Seven pastors of unregistered churches now languish in Vietnamese jails as the country's Communist rulers move to control burgeoning house churches.

This past August, three Vietnamese evangelists, belonging to the unofficial Assemblies of God in Vietnam, were jailed for three years. Authorities had accused them of being "fake Christians" and of "illegally propagating their beliefs." Thirty-three-year-old Lo Van Hen, his cousin Lo Van Hoa, 37, and Nguyen Van Vuong, 34, all pastored house churches in their rural hometown of Dien Bien Phu in northwest Vietam.

According to the leader of their denomination, Tran Dinh Ai, "Lo Van Hen was an outstanding evangelist; in his first month alone he had led five villages, totaling 735 people, to the Lord." The three were sentenced to "thirty-six months," not merely three years. Ai explains, "If they were given three years, they might be released after two for good behavior, like I was; but thirty-six months means they must serve every month—there is no possibility of an early release."

CLIMATE WORSENS: Local sources blame the arrests on a worsening climate for unregistered churches in Vietnam following the Eighth Communist Party Congress in June, which vowed to restore party authority to "every facet of Vietnamese life." Also blamed is the ideological sensitivity in that location. Said a close friend of the three, "Dien Bien Phu is very famous in Vietnam. We defeated the French there in 1954, and government authorities love to tell visitors that there are no pagodas and no churches there; but these three [pastors] were very successful in church planting in this very area."

In addition, belonging to an unregistered church is illegal. The government amalgamated all Protestant denominations into a single umbrella organization called the Evangelical Church of Vietnam in 1975, currently with a membership around 500,000. In 1988, however, Vietnam's house-church movement began when some prominent pastors were ousted from their churches for practicing charismatic gifts and healing ministries. Of these pastors, the most uncompromising was Tran Dinh Ai, whose movement now has 16,000 members in 165 churches.

Proclaiming themselves the Assemblies of God in Vietnam, they follow the ag polity and are recognized by the ag worldwide, but an attempt to register as a separate denomination in 1994 brought only increased persecution, which intensified last year.

In May 1996, police burst into a meeting of 14 leaders of their churches among the tribal minorities of the Central Highlands. After severely beating the treasurer of the group, they seized the records of all 53 churches in the district, and during a six-month period called in the pastors of all the churches, forcing them to recant and often fining them $50 (U.S.)—more than twice the average monthly wage in Vietnam. Those who refused to sign confessions were severely beaten.

BEATEN UNCONSCIOUS: In a separate incident, Ha Seing, a 41-year-old pastor from the Koho tribe, also in the Central Highlands, was dragged from a training seminar on October 15 in Lam Dong Province and beaten unconscious with metal pipes by police, who later became worried when he did not revive and called his family to take him to a hospital. He is now in the Vinh Hoa mental hospital, where doctors confirmed that he has significant brain damage as a result of the beating.

According to the leader of Vietnam's largest house-church movement of 40,000, Dihn Thien Tu, "repression is concentrated primarily on unregistered churches, and particularly on Christians from tribal minorities." Seven pastors of his movement were arrested last year. Just more than half of Vietnam's estimated 570,000 evangelical Christians are from the 62 tribal groupings found mostly in the forests of Central Vietnam; many of them have experienced revival in the 1990s.

A spokesperson for Vietnam's Roman Catholic population of 6 million said religious repression in Vietnam works on a sliding scale: "Protestants are controlled first, because they are regarded as American; Catholics are next, they are regarded as merely foreign; then finally the Buddhists, who, although indigenous, are still religious."

Nina Shea, a religious-freedom activist with Freedom House in Washington D.C., says the rights of Vietnamese believers and Western missionaries in Vietnam are being sharply compromised. "Hanoi continues to rule as a one-party police state that claims control over the most basic freedoms."

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