Vietnam Pastor Awaits State Nod on Church, Bibles

In Vietnam's Central Highlands, Y Ky E Ban is a pastor without a church or even enough Bibles printed in his tribal Ede language.

Although part of the "Tin Lanh" (peaceful faith) branch of Protestant Christians allowed to operate in communist Vietnam, the 59-year-old lacks what would be considered basic operating necessities for religions elsewhere in the world.

If he is impatient about pending applications to Hanoi, the slightly built, bespectacled pastor whose group was only officially recognized in 2001 doesn't show it.

Sitting on a mat in his daughter's wooden home in Vietnam's rapidly modernizing coffee capital, Ky speaks with the resonant tones of someone accustomed to addressing a crowd.

"We are waiting for the approval from the state or government to build our church," he told visitors, fingering a small, black Bible that is one of the few printed in his native tongue.

Speaking fluent English and the national Vietnamese language, Ky -- who graduated from seminary 30 years ago -- is the public face of state-sanctioned Christians that Hanoi showed to foreign reporters on a recent rare trip to the restive region.

Ky's flock of 1,000 are a small part of the estimated 1.2 million Protestants in Vietnam.

Most Vietnamese are Buddhists, and the only other religious affiliations allowed are Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims and two Vietnamese sects, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao.

Vietnam is ruled by the Communist Party that exerts control over nearly all aspects of life including civil liberties and individual freedoms.

Analysts believe its stance on religion stems from the desire to maintain control and its fear that some religions or churches could be used as a platform to challenge its authority.


In February 2001, thousands of ethnic minority people in Vietnam's mountainous highlands staged marches in main cities -- including the Daklak capital where Ky lives -- and accused Hanoi of seizing land and of repressing religious freedoms.

Vietnam quelled the demonstrations -- said by human rights groups to be largely non-violent -- by sending in thousands of troops and police. More than 1,000 refugees fled to Cambodia where about 40 remain in a camp awaiting resettlement.

Some ethnic minorities -- particularly from the loosely grouped Montagnards who during fought on the side of France and the United States during Vietnam's decades of war -- hold unlicensed church meetings and other activities in their homes.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has reported abuses including the destruction of informal churches, arrests of leaders and the confiscation of tribal lands.

Amnesty International's 2002 review said dissidents from Protestant churches, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Roman Catholic church "continued to be subjected to harassment and detention for their peaceful religious activities."

Hanoi denies the accusations, saying they are cooked up by radical elements among the Montagnards. Some Montagnards advocate a separatist "Dega State." Some live in exile in the United States.

Peppered by journalists with questions about alleged religious repressions, province leaders were unswayed.

Asked if some unofficial Christians were forced to "swear brotherhood" to the state while renouncing their faith, authorities said oath-taking ceremonies were common and harmless.

Border guards do it to solidify unity with villagers, said Vo Tan Tai, head of Daklak's Religious Committee, a secular group in charge of religion.

"We're talking about patriotism and loyalty to the state."


Nguyen Van Lang, chairman of the People's Committee of Daklak -- the province's equivalent of a local government -- also denied churches had been destroyed.

"There is no such information. It is not the truth," he said.

Pastor Ky says he draws a distinction between state-approved Protestants and the religion's offshoots.

"I personally think that I am a free person because I do not commit any offense against the law," said Ky.

Asked about accusations from rights groups that Hanoi represses non-mainstream Protestant groups, Ky says: "There are also other people lured by bad elements with bad practices, including following unrecognized religions."

Wearing a traditional black shirt adorned across the chest with a block of red embroidery, Ky says Christians have a duty to obey their country's rulers.

"When you go on the road you need to study the traffic laws. If you violate the traffic laws, you get into accidents and face risks," he said.

Despite criticism from rights groups and some countries, Hanoi has kept a lid on the region, home to more than 4 million of its 80 million people.

Diplomats, aid workers and journalists must get permission for visits, which are monitored. Journalists were allowed into the highlands in May, the third excursion since the 2001 unrest.