In what religious freedom advocates regard as a breakthrough, Vietnamese authorities granted rare permission to unregistered house churches to hold a large, public Easter-related service April 21 in Ho Chi Minh City.

More than 15,000 people gathered at Tao Dan Stadium to worship and experience a sense of large-scale Christian unity for the first time since an open-air Christmas meeting was permitted in 2007.

Unregistered groups holding an event that includes worship and evangelism outside a church building violates Vietnam's restrictive religion laws, and the celebration—in which 1,200 people decided to follow Christ—did not happen without struggles. Reluctant to endorse such Christian unity events, authorities demanded the removal of organizer Nguyen Ngoc Hien, leader of the Christian Fellowship of Vietnam, as a condition of approval.

Officials did not grant permission until three hours before the evening service began just as an unseasonal rain stopped—an answer to prayer for participants, who said the huge crowd sang with joy.

"I never heard any singing like this, even in a Billy Graham crusade," said one Christian leader. "It was as if they offered to God all the praise and worship stored up in their hearts during many years of oppression."

Observers said the event showed that Vietnam's house churches, widely known for divisiveness and provincialism, could cooperate with good results.

"Those who have long urged and worked for unity can be pleased," said one advocate. "While there is still a long way to go for Vietnamese Christian groups in practicing collaboration and partnership, this Easter celebration is seen as a significant step forward."



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