City Officials Shut Down International Church

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - Local authorities shut down a 500-member, international church here on Saturday, August 27. The church had sought a permit to meet since its inception eight years ago.

Eric Dooley, pastor of the interdenominational New Life Fellowship, said District 5 police ordered the church to close because it had no permit. The government has repeatedly ignored New Life’s efforts to obtain permission to worship.

For the past eight months, the congregation has been meeting at the Windsor Plaza Hotel in the An Dong area of Ho Chi Minh City. Made up of people from various nations, the church had been holding three services on Sundays. Dooley stood outside the hotel on Sunday morning to inform those showing up that they would not be able to meet.

“Turning hundreds of worshippers away at the doors of the church is something no pastor should ever have to do,” Dooley said in an e-mail to supporters. “The looks of shock and disbelief, the tears and the questions, were very painful.”

Pastor Called Before Immigration Authorities

At the same time, Dooley received a summons to meet with immigration officials. “I had to face my own tears and those of my wife and children at the prospect of having to leave our beloved Vietnam.”

When he met with immigration officials on Sunday afternoon, however, they only asked for copies of the letters he had sent to the government and told him to seek permission from the Religious Affairs Department -- something he has done regularly for eight years, he said.

The church closing seems to have originated among local authorities and does not appear to be a national government action against the church, according to Dooley.

Committee's Hostility

Meeting with a representative of the city’s Religious Affairs Committee on Monday, however, Dooley faced hostile opposition -- the official indicated that no one outside of Vietnam would care that the city had shut down his church. Dooley remarked in an e-mail, “I felt as though the Devil were saying, ‘You guys can’t do anything!’”

On Monday the pastor also met with U.S. consular officials, who advised against spreading word of the closure and forcing Vietnam into a “face-saving” posture.

Trying to Work Within the System

“We need to humbly seek the Lord’s intervention,” Dooley said, “and I will deal humbly with the Vietnamese authorities in hopes that we can back off from the current tension and find a way to get the church registered.”

New Life will continue to function through existing small groups meeting in homes throughout the week, though many more will have to be added, the pastor said.

“I want to make it clear to all that we are doing this in the open, as always, and are not ‘trying to hide,’” he said.

Church elders will discuss the possibility of starting various home-gatherings on Sundays until the congregation can meet again publicly. “Man can prevent the church from worshipping together corporately on Sunday,” Dooley said in the e-mail, “but man can not put an end to the church!”

Another international Protestant church, the Hanoi International Fellowship, has been meeting in Hanoi under similar circumstances for even longer than New Life Fellowship in Ho Chi Minh City. It met Sunday without incident.

The closure comes at a time when Vietnam is trying hard to convince the world, and especially the United States, that it is improving religious freedom.