The radio program instructed the Hmong believers to find churches in Hanoi, and Vietnamese pastors helped smuggle in Hmong Bibles and trained the church leaders in underground Bible schools. Yet the rapid growth of Christianity among the Hmong concerned the local government, who long viewed the Hmong with distrust: The Hmong in Laos sided with the United States in the Vietnam War, and they feared this mass conversion to an “American” religion would rally a Hmong independence movement. Officially, they claimed they wanted to prevent the Hmong from abandoning their traditional culture.
To deter conversions, authorities threw pastors into prison, tortured them, and left them for dead, while taking the land of Christians and kicking them out of villages. Police broke up church meetings and arrested Vietnamese Christians who dared travel to Hmong villages to preach—although that hasn’t stopped them from going.
Christianity transformed the Hmong communities: Twenty years ago it was difficult to find one Hmong villager who had graduated high school, while today most of the Hmong do, with some also earning their bachelor’s or master’s degree. Many Hmong Christians learned to read Vietnamese through reading the Bible. And because they no longer need to prepare expensive sacrifices to the spirits, the Hmong were able to raise their standard of living.
Hmong Christians have also gone on to share the gospel with neighboring tribes such as the Dao, who now have 24,000 believers in the ECVN(N) denomination alone. Today, about 400 of the 1,000 Hmong churches are registered, and existing churches face less harassment than in the past. However, the local government still persecutes new churches and churches in previously unreached areas.
ON JAN. 1, the Vietnamese government enacted the Law on Belief and Religion, the first law to govern religion since the founding of Vietnam’s Communist government. Christian groups, especially those in remote areas, are concerned as the law requires all groups to register with authorities and report their activities or else face fines. The law includes a clause that prohibits groups from using religion to threaten “the national great unity, harm state defense, national security, public order, and social morale,” which Human Rights Watch believes the government can use as an excuse to persecute Christian groups.
The law could benefit registered churches as it allows churches to establish medical, educational, and social institutions. Former decrees required a church to exist for 20 years without breaking the law before it could register, but the new law shortens the time to five years (although the existence of an unregistered church is against this law). As always, the actual effects of the law on churches will depend on how local authorities implement it.
“Vietnam is an unpredictable country regarding its direction, its economy, its politics, and even [its view of] religion,” said Le, the Baptist pastor. “We’ve seen this so many times: We look at tomorrow and are expecting a better future, but then suddenly something happens that overshadows any positive changes.”
This story has been updated to correct the description of when American Protestant missionaries first arrived in Vietnam, and to correct the description of the Montagnard ethnic groups.