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Christians in Vietnam Face Beatings, Prison

July 14, 2016

Vietnamese church service.
Unregistered churches in Vietnam avoid controls that authorities use to quash growth.

Vietnamese authorities have locked up at least 108 pastors for their faith in prisons where they could be killed if they're not careful what they eat, the leader of an indigenous ministry said.

Of the jailed church leaders from villages in Vietnam's Central Highlands, 66 had fled Dak Lak Province to Kampuchea or Thailand in the past 10 months and, after being forced to return, are presumed to be imprisoned; their repatriation to Vietnam has been established, but their actual whereabouts are unknown, he said.

"When the authorities called the approved church leader to say they would take him to see them, they got to the center and there was no one there," said the ministry leader, Su*.

This happened twice - first in regard to 44 repatriated church leaders, and later with another 22 forcibly returned pastors, he said.

Authorities had beaten and/or threatened to imprison the pastors for refusing government orders to consolidate their unregistered house churches into a given area's single, officially approved church, Su said. A cluster of house churches with a combined membership of 3,000, for example, was ordered to merge congregations and meet in a facility holding no more than 500.

"The government wants to combine them to limit their growth and have more control," he said. "If the pastors refused to sign a paper saying they would combine and that their gatherings would not go over 500 people, they would be beaten or thrown into prison."

Prison conditions are harsh and primitive. Failure to comply with all orders and regulations can bring lethal retribution.

In rural areas where authorities control church activity more tightly than they do urban congregations, he said, registered churches are prohibited from meeting in smaller groups: no Sunday school classes for children or adults, no youth groups or other gatherings apart from the congregational worship as a whole. Children can only be taught about Christianity at home. Taking Communion and collecting offerings are forbidden, police monitor sermons to ensure nothing is said against communism, and plural leadership is prohibited; only one leader is allowed for each congregation.

In neighboring Gia Lai Province, which like Dak Lak is on the border with Kampuchea, authorities forced 12,000 Christians in 20 unregistered churches to combine at a single facility accommodating 1,600 people, Su said. Rather than imprison those who resisted, however, authorities in Gia Lai Province imposed fines.

"Last Easter, each church that refused to combine congregations into the one registered church was fined $60," he said, an amount more than half the average monthly income of many Highland tribal people.

Occult ritual in rural Vietnam.
Occult ritual in rural Vietnam, common among tribal peoples.

Along with the 66 pastors behind bars, another 42 remain in prison even though the 15-year sentences they received in 2001 for practicing their faith have been completed, he said. The director suspected authorities are refusing to release them because of protests by Christians objecting to the seizing of their lands at the time of the arrests.

Prison conditions are harsh and primitive. Failure to comply with all orders and regulations can bring lethal retribution, said Su, who was nearly killed himself while spending a total of seven years and two months in prison between 1975 and 1985.

"If you do not strictly follow the rules, they can put poison in your food," he said. "So you take a little bit, and if you feel something or want to vomit, you stop eating. A few people have died."

In spite of the risks, Su's ministry teams go to several areas to proclaim Christ and train church leaders. There are 22 tribes in the Central Highlands that have no strong Christian presence, and the ministry has reached out to 10 of them, he said. For years the ministry would select one person open to the gospel from each village, lead him to Christ and send him back to evangelize his tribal villagers. Su stopped the method when police began intercepting the returning evangelists and ordered them to refrain from preaching Christ, though some continued to do so anyway.

Now the ministry brings as many as 10 new Christians at a time from various villages to its urban base for training several times per year, then sends them back to their communities to spread the gospel.

"This keeps the local police from knowing what they were doing and where to intercept them," he said.

Evangelistic Bible studies rotate to different village homes to keep local authorities from finding out about them, he added.

In its efforts to proclaim Christ to unreached tribes, the ministry also arranges for converts from one tribe to reach out to a nearby tribe.

"They know each other as neighbors, and they may speak different languages but understand each other well enough to communicate," Su said.

Central to the discipleship and evangelism/leadership training are 12 books of a series called Theological Education Extension (TEE), which authorities allow to be printed only in Vietnamese. With 7,850 people now beginning to study the second level of TEE (the last six books), including 2,250 tribal-language users, Su seeks assistance to print the second set.

The ministry gives out the books to people in mountain villages who cannot afford to buy TEE, which must be completed in order to enter government-approved seminaries. In order to print 3,000 copies of the second set's first three books, the ministry seeks $13,500. To help indigenous missionaries print the books, you may contribute online using the form below, or call (434) 977-5650. If you prefer to mail your gift, please mail to Christian Aid Mission, P.O. Box 9037, Charlottesville, VA 22906. Please use Gift Code: 740VEC.

*Name changed for security reasons.

TEE books for tribal believers ($7 for each); Vietnam
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