Photo: On the street in Ho Chi Minh City (International Ministries photo)
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (Morning Star News) – Protestant Christians and leaders of other faiths in Vietnam are criticizing a new decree on religion that went into effect this year as a significant step backward, with one Christian activist saying it could put an end to the house-church movement.
In a Jan. 18 letter first circulated Jan. 23, the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF), an umbrella organization of about 25 house-church organizations, called for fasting and prayer the last three days of the month over threats posed by the new decree, which would require a minimum of 23 years for unregistered congregations to obtain legal recognition.
Decree 92, promulgated in November 2012 and effective Jan. 1, replaces Decree 22 of 2005 as the operational guideline for Vietnam’s highest law on religion, the 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief. That ordinance ushered in church registration as a means of management and control of religion.
The purpose of Decree 92 ostensibly was to clear up ambiguities in Decree 22, but critics from all faiths agreed that Decree 92 is much more restrictive than what it replaced. They also concurred that it gives the government more legal tools for control and even repression of religion.
The VEF circular states that Decree 92 makes house churches illegal, thus threatening a movement that began in Vietnam 25 years ago (1988). One critic is Protestant lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, still under house arrest after serving a prison term for his human rights activism.
“The decree is intended to provide the tools to end the house-church movement entirely,” Nguyen remarked on a Vietnam human rights website.
Chapter III of the decree introduces a new distinction between “religious meetings” and “religious activities” or operations; both must be registered before an organization is eligible to apply for full legal recognition. Religious meetings appear to be confined to communal worship and prayer. Only at the religious activities stage, according to Article 3 of the ordinance, is a congregation allowed to be involved in “the preaching and practice of tenets, principles and rites, and organizational management.”
The decree stipulates that a church must be free of both civil and criminal infractions for 20 years – almost inconceivable for Christian congregations long hounded for petty, selectively enforced civil violations – from the date of its first registration for religious meetings before it may apply for legal recognition. The application for legal recognition itself is an additional three-year process.
The decree gives government officials highly subjective criteria for registering congregations, church leaders said. For example, it states that religious meeting leaders must have “a spirit of national unity and reconciliation.” In Article 5, one criterion for registration for religious activities requires “ceremonies and activities that ... do not contradict fine national traditions and customs.”
This latter stipulation leaves open the likelihood that some officials will judge such “traditions and customs” to include worship of national heroes and ancestors, incompatible with Christian faith, church leaders fear.
Another criterion for the two kinds of registration is to “have a legal place of worship.” By definition, no group would have such a place before registration, creating a classic “Catch-22” situation. In the unlikely event that a church managed to comply with the decree in every respect, the soonest legal recognition could take place would be in 23 years – in 2036.
Once registered, church organizations must comply with onerous requirements. The decree requires that a full annual plan must be submitted to commune-level officials by every congregation each October; no deviation is allowed without a long, cumbersome appeals process that is unreasonable, church leaders said.
In addition, strict new controls on international travel for Vietnamese clergy, if implemented, would greatly curtail what has become regular practice.
Moreover, long-registered church organizations that also have commonly experienced government interference hit a new roadblock Jan. 23. Vietnam’s two oldest denominations, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam-North (ECVN-N), registered in 1958, and the Evangelical Church of Vietnam-South, registered in 2001, have a common origin; they were divided at the division of the country in 1954. For several years they have been working toward reunification, and over a year ago they agreed on a new constitution and submitted it to national religion management authorities for approval.
They were led to believe approval was forthcoming and announced plans for a ceremony in Danang in May. On Wednesday (Jan. 23), however, officials told the church bodies “not yet” due to an obscure procedural issue, church leaders said. The government, they said, appears to be afraid of the power of unity.
“They find many means to keep us Christians divided,” said a church leader in Ho Chi Minh City.
The ECVN-N, Vietnam’s longest registered Protestant body, gives oversight to hundreds of ethnic minority Hmong churches that it has tried unsuccessfully for years to register. Even before the new decree, ECVN-N leaders were denied permission to visit their own churches because they are unregistered.
In the circular, the VEF leaders called on all Christians in Vietnam and around the world to pray that God would protect and vindicate His church; that believers would continue to worship together faithfully in spite of new obstacles; that God would help Vietnam’s leaders to recognize the considerable social benefits brought to society by the Christian community; and that God would help His church fulfill its mandate to be salt and light in the world.
Having termed Decree 92 to be backward movement on the road to religious freedom, the authors of the call to prayer expect, at the very least, to be summoned and roundly scolded for criticizing what the government has portrayed as progress toward freedom, they said.