Vietnam thwarts Easter/centennial celebrations in Hanoi

Baptist Press
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Posted: Apr 19, 2011 5:15 PM
Vietnam thwarts Easter/centennial celebrations in Hanoi
HANOI, Vietnam (BP)--Authorities in Hanoi prevented much-anticipated Easter-themed celebrations of the "Centennial of Protestantism" in Vietnam featuring Luis Palau on Friday and Saturday, April 15-16, Compass Direct News reported April 18.

In Ho Chi Minh City the previous weekend, however, similar celebrations featuring Palau -- the first preaching appearance by a U.S.-based evangelist at a major event since the 1975 communist victory in Vietnam -- received last-minute approval and went ahead, with an estimated 1,800 decisions for Christ in response to the evangelist's messages.

In Hanoi, the celebrations were thwarted although organizers had received a verbal promise that they could proceed. An interchurch organizing committee for the planned celebrations with Palau had submitted a request for permission well in advance and had made elaborate preparations, Compass reported.

The organizers said they were disappointed but not entirely surprised by the communist government's action.

"The authorities have clearly demonstrated to the world what we experience regularly -- that their promises, whether verbal or written, cannot be trusted," one church leader who requested anonymity told Compass.

Asked to speculate on the reasons for the government's ultimate refusal, another key church leader said, "I don't know why, but it almost seems as if the government is deliberately damaging its own reputation."

Shortly after 1 p.m. on April 15 after long negotiations, authorities gave verbal assent for the celebrations to proceed, promising the required written permission would be issued imminently. The government-approved venue was the Dien Kinh My Dinh Sports Complex, a state-of-the-art indoor track and field stadium that reportedly holds 3,100 people in Hanoi's Tu Liem district. Organizers had requested a venue with considerably larger capacity, Compass reported.

After receiving the verbal promise, organizers said they went directly to the sports complex hoping to begin preparing the sound and lighting systems. They were not given access.

When no written permission was forthcoming by the scheduled start at 7 p.m., organizers said they were forced to turn away many hundreds of people arriving from the provinces by chartered buses. They said they urged the people to return home quietly and to pray for the event scheduled for the next evening.

Late Friday evening, the organizing committee received written permission from the Hanoi People's Committee to hold what was to have been the second night of the event on Saturday, April 16. They said they immediately posted the document on Vietnam's most popular Christian website www.hoithanh.com.

Apparently, however, public security and city authorities quietly overrode the reluctant permission granted by Vietnam's religion bureaucracy. Organizers told Compass that even with the official letter from the People's Committee, several hurdles had remained. They still needed to secure a contract from the sports complex on Saturday morning for use of the facilities and they had yet to request the Committee for Religious Affairs for permission for Palau to speak.

Early on Saturday, pastor Nguyen Huu Mac, president of the registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North), or ECVN(N), who had signed the request, went with colleagues from unregistered house churches to the sports complex to pursue the contract. When they were told that Saturday was not a work day, they went to the Tu Liem district office.

There they were stalled for several more hours by fruitless discussion. District officials eventually told them that although the sports complex was in their area of the city, it was owned and managed by another entity over which they had no control.

Finally, at 1 p.m., the manager of the sports complex arrived. Compass reported that the manager proceeded to give the Christian leaders unreasonable conditions for a contract. For instance, the manager said they could not enter the complex to prepare until 4:30 p.m. -- hardly enough time for the scheduled 7 p.m. start. Organizers said he further told them that the sports complex would retain control over who and how many entered the building; he said they would not honor the tickets/invitations that had been widely distributed by organizers but would distribute their own and count every head.

The organizers sensed trouble.

Faced with such government duplicity and control over their event and without enough time to set up properly, church leaders said they unanimously decided they could not proceed with integrity. Shortly after 4 p.m., they issued an indefinite postponement notice.

Reached by Compass late Saturday Hanoi time, a Luis Palau spokesman reported that the evangelist had just spent significant time encouraging the tired organizers. Palau told them that the Lord would bless their diligence and predicted that they would soon reap a great spiritual harvest, according to the spokesman. In a few years, Palau said, they would look on the disappointments of the weekend as insignificant.

Despite their disappointment, church leaders took note of gains: The effort to stage the events, they said, marked unprecedented cooperation among various groups, with the ECVN(N), the only registered church based in the north, applying for the permission document on behalf of all groups. Cooperating in the organizing were northern house churches belonging to the Hanoi Christian Fellowship and southern-based house churches belonging to the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship as well as some smaller groups.

Together, the church leaders said, they determined not to bow to government manipulation and pressure.

"Clearly someone at the top disallowed these events and then left it to clumsy underlings to create bureaucratic obstacles," a longtime overseas Vietnam analyst told Compass. "Most people will see through this ruse and recognize simple lack of religious freedom."

It is uncertain whether the cancellation of the events in Hanoi will affect plans for the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, both the northern and southern entities, to include Palau in their June centennial celebrations in Danang, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City. Permission has been long requested, but so far the government has only given general verbal approval.

In Ho Chi Minh City the previous weekend, permission requested months in advance was granted -- but at a venue several kilometers from the one organizers sought just three hours before the first celebration of the 1911-2011 Protestantism centennial in Vietnam.

The venue change meant equipment located in one part of the city had to be moved to the new location before it could be assembled, church leaders said. It also meant notifying many thousands of people invited to one venue about the change to the other, they said.

Given the lack of government cooperation, the leader of Vietnam's Evangelical Fellowship (of house churches) said the fact that the event went ahead at all was "an absolute miracle."

By word-of-mouth, Internet, Twitter, Facebook and especially phone texting, thousands of people got word of the change as technicians and hundreds of volunteers made heroic efforts to ready the new venue. Vietnamese police proved surprisingly helpful in redirecting people to the new location.

At 9 p.m. -- two hours after the schedule start of the first service on Saturday, April 9 -- huge banners reading "PRAY FOR VIETNAM" and "GOD LOVES VIETNAM" were unfurled to welcome Palau's team and thousands of people to the festival, which joyfully combined the centennial celebration with Easter.

After opening prayers and welcome by Vietnamese leaders, Palau's son Andrew Palau gave testimony to how God delivered him from alcoholism and drug addiction and called him to Christian service. An Intel Corp. vice president also gave testimony to how God blessed his life and his business. Musician Don Moen, known for songs such as "Give Thanks," "God is So Good" and "God will Make a Way," provided inspirational music followed by exuberant congregational singing.

Palau began his evangelistic message at 11 p.m., with about 800 coming forward as he invited people to receive Christ. It was after midnight before people began to depart for their homes.

The second celebration proceeded Sunday evening, April 10, in a more orderly and timely fashion. More than 12,000 people filled the seats and most of the chairs set up on the stadium field. In response to Palau's second message, more than 1,000 people, according to one organizer, came forward in response to the call to follow Christ.

Photos and Vietnamese text on the events are readily available at www.hoithanh.com, and clips of the arrival of Palau and Moen in Vietnam may be found on YouTube. They were welcomed at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhut airport by hundreds of enthusiastic young people carrying banners and flowers.

Nguyen Xuan Duc, president of the Vietnam World Christian Fellowship, said he was very encouraged about the future of the church in Vietnam.

"These are watershed days for Protestantism in Vietnam," Duc said. "There is no fear, but rather wonderful spontaneity and irrepressible joy. Events like this happen in spite of the government and without the blessing of some overly conservative church leaders. What we see is young, vibrant, lay-led, internationally connected and very media-savvy."

While Palau and others spoke on Sunday night, also appearing in Ho Chi Minh City was iconic singer/songwriter Bob Dylan -- whose performance sold only about half of the 8,000 seats at RMIT university.

Adapted from April 18 and April 11 reports by Compass Direct News (www.compassdirect.org), a California-based news service focusing on the persecuted church. Used by permission.

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