Three Church Groups Legalized in City

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - Authorities have granted longstanding requests of three church organizations to legally function in Ho Chi Minh City, sources told Compass.

The Ho Chi Minh City Bureau of Religious Affairs last week granted a request for registration to a faction of the Vietnam Mennonite Church led by the Rev. Nguyen Quang Trung, the small Grace Baptist church led by the Rev. Le Quoc Chanh, and one grouping of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Vietnam.

In letters dated March 6 to these church bodies, the bureau informed their leaders that it would notify officials in the local neighbourhoods where they have churches that they were officially allowed to carry on religious activities within Ho Chi Minh City. The bureau also pledged to guide the three church bodies in preparing paperwork to apply to the central Bureau of Religious Affairs in Hanoi to hold their organizing conventions, which is necessary to receive legal recognition.

“This is could be a hopeful development,” one observer told Compass. “The Ho Chi Minh City Bureau of Religious Affairs has jurisdiction only in Ho Chi Minh City, and all three of these church groups have some congregations scattered throughout the country, especially in southern Vietnam. These congregations remain illegal until they too receive the local permission necessary before national registration can proceed under government rules.”

‘Significant Setback’

House church leaders in Vietnam noted that all three of the church organizations represent only a part of their church traditions in Vietnam. There are several Baptist house church groups much larger than the Grace Baptist Church that this modest measure does not cover.

Sources noted that the government chose the smaller, more compliant Mennonite faction led by the Rev. Nguyen Quang Trung over the larger one led by activist Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, who was released from prison only last August.

The Seventh-day Adventists, too, have at least two factions, and the city government excluded the newer one. The Baptist, Mennonite and Seventh-day groups excluded from these recent measures were informed that the only way for them to be considered for registration is to come under the approved factions within their traditions. This is expected to add to tensions between church groups.

One Vietnamese Mennonite missionary told Compass that this development was a “significant setback” for the Mennonite churches led by Pastor Quang. Authorities raided his home and church headquarters in the city’s District 2 dozens of times, once partly dismantling the facility, while he was imprisoned during 2004 and 2005.

Since Quang’s release from prison, the District 2 church has again grown and meets with little difficulty. Sources in Vietnam, however, said last week’s government actions amount to a rebuff of the many attempts of Pastor Quang’s organization to seek government guidance on how to function legally.

The three organizations to which the government has responded have in common that they and their leaders were active before 1975. Omitted for approval was the Danang-based Co Doc Truyen Giao Hoi (Christian Mission Church), also active before 1975 and long rumored to be on a list to be registered imminently.

“Movement has been so slow that anything is welcome,” one source concluded. “Let’s hope that these incremental advances in Ho Chi Minh City are an indication that parallel actions in other jurisdictions will occur expeditiously so that national legal recognition for these bodies can be granted.”

If such parallel actions did occur, however, the newly registered groups would cover a very small percentage of Vietnam’s hundreds of thousands of still unregistered Protestants, the source said.

“Even the majority of Christians in Vietnam following the Baptist, Mennonite and Seventh-day traditions of the three groups under consideration would still be excluded. Significant additional measures would have to follow quickly before this could be considered a breakthrough.”