Published January 31, 2008
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (BP) — Vietnamese Baptists met at Grace Baptist Church in Ho Chi Minh City Jan. 10-11 to celebrate the church’s receiving official government recognition and to organize a new national confederation. The historic development is expected to encourage future evangelism and church-planting efforts in the country.
Representatives included Frank Page, Southern Baptist Convention president; Jerry Rankin, president of the SBC’s International Mission Board (IMB); D. August Boto, executive vice president and general counsel of the SBC Executive Committee; Chinh Van Dao, pastor of Vietnamese Faith Grace Baptist Church in Acworth and president of the National Fellowship of Vietnamese Baptist Churches in America; and Derek Gaubatz, IMB general counsel.
The Vietnamese government made the event possible by granting a certificate of religious practice to the church. The 400-member group met to create Grace Baptist Southern General Confederation. It adopted a constitution and elected officers for the new organization, which will organize and represent new churches across Vietnam.
Bouquets of flowers and banners brightened Grace’s sanctuary. A delegation of Southern Baptist leaders was present to witness and encourage the new work.
“I especially want to say, ‘God bless you,’ to all the wonderful people of Vietnam,” Page told the gathering. He also expressed appreciation to Vietnamese government officials for granting recognition to Grace.
Nguyen Thanh Xuan, deputy director of Vietnam’s Religious Affairs Committee, also spoke during the service.
The church sits alongside the main airport road in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly called Saigon, the city was renamed in the 1970s at the end of the war with the United States. The church is completing an expansion of its building, prompted by a road-widening project. A new multi-story building is fronted with a dramatic spiral staircase and topped with a cross.
Grace Baptist Church is an outgrowth of Southern Baptist missionary work that began in Vietnam in the late 1950s. Missionaries left the country when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Since then, the Vietnamese government has not allowed missionary presence.
But that foundational work continued to grow. Today, Baptists are widely acknowledged as the fastest-growing church group in Vietnam. There are now some 5,000 Baptists in 90 congregations in a dozen cities and provinces across the country. Only some of them are allied with Grace, church leaders said.
New stance on religion
Grace pastor Le Quoc Chanh has overseen much of the church’s growth, keeping his congregation intact through various hard times in the past.
While the Vietnamese government hindered Christians from meeting or pursuing evangelism in the past, it is now developing a market-driven economy, encouraging tourism and seeking an increased presence on the world scene. New national laws assure its citizens religious freedom.
The Vietnamese concept of religious freedom includes registration of church groups.
Local observers say national government leaders sincerely want to let church groups function without interference. But they also want to ensure that churches do not pursue political agendas or other programs that might jeopardize Vietnam’s political and economic stability – highly valued as the country develops. Observers say it may take longer for local government leaders in some outlying areas to move to a more open stance on religion. Opposition is still known to occur there.
Southern Baptist representatives and Grace Baptist leaders met separately Jan. 10 with Nguyen Thanh Xuan and several other national government leaders of religious affairs. The Baptists also met Jan. 12 with two Ho Chi Minh City religious affairs officials.
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