New rules on religion threaten Vietnam house churches

February 15, 2013 by  
Filed under Asia, newsletter-asia, Persecution

Hill-tribe Christians from the CentralVietnam, February 13, 2013: Christian leaders in Vietnam have warned that new rules on religion that came into force at the start of the year threaten the future of the country’s house church movement.

Decree 92, which replaces Decree 22 of 2005 as the guideline governing religious practice inVietnam, increases restrictions and makes it almost impossible for unregistered groups to obtain legal status.

Nguyen Van Dai, a Protestant lawyer who has served jail time for his human rights activism inVietnam, said:

The decree is intended to provide the tools to end the house-church movement entirely.

The Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship, an association of around 30 unregistered house church organisations, has raised similar concerns, saying that Decree 92 makes house churches illegal. The “underground” Christian gatherings have not been recognised by the government since 1975.

Under the new criteria for registration, a church must have a legal place of worship. House churches, which by definition do not have an official building, clearly do not fulfil this criterion. And as unregistered groups, they would not be able to obtain such premises before gaining legal status, and would thus find themselves in a vicious cycle of illegality.

Another extremely difficult criterion for a church to fulfil is that it must be free of both civil and criminal violations for 20 years before it may be considered eligible for registration. But the fact that it is unregistered makes it highly vulnerable to arbitrary charges, such as “infringing national security”, which the Vietnamese authorities often apply to any activity they want to suppress.

Decree 92 introduces a new distinction between “religious meetings” and “religious activities”, both of which must be registered before an organisation can be considered for full legal recognition. “Religious meetings” refers to communal worship and prayer, while “religious activities” covers broader matters including the preaching and practice of a religion’s tenets, principles and rites, and organisational management.

Leaders of religious meetings must, according to the new rules, have “a spirit of national unity and reconciliation”, while religious activities and ceremonies must not “contradict fine national traditions and customs”. This may require churches to perform actions that are incompatible with Christian faith, such as worshipping national heroes and ancestors.

If a church does somehow manage to fulfil all of the complex criteria, the application process takes three years, making a minimum of 23 years that a church has to wait for legal recognition.

It would then have to comply with extremely strict controls. A full annual plan must be submitted to the authorities every October; no changes are allowed without a complicated appeals process.

– morning star news

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