Fifteen years after a Vietnamese ordinance promised freedom of religion, a new Christian dares not speak of Christ in his own village, while another receives a machete blow to the face for his faith.
In Son La Province in northwest Vietnam, residents of an undisclosed village earlier this year tried to warn a new Christian, Thanh Vu*, not to preach. Undaunted, Vu was telling a fellow villager about Christ when a man came up and struck him across his cheek, eye and forehead with a machete, the leader of an indigenous ministry said.
“He was told that if he talked about God, he would be in big trouble,” the leader said. “He continued anyway, and a man came up to him with a machete and struck him on the spot.”
Vu survived with stitches sewn across a swollen face. Most Christians, knowing such hostilities could erupt from hard-line Buddhists and worshippers of ancestors and nature, speak of Christ with extreme caution. While local police and Communist officials harass and arrest Christians whose worship becomes too large or noticeable, pressures from tribe, family and clan present the greatest challenge.
Vu was telling a fellow villager about Christ when a man came up and struck him across his cheek, eye and forehead with a machete.
Intense local pressure has to be overcome just to speak to people about Christ.
“You must have a connection and be invited to a village in order to share Christ there,” the leader said. “It’s always a challenge.”
Connections to a key contact in another village can come about in various ways. Flea markets where people from different villages mingle is one way to make new friends that can result in an invitation. Relatives and friends who have moved away also commonly serve as contacts.
Recently a Hmong pastor was able to reach out to an old high school friend from the same tribe who lived in another village, the ministry leader said. Walking or biking two or three miles through rough and uneven terrain, the pastor made several visits to his high school friend and reconnected with him and his family.
After several weeks he was able to invite the friend to his church, and after visiting the pastor’s worship service each week for two months, the friend and his family put their faith in Christ, the leader said.
“People cannot accept Christ in their own village,” he said. “They have to do it in other villages. It was hard to get the high school friend to visit the church for the first time, because they had their idols and their very simple philosophy that you’re either worshipping idols or you’re an outcast. To invite people to church, you need them to trust you on a deep level.”
It is still too dangerous for the pastor’s friend to share Christ in his own village, the ministry leader said, but he worships in the pastor’s village and has burned all the idols in his house.
“He said there are no other gods but God,” he said. “Once a family has come to Christ, they can serve to connect others to Christ, but they have to proceed very carefully.”
In another village, a family that recently became Christian goes each week to another village to share Christ, he said.
“In your own village, if people know you believe in God, you will be very alone,” he said. “They will think badly of you and could even notify the government.”
Vietnam’s 2004 New Ordinance on Religion and Belief confirmed the right to freedom of belief and religion, as well as the freedom to follow no religion, but it warns that any religious practice that undermines peace, independence and unity is illegal – and that religious activities can be suspended if they negatively affect cultural traditions. Hence it is not difficult for police to find people whose unity, peace and traditions have been upset by the radical message of Christ’s salvation.
Becoming officially recognized as a church also presents legal pretexts for harassing Christians, as it not only subjects them to state controls but presents nearly impossible benchmarks for new church plants to win approval.
“One family became Christian and started a group, and as soon as it started, the police came and shut it down,” the ministry leader said. “It had 29 people, but it was not ‘legal’ yet, so that’s how they bend the law and persecute people. An undercover officer had visited the church. But regardless of whether it’s an official church, people meet anyway. If you love God, you’re going to get together.”
One native missionary benefited from a highly fortuitous connection – an undercover policeman who used to visit his church looking for irregularities decided to keep attending services after he retired.
“The pastor told him, ‘You’re not a policeman anymore, you don’t have to come,’ but he said he had gotten used to coming,” the leader said. “Later he was injured when a tree fell on him, and the Christians were the only ones who took care of him. So, after watching Christians all those years, he decided he would accept Christ.”
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*Name changed for security reasons