Vietnam improved from 24th to 35th place in Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List (WWL) of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, but the U.S. government was not so generous regarding its religious freedom record, placing the country on its Special Watch List on Jan. 4 for the second year in a row.
The WWL report indicates Vietnam gave considerable leeway to the Roman Catholic Church, the century-old Evangelical Church of Vietnam and other traditional churches, but states that ethnic minority, non-traditional evangelical churches in some areas continue to endure heavy pressure and persecution — especially new converts — where local officials still try to implement containment ideology.
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With the improvement on the WWL list, Vietnam moved from the “severe persecution” to the middle of the “moderate persecution” category. To be sure, violations have decreased since the early years of this century, when Vietnam languished among the worst 10 countries on the WWL list, spending 2004–2006 in the “extreme persecution” category while landing on the U.S. State Department’s blacklist of “Countries Particular Concern.”
But appearing anew on the U.S. government’s Special Watch List did sting.
When the Deputy Head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA), Nguyen Tien Trong, on Jan. 17 received a visit in Hanoi from Derek Forbes, Asia director of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Trong expressed his regret to Pastor Forbes about the Special Watch List designation.
Trong said he hoped “that Pastor Forbes and the BGEA would speak up to contribute to the beautiful image of Vietnam’s, diversity, abundance and freedom of belief and religion to the U.S. Government, people and international friends, helping the U.S. State Department understand and soon remove Vietnam from the SWL for religious freedom,” according to a GCRA press statement.
Forbes was visiting to extend Lunar New Year’s greetings to Trong, to thank him for the GCRA role in facilitating the March 4 and 5 “Spring of Love” HCMC festival and to explore possibilities of a third BGEA event in Vietnam, but the renewal of the SWL status figured prominently in the visit. Forbes replied that the renewed designation would not affect BGEA’s good relationship with the GCRA, and further that “Pastor Franklin Graham, president of the BGEA, continues his role as an ‘ambassador’ for Vietnam.”
Vietnam’s reaction to the designation, so far, has been more measured than last year, when the country responded with anger and a flurry of books, two of which were recalled after publication — one because it was too honest about the government failures in managing religions, and the other because it was counterproductively too critical of even legalized evangelical church organizations and leaders.
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EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written and originally published by Morning Star News.