Vietnam Government to Allow Protestant Ministerial Training

Jan 28, 2003 01:56 PM EST

HO CHI MINH CITY -- Twenty-seven years after forcibly shutting down the Nha Trang Theological Seminary, Vietnamese authorities on January 3 granted permission to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam-South, or ECVN (S), to open a class for training church leaders. Although a few see it as a hopeful sign, most of Vietnam's Protestant leaders see it as a very small step on the road to religious freedom.

The ECVN (S), representing over half of Vietnam's 1.2 million Protestants, received official recognition in April 2001, after some 27 years of existing in legal limbo. Hundreds of thousands of minority Christians historically related to the ECVN (S) are still considered "illegal" by the communist government. Over 400 churches in Dak Lak province were forcibly disbanded in the fall of 2002.

The ECVN (S) had made the opening of a Bible college its foremost request since legal recognition was granted in 2001. For years the church had sought the return of its substantial seminary campus at Hon Chong in Nha Trang, confiscated in 1976.

Authorities told the church that new negotiations to open a school could not include reference to the seized campus. Rather, the church could prepare a temporary facility in Ho Chi Minh City and, pending permission, use it for two years while it built a new seminary. Under this arrangement, the ECVN (S) requested authorization to train 100 students.

The permission, long delayed, came with further conditions. Only one class of 50 male students would be allowed to study. The prospective students would also need approval by the government after being accepted for study by the church. The ECVN (S) hopes to have an opening ceremony for this class of seminarians on February 14, 2003.

While Vietnam's authorities will cite this modest move as evidence of religious freedom, Vietnam's Protestants see this at very best as a glass half empty, rather than half full.

Hundreds of Protestant congregations formed in the last quarter century successfully developed alternate means for the training of pastors/leaders. Those systems will likely continue, even as the church experiments with a legal seminary under the watchful eye of the Bureau of Religious Affairs.

The only other government-approved training of church leaders allowed since 1976 was for one class of 15 students in Hanoi, trained in the early 1990's under the auspices of the small ECVN (North). Until now, the government still has not approved the appointment of some of the graduates of that program to church positions.

By Albert H. Lee
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