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Wednesday, 22 April 2020 22:01
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The development of Protestantism in Vietnam

(LLCT) - Protestantism was introduced into Vietnam in around the early 1900s. Due to a number of religious, cultural, social, and political reasons, Protestantism mostly developed in Southern Vietnam with a limited number of followers, though missionaries tried hard to convert people before 1975. Since the mid-1980s, Protestantism has spread widely in Vietnam, especially among ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands and North-West regions. This spread has posed a lot of issues in terms of awareness and policy.

Keywords: religious development in Vietnam, Protestantism.

1. Growth in number of followers, scope of operation, and organization of Protestantism in Vietnam today

After 1975, Protestant organizations were not recognized by the State of Vietnam, so the religious activities of the followers as well as those of Protestant dignitaries were half-hearted and reserved. In that context, Protestantism was not broken up like people thought, but instead it remained and even developed very quickly. The number of Protestants (who were baptized) in 1975 was 180,000, 320,000 in 1990, 368,000 in 1995, 504,000 in 2000, 950,000 in 2005, 1.05 million in 2010, and 1.35 million in 2017(1) (nearly 1.5 million Protestants total according to the declaration of Protestant organizations)(2). As a result, the current number of Protestants who have been baptized has increased by six times, and the number of Protestants is 8 times as many as in 1975.

The expansion of the Protestant scope of operation happened alongside the growth of followers. Before 1975, Protestantism was mainly practiced in Southern Vietnam and the followers were in only 10 Northern provinces, but recently, the religion has spread nationwide(3).

The increase of Protestant branches (grassroots units, also called grassroots churches) and service places corresponds to the growth of their followers and expansion of operation areas. Before 1975, there were about 550 branches and associations (of which there were 530 branches and associations of the Protestant Church in Southern Vietnam). Today, there are 606 branches and 4,757 service places across the country in residential communities.

The evangelization of the ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands and North-Western regions (generally called the Northern mountainous regions) should be included in the growth of Protestants in Vietnam mentioned above. Protestantism was introduced to the Central Highlands in 1930. From 1930 to 1975, there were about 55-60,000 ethnic minorities who were Protestant(4). After 1975, Protestant evangelism stopped due to its relation with the reactionary organization FULRO. However, Protestantism continued to exist and even developed quickly in the 1990s in a way that had not happened before 1975 for many reasons.

As of 2017, there were 615,111 Protestants in the Central Highlands (of which about 550,000 followers were ethnic minorities). This was 10 times as many followers as before 1975, with 1,863 service places and more than 20 Protestant organizations and sects. Specifically, there were 188,169 people in Dak Lak, 138,033 people in Gia Lai, 92,815 people in Lam Dong, 60,458 people in Binh Phuoc, 63,830 people in Dak Nong, and 16,806 people in Kon Tum(5).

In the North-Western region, in 1985, some Hmong people in Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Dien Bien, Son La, Lai Chau, and other places followed Protestantism under Vang Chu after listening to The Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC) from Manila (the Philippines) in the Hmong language. In the late 1980s, some people converted to Catholicism, but in the early 1990s, they were converted to Protestantism by the FEBC Station and the Protestant Church in Vietnam (Southern Vietnam). At the same time, Protestant organizations received Hmong followers and built their organizations. In 1996, there were nearly 60,000 Hmong people following Protestantism. In 2005 when Directive No. 01/CT-TTg was deployed, the number of Hmong people following Protestantism increased to 110,000 people (accounting for 13% of the total Hmong people nationwide). By 2017, the number of Hmong people following Protestantism in the northern mountainous provinces increased to 215,000 (excluding the 34,000 Hmong Protestants who were from the Central Highlands). Apart from the Hmong people, there were about 20,000 people from ethnic minorities in the North-Western region such as the Dao, San Chi, and Thai who followed Protestantism. The number of followers in each province is as follows: Dien Bien: 58,041; Lai Chau: 42,778; Lao Cai: 28,345; Cao Bang: 16,792; Ha Giang: 19,730; Bac Can: 13,818; Son La: 12,976; Tuyen Quang: 8,317; Thai Nguyen: 5,566; Thanh Hoa: 5,000; Lang Son: 2,264; Yen Bai: 1,373(6).

As a result, in 1975, there were about 55,000 Protestants from ethnic minorities. The number increased to 775,000 followers in 2017, 14 times more than the initial number.

The formation of various Protestant organizations and sects is one of the typical characteristics of Protestantism in Vietnam today. In addition to the 10 recognized Protestant organizations and sects, there are currently 78 unrecognized Protestant organizations and groups operating in 63 provinces and cities across the country. Most of the unrecognized Protestant organizations are newly restored or formed organizations and sects whose names and data are not stable; in some cases, the names are the same, but the followers register at different organizations. It can be seen that there were about 20 Protestant organizations and sects in 1975, and there were 88 Protestant organizations and sects operating in Vietnam in 2017.

2. Explanations about the development of Protestantism in Vietnam today

To explain the development of Protestantism in Vietnam today, it should not be said that citizens follow this religion because of material temptation or seduction, that the faith embracement is made while the people have no need logically, and that the faith embracement is a part of the “peaceful evolution” of hostile forces. In short, the fact that Protestantism has developed quickly and strongly in the country recently should be understood in subjective and objective terms, for economic and social reasons, and should be explained through the characteristics of Protestantism.

The policies of renovation, openness, international integration, and especially industrialization and modernization, have influenced the development of Protestantism in Vietnam.

The renovation, industrialization, and modernization of Vietnam has created a suitable environment for the development of Protestantism – a religion innovated to suit the townspeople of an industrial society. Along with the renovation process, Vietnam expands relations with countries around the world, including countries with large numbers of Protestant followers. Nowadays, there are 820,000 million Protestants, making it the 4th largest religion in the world (only after Islam with 1.45 billion followers, Catholicism with more than 1.25 billion followers, and Hinduism with 1.1 billion followers). Among them, the two countries with the most Protestants are the United States and South Korea. The United States is considered the center of global Protestantism with about 180 million followers (accounting for nearly 60% of the total population), hundreds of sects, and thousands of Protestant organizations. Historically and at present moment, American Protestantism has been the source of evangelization and support for Protestantism in Vietnam. South Korea is now considered an Asian Protestant nation. Over the past 30 years, the number of Protestants in Korea has increased rapidly with about 22 million followers, accounting for nearly 50% of the total population. South Korea’s large number of followers became a point for evangelizing Protestantism in the region, including Vietnam. As Vietnam-South Korea and Vietnam-United States relations develop more and more, the influences of the American and South Korean Protestantism on Vietnamese Protestantism are unavoidable.

The context of globalization should be noted because it creates conditions for Protestantism and other religions to expand to different areas in the world. Along with globalization, science and technology have exploded, especially the development of information technology. Today, the explosion of media is a support for spreading Protestantism, not only in Vietnam but also in many other countries around the world. Historically, Protestant missionaries focused on using media to serve missionary activities. For instance, the Hmong people in the North-Western region of Vietnam followed Protestantism mainly through listening to FEBC.

Regarding the advantages of Protestantism in the process of faith evangelization and embracement.

Protestantism split from Catholicism during the religious reformation in Europe in the 16th century. Theoretically, the later religion is the addition or subtraction of the previous one. Protestantism can be seen as the subtraction of Catholicism. Protestantism dropped the intermediate things between people and God. The reformed rules, ceremonies, worship, and organization made Protestantism a simple, streamlined, and easy-to-follow religion. With its reformed content, Protestantism is a suitable religion for the two traditional targets – townspeople of industrial society and ethnic minorities (clans) – not only in Vietnam but also in many countries around the world. Particularly, Protestantism advocates returning to the Bible, believing only in God, and highlighting the roles of the individual and faith in religious activities. These create fundamental differences between Protestantism and Catholicism and the attraction of Protestantism as compared with Catholicism and others in certain situations. These differences have also made Protestantism exist and develop in difficult situations, even when it was prevented.

Protestantism is also a religion with an active, renovated, and adaptable practice, orientation, and operating method that can fit social situations. Particularly, Protestantism always focuses on actively participating in social activities (especially charity) and considers itself the practicing motto as well as the means and conditions for evangelization. This gives Protestantism the ability to approach different political institutions and cultures of different ethnic groups. The above advantages have recently helped Protestantism attract more followers than Catholicism and Buddhism in the North-Western region and Central Highland.

Regarding a number of ethnic minority people, especially Hmong people, follow Protestantism over the past time.

To explain this issue, one needs to consider the following reasons: (1) there was a decline in traditional social institutions and a crisis in traditional culture when people noticed unsound customs which created gaps in their spirits that needed compensating; (2) the education level of some ethnic minority communities, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, was low; (3) the political system at the grassroots level was weak, and there was a decline in trust in the government and regime after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and socialist system; (4) Protestantism exploited the advantages of a reformed religion with progress in morality and lifestyle in association with society. These reasons took place at the same time, creating a favorable environment for evangelization and Protestantism embracement, which had never happened or been sufficient before.

The loss of prestige of traditional faith because of heavy, expensive, unsound customs created the spiritual gap shown clearly in the ethnic minorities who follow Protestantism. Protestantism is difficult to develop in some groups, like the Kinh people, whose traditional religious life is associated with and affected by three religions, especially Buddhism, which creates stability and very few spiritual gaps. Therefore, Protestantism has a hard time finding the chance to evangelize.

Regarding the variety of Protestant organization and sects.

The diverse division of organizations and sects is an outstanding Protestant characteristic. There are about 300 different sects and thousands of different global Protestant organizations. The diversity of organizations and sects has more than a chance to develop in certain social environments. For a fairly long period after 1975 in Vietnam, the government did not recognize the organization of Protestantism and it handled the issues of Protestantism in the Central Highlands and North-Western region slowly, which led to Protestant organizations dispersing the organized activities to maintain religious activities. The dispersion of Protestant organizations and service places decreased significantly after the implementation of the 2004 Ordinance on Faith and Religion and the promulgation of Directive No. 01/CT-TTg in 2005 on some Protestant works, which marked the shift in acknowledging the existence and normalization of the operation of Protestantism.

Regarding the relationship between Protestantism and culture.

Like other religions, the relationship between Protestantism and culture is expressed through three aspects: (1) Protestantism itself is a culture, (2) Protestantism is a culture-preserving environment, and (3) Protestantism is an environment for cultural exchange and acculturation.

Protestantism clashed with local traditional culture in the Central Highlands and North-Western regions over characteristics of faith, religious life, religious practice, habits, and lifestyles. Because only God is worshipped, Protestants denied the worship of deities, rejected rites in marriage, funerals, and traditional festivals, changed the traditional relations in families and society, and toppled the village patriarchy among the elders and clan chiefs - the prestigious people in the traditional community. This created a divide between Protestantism and traditional faith, causing lots of chaos in social relations.

The aforementioned clashes and conflict often occurred at the beginning of the evangelization and added to the transient extreme psychology in the changeable people. As time went by, the clashes and conflict reduced, and the relationship between Protestantism and traditional culture gradually became normal. In fact, Protestantism only differs from traditional faith in terms of belief (Protestantism only worships God, while traditional faiths worship different deities). This difference influences related customs and practices. Thus, this difference should not be thought of as the reason to deny the positive aspects of Protestantism, such as working hard, desiring wealth, playing a positive part in social charity, fulfilling citizen responsibility, giving up bad habits, and encouraging followers to live an economic life.

Additionally, Protestantism was evangelized in the country quite late, and it left little positive mark during its existence and development process. When Protestantism developed, it created cultural clashes in faith and religious life, leading to the government’s negative opinion of Protestantism. Afterwards, the response towards Protestantism was not the same as with other religions.

Regarding the relationship between Protestantism and politics.

Due to the characteristics of its birth process, Protestantism had to pay in the politically “bloody duel” between the feudal class and Roman Curia. Later, Protestantism developed in capitalist countries through the separation of religion and politics. Thus, most Protestant organizations and sects decided to focus on evangelization rather than politics. In fact, many Protestants were individuals related to politics. In Vietnam, after 1975, some Protestant dignitaries in the Central Highlands listened to the reactionary organization FULRO to oppose the government. Recently, in 2001 and 2004, some Protestants, mostly new ones, took part in riots in the Central Highlands.

What deserves acknowledgement is the positive attitude of the Protestant organizations before the above difficulties. When the riots took place in the Central Highlands in 2001, the Protestant Church in Vietnam (Southern Vietnam) expressed a clear and decisive attitude towards FULRO. Right after its legal status was recognized by the State, the Protestant Church in Vietnam (Southern Vietnam) had a document signed and issued by Pastor Pham Xuan Thieu on April 5th, 2001, with the paragraph: “In the increasing joy of the Church, the Managing Committee of the General Association agrees to appeal the whole Church, especially the Church in the Central Highlands, to have high awareness of and decisive refusal towards anyone or any organization called Dega Protestantism. The Managing Committee of the General Association affirms that there is no organization called Dega Protestantism in the Protestant Church in Vietnam (South Vietnam). Thus, those who come to the Church without going through the Managing Committee of the General Association of Protestant Church in Vietnam (South Vietnam) and say what is against the organization and dogma of the Protestant Church in Vietnam (South Vietnam) are the people with the intention of dividing, disuniting, and disturbing the church organization and peace of the society”(7).

Similar to the Protestant Church in Vietnam (Southern Vietnam), the Protestant Church in Vietnam (Northern Vietnam) also expressed their attitude after a number of Hmong Protestants gathered in Muong Nhe (Dien Bien) in May 2011 to “welcome the Second Coming of God” (proclaiming and welcoming the king). The Protestant Church determined that the group of people gathering in Muong Tong Commune, Muong Nhe District, Dien Bien Province for the “Second Coming of God” and “Judgment Day of God” did not fully comply with the Bible and went against orthodox belief; their actions were a heresy which should be rectified so that the followers could realize this big mistake and repent to God(8).

Recently, when its legal status was recognized by the State, the Protestant organizations all set out a religious practice direction based on three platforms -Protestantism, Nation, and Law - which deserves to be respected and encouraged.

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Endnotes:

(1) Collected figures from the Government Committee for Religious Affairs and the Central Mass Mobilization Commission over successive periods of time.

(2) Declared figures of the Protestant organizations in 2015, archives at the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Hanoi.

(3), (5), (6) Central Mass Mobilization Commission: Statistics on Protestantism (until March 2017) - Appendix 10, Hanoi, 2017.

(4) Nguyen Thanh Xuan: Initial understanding of Protestantism in the world and in Vietnam, Religion Publishing House, Hanoi, 2002, p.430.

(7) Protestant Church in Vietnam (South Vietnam): Letter to all pastors, evangelists, and followers of the Protestant Church in Vietnam (South Vietnam), archives at the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Hanoi, 2001.

(8) Protestant Church in Vietnam (North Vietnam): Notice to all the branches of the Protestant Church in Vietnam (North Vietnam), archives at the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, Hanoi, 2011.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Nguyen Thanh Xuan

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

 

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