Local authorities harassing members of unregistered churches is nothing new in Vietnam. But what is new is authorities using registered churches to do the harassing.
“Churches in Vietnam have always hesitated to register with the government because it’s difficult to register, and then after they register, it’s difficult to comply with all the ongoing government restrictions,” says Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr. Hyun Sook Foley. “Now in addition to complying with government requirements, registered churches are more and more being expected to assist the government in cracking down on unregistered Christians in their area or denomination.”
According to Representative Foley, this can create mistrust and conflict between registered and unregistered Christians, especially in regions like Dak Lak Province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands where registered and unregistered churches often exist side by side.
Dak Lak Province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands
“The registered churches say, ‘According to Romans 13:1, we must be subject to the governing authorities’, and the unregistered churches say, ‘But according to Acts 5:29, we must obey God rather than human beings’,” says Representative Foley. “In practical terms, that means that the registered churches have to report a lot of information about their congregations to the government, and they have to apply for permission from the government whenever they want to do any special events. They also are limited to doing ministry in the specific geographical area for which they have received permission to operate. Meanwhile, the unregistered churches carry out their ministry freely, despite the danger. They go where the Spirit leads them and do what the Spirit guides them to do. And even when they are persecuted or imprisoned, they give thanks to the Lord. It’s not difficult to see how the issue can create division between Vietnamese churches.”
According to Representative Foley, government officials are quick to exploit that division.
“There is a pastor from an unregistered church background in the Central Highlands* who loves the Lord with all of his heart and who goes to the remote and inaccessible areas to preach the Gospel to the unreached people,” says Representative Foley. “The local authorities were not happy with him and were trying everything they could to stop him, including allegedly jamming a wooden stick into one of his motorbike wheels when he and his wife and son were riding.” (*name and location withheld for security reasons)
Pastors from unregistered churches in Vietnam frequently use motorbikes to serve Christians across a wide geographical area. Churches which register with the government are required to limit their work to a specified local area.
She says that even though the pastor and his family members were injured, they are continuing their ministry work.
“Since the authorities couldn’t stop the pastor directly, they reportedly went to a registered church leader who had been appointed as the delegate of the region by the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN). The authorities told this leader that he had to stop the unregistered pastor.”
Representative Foley says that the ECVN is the oldest and largest Protestant church in Vietnam, established by Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) missionaries from North America in 1911.
“The delegate from the registered church called the unregistered pastor and rebuked him, exhorting him to evangelize only within the local area,” says Representative Foley. “But the unregistered church pastor says that he obeys God rather than human beings, and that he will continue the ministry the Lord has entrusted to him, no matter what the cost. So the government and its registration process has come between these two brothers and created division in the body of Christ in Vietnam.”
The United States Department of State designates Vietnam as one of ten “Countries of Particular Concern” under the terms of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 due to what it regards as “severe violations of religious freedom”. The other countries on the State Department’s list are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
The Executive Summary of the State Department’s 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom in Vietnam notes, “Religious activists blamed authorities for ‘manipulating’ recognized religious groups and accused their agents or proxies of causing conflicts in order to suppress the activities of unregistered groups.”
“It’s a ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy, and it certainly wasn’t invented by the Vietnamese government,” says Representative Foley. “Christians have been getting caught in this trap going all the way back to the New Testament. Paul’s letters all deal with outside forces seeking to divide the early Christians. No matter what the source of division was—whether circumcision or food laws or following certain leaders—Paul’s advice was always the same: Trust Christ alone for salvation, don’t force anyone to violate their conscience, and love one another. Even in the letter to the Hebrews, the situation described there is that some Christians have returned to Judaism, likely in order to avoid persecution from Roman authorities because Judaism was a ‘protected’ religion, but Christianity was not.”
Unregistered churches in Vietnam continue to grow despite facing pressure from both the government and now, registered churches.
Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs Korea primarily partners with Christians in unregistered church settings and has published a series of books entitled “Preparing for the Underground Church” on how churches in any country can transition from registered to unregistered status.
Still, she says her organization makes every effort to help Christians in both registered and unregistered churches avoid conflict between each other. “Nothing makes governments happier than when Christians fight other Christians,” says Representative Foley. “With registered churches we try to help them understand that Romans 13 doesn’t teach us to render unto Caesar whatever Caesar demands—only God deserves our unconditional obedience. With unregistered churches we try to help them understand that while Acts 5 does teach us that only God should receive our unconditional obedience, it also teaches us that we must willingly and joyfully accept the punishments governments lay upon us for obeying God, even when those punishments are unjust.”