In what religious freedom advocates regarded as a breakthrough in Vietnam, authorities granted rare permission to unregistered house church groups to hold a large, public Easter-related service here last night.
More than 15,000 people gathered at Tao Dan Stadium to worship God, proclaim Christ and experience a rare sense of large-scale Christian unity, especially house church members accustomed to meeting in small groups. The only other such event granted to unregistered groups was an open-air meeting during Christmas of 2007 sponsored by the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship.
At the event last night, the VEF endeavored to include all house churches, not just its own members, sources said.
Unregistered groups holding an event that includes worship and evangelism outside a church building violates Vietnam's restrictive religion laws, and the celebration - in which 1,200 people indicated they had decided to follow Christ - did not happen without struggles. Reluctant to endorse such Christian unity events, authorities demanded and got the removal of one of the organizers - pastor Nguyen Ngoc Hien, who heads a Baptist house church and a group called the Christian Fellowship of Vietnam - as a condition to consider approval.
Officials did not grant permission until 4 p.m., just three hours before the event was to begin, though event organizers had requested permission several months prior. Authorities had assured them that permission was forthcoming, but organizers were understandably nervous. Adding to their concerns was the rain that hit just before the service began, though the rainy season has yet to arrive.
Since the celebration was held in the open air, a heavy rain would have been more than inconvenient. It rained just enough to refresh the air, stopping as the service began - an answer to prayer for participants. The celebration began with congregational worship; participants said the huge crowd sang with enthusiasm and joy.
"I never heard any singing like this, even in a Billy Graham crusade," said one overseas Vietnamese Christian leader. "It was as if they offered to God all the praise and worship stored up in their hearts during many years of oppression."
Worship included a dance group, and a 120-voice choir sang with gusto. Pastor Duong Thanh Lam of the Assemblies of God served as master of ceremonies, pastor Vo Van Lac of the Full Gospel Church preached a gospel message and pastor Pham Dinh Nhan of the United Gospel Outreach Church made an evangelistic appeal. People responded with loud applause and raised their hands in praise, and those who decided to follow Christ included old and young, students and teachers, rank-and-file workers and some disabled people. Witnesses said some were healed as leaders prayed for them.
Leaders of the celebration and religious freedom advocates in Vietnam said the event was significant in that unregistered house churches were allowed to hold a large public celebration. They added that authorities must have felt enough pressure to consider the event less harmful than possible negative publicity from denying permission.
The sources also said the event showed that Vietnam's house churches, widely known for divisiveness and provincialism, could cooperate with good results.
"Those who have long urged and worked for unity can be pleased," said one advocate. "While there is still a long way to go for Vietnamese Christian groups in practicing collaboration and partnership, this Easter celebration is seen as a significant step forward."
A prominent overseas Vietnam leader who founded the Vietnam World Christian Fellowship witnessed the event and highly commended the leadership of pastor Ho Tan Khoa, chairman of the VEF, and his committee.
Some former Vietnam missionaries were incredulous that such events can take place in Vietnam, which until recently has had a place among the world's top persecutors of religion. Prior to the Easter-related event organized by unregistered house churches, Christmas events were similarly held by the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam last December.
"That a successful Christian celebration with mass evangelism approved by the government can take place in Vietnam where in some places Christians are still heavily persecuted shows the ongoing inconsistency of Vietnam's religion policy," said one source. "Vietnam Christian leaders have long prayed for such opportunities. They see these events as direct answers from God, whom they believe holds the hearts of rulers in his hands."
Three representatives of a house church group in China were present at the service; they expressed amazement. They promised Vietnamese church leaders to send missionaries to help in the evangelization of Vietnam and invited Vietnamese church leaders to visit China to learn about the church there.
Vietnamese participants said the celebration was inspiring, describing it as "spectacular," "splendid," "glorious" and "phenomenal."