Persecution, Vietnam's Dirty Little Secret

June 29, 2017

Vietnamese missionaries on motorcycles.
Indigenous missionaries are able to reach churches accessible only by motorcycle.

In rural villages in Vietnam's Central Highlands, it's what you don't do that gets you in trouble: not getting drunk, not having more than one wife and not worshipping ancestral spirits.

Declining to engage in those activities will catch the eye of local authorities, and they will prosecute you for violating a value central to the local culture — unity.

"Having two wives, drinking, ancestor worship — 99 percent of the people are doing that," said the director of an indigenous ministry in Vietnam, Su*. "If you don't do that, you don't belong to the people, and that's a crime. That is specifically geared toward Christians."

Village chiefs belonging to the Communist Party of Vietnam might cite breach of unity against Christians who defy communities of Buddhists and/or ethnic groups adhering to ancestor worship, polytheism and fetishes.

"The Communists have a general term that is not fully explainable for when the people are unified together and you break up this unity by becoming a Christian," he said. "Other people believe in Buddha and worship ancestors, and you break that unity when you don't do that. That's a crime."

Local authorities try to force such Christians to sign documents pledging to accept local customs. Unwilling to admit any wrongdoing, village pastors usually refuse. Officials will then beat them until they sign, and that's one reason hundreds of pastors and other church leaders from the Central Highlands packed up their families and fled to Thailand in the past year, Su said.

"Among the Hmong, I personally know about 400 people who have escaped to Thailand," he said. "Among other ethnic groups, there are about 400 to 500 as well."

Authorities one year ago arrested the brother of one pastor and killed him, though officials claimed it was a suicide, Su said.

"The brother was afraid his turn will be next," he said. "Three months after his brother was killed, he escaped from Vietnam."

Leaders of both registered and unregistered churches flee, unwilling to submit to government requirements that their congregations combine into one larger church so that authorities can better monitor their actions. Some flee with their families; others deem it safer to leave them behind.

Church leaders who stay face prison, where Su said 42 church leaders have been languishing for more than 10 years. Recently 15 more leaders of unregistered churches in Gia Lai Province, as well as seven from Dak Lak Province, were sentenced to prison for practicing their faith, he said.

Prison conditions are harsh; inmates receive only a bowl of rice at mid-day and another in the evening.

"In order to have enough nutrition, family members have to provide additional food, like vegetables for vitamins," Su said. "The prison allows you five to 10 kilograms of food per month or about 10 to 20 pounds per month, depending on the location. Sometimes the prison is too far away; they get visitors only a few times a year due to the travel distance."

Pastors on trial rarely are given access to a defense attorney, and the length of their prison terms is practically irrelevant, as labor camp officials can extend them indefinitely over the most trifling violations.

"One pastor we know was sentenced for 11 years, but it has already been extended to 20," Su said. "He was sentenced 11 years ago, in 2006, and is still in prison. This happens if you don't get up on time or don't accomplish your task."

Security officers in doorway monitor Hmong worship service.
Security officers in doorway monitor Hmong worship service.

The ministry's deep knowledge of churches throughout the country enable it to provide help for relatives trying to keep imprisoned pastors alive.

"But some of them don't have any support from the outside at all," Su said. "One pastor's family is not allowed to visit him anymore. He's in a private cell now, so he gets only rice. He's hungry and malnourished. He eats insects, mice, frogs, whatever is available. When they let you out of the private cell after one or two months, you can't even walk; you crawl. You cannot stand."

Persecution grows as the church grows. The ministry's indigenous evangelists have seen congregations mushroom, but Su said 21 of Vietnam's 54 ethnic groups are largely unreached. A few evangelists have been sent to some of them in the past two years but are still waiting to see transformation, he said.

His goal is to establish churches among at least 10 of those 21 ethnic groups in the next five years, and reach the rest of the tribes five years after that. "It's impossible to get foreign missionaries to go there — you need local people to go," he said. "In order to reach those groups, you have to be ethnic, too — either you speak their language or they speak your language."

The ministry trains indigenous, near-culture missionaries to go in pairs to such groups. Initially they stay in the home of a family whose children may go to school together.

"Different ethnic groups know one another since they went to high school together — they are near-culture groups but different languages, and they worship different things," he said.

Spending time with families and building enough trust to share Christ with them, churches emerge family by family even though local authorities prohibit house churches.

"The ethnic people are different; when they believe something, that's it, they won't change," he said. "When they believe in God, a thousand of them believe together. It's an explosion; it's a movement."

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*Names changed for security reasons