officials without any specification of what these decrees might be.

In many parts of the country, such local officials have often capriciously harassed and persecuted Christians in spite of laws to the contrary. That means the registration process for these Christians remains stalled.

Without receiving registration for religious activities, these house churches, representing more than 200,000 Christians, will remain illegal.

The overall picture can be confusing. Open Doors’ Jerry Dykstra says Vietnam dropped from 3rd to 7th on their World Watch list (of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians) this year.

They like it when a country drops out of the top five, or top ten, but Dykstra says while Vietnam is improved, but it won’t be enough to get them off any list anytime soon. “This US Commission on International Religious Freedom, they’re recommending that Vietnam stay on that country of particular concern list for severe religious freedom violations. That came out about a week ago. The final report will come out this spring.”

There’s no doubt that conditions have improved in the major population centers. It’s in the remote regions where reports still exist of persecution, harassment and oppression.

Believers are encouraged and urges prayer. “There’s hope, because it seems that things are opening up and that there’s more openness to the Gospel.”

And yet, not time to completely relax. Dykstra reminds the church that while it appears the Vietnamese government is changing some of their restrictions, “At the same time, there are still people being arrested, especially in the countryside. We need to temper our optimism by the reality of what is taking place there.”

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