70 Years of Religious Oppression after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

The historical events that the present Vietnamese government seeks to expunge from its collective memory.

70 Years of Religious Oppression after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
Graphic: Shiv/The Vietnamese Magazine.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 marked the beginning of numerous tragedies for the people living in the northern region of Vietnam. Religious followers, especially those who adhered to Protestantism, would have to endure nearly 50 years of restrictive religious policies. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was a pivotal conflict during the First Indochina War, fought between the French Union forces and the Viet Minh communist revolutionary forces led by General Vo Nguyen Giap. It occurred from March 13 to May 7, 1954, in northern Vietnam's remote town of Dien Bien Phu. The battle ended with a decisive victory for the Viet Minh, leading to the Geneva Accords, which partitioned Vietnam and marked the end of French colonial rule in Indochina.

After 1975, the development of the Protestant faith in the south crumbled following the fall of the Saigon government.

The history of Protestantism in Vietnam’s northern region after 1954 and across the entire country after 1975 is something that the government wishes to erase from the collective consciousness of Vietnamese citizens. Regardless, the suppression of this belief system continues to this day in areas inhabited by ethnic minority groups.

The Death of Protestantism in the North

Protestantism entered Vietnam in 1911, almost 30 years later than in South Korea. By 1945, this relatively new religion had garnered 15,000 followers, quadrupling by 1954. [1]

After their victory at Dien Bien Phu, the Northern Vietnamese Communist authorities subjected Protestant followers to a precarious, oppressive existence. Even though they did not suffer bloody suppression from the government, as North Koreans did when their authorities committed violent acts against religious groups, the Vietnamese government nonetheless imposed stringent restrictions and hardships upon the evangelical community.

After the mass migration in 1954 to the South of Vietnam, statistical records indicated that the northern region retained merely around one thousand evangelical followers, alongside a few pastors and evangelists. [2] In 1964, although the Communist government began paying salaries to pastors and evangelists, most still had to engage in manual labor to sustain themselves. Likewise, the organization of church assemblies for preaching purposes was prohibited. [3]

During the time period 1954-1975, the government of Northern Vietnam curtailed religious activities targeting the youth. [4]

Training of preachers was also heavily restricted after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. In fact, when a training program was held in 1962, only five individuals completed the course successfully, and two elderly people were part of this graduating group. It took another 26 years for the subsequent training session to be permitted by the state. [5]

The ranks of pastors and preachers within Northern churches dwindled because of the government’s crackdown on the Protestant faithful and the passing of time. After 1954, Protestantism in Northern Vietnam was plunged into obscurity for decades while the religion flourished in the South.

The Rise of Protestantism in Southern Vietnam

Protestantism witnessed the fastest growth rate of followers in Vietnam, particularly during the era of the Republic of Vietnam, thanks to open religious policies and funding from abroad.

In 1953, the southern region had 13,155 Protestants, and by 1970, this number had grown to 106,091. [6] By 1975, the number of followers doubled, ranging from 200,000 to 250,000. [7]

Before 1975, the estimated number of Protestant churches in the South was around 500. [8]

The Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) supported evangelical activities in the south. This alliance stated that approximately 150,000 evangelical followers in southern Vietnam were affiliated with the CMA. [9]

Protestantism in southern Vietnam engaged in vibrant and diverse missionary activities, many of which have disappeared today.

In 1963, 23 million pieces of missionary literature were printed. In 1966, this number increased to 42 million pieces. The religion had three religious newspapers: "Thánh Kinh" (The Bible), "Niềm Tin" (Faith), and "Đuốc Thiêng" (Sacred Torch). [10]

Protestantism in the South also utilized radio broadcasts to carry out evangelism. In 1955, there were 14 radio programs broadcast from Manila and weekly broadcasts on the Saigon government's radio station. Additionally, 15 local radio stations were airing 30 weekly programs. Starting in 1969, Protestant programs were broadcast on television. [11]

While the number of pastors and evangelists in North Vietnam could be counted as five or less, in the southern region, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) boasted 190 pastors and 167 evangelists across 530 agencies. [12] These figures exclude home churches and foreign congregations.

Restrictions on Protestantism in the Entire Country

In May 1975, a pastor in the state of Florida revealed that he and the churches belonging to the CMA were undertaking one of their most daring missions: rescuing 500 members of the Vietnamese Protestant community trapped in refugee camps. [13]

After April 30, 1975, the plight of Protestants in the northern region expanded to the south. Many pastors, evangelists, and believers had to cross the border to escape imprisonment in reeducation camps, discriminatory treatment, and government oppression.

The targeted attacks against Protestantism stemmed from the government's overarching religious restriction policy. Government authorities aimed to prevent religious affiliations and organizations from becoming sources of social and political opposition and to reduce the allocation of economic resources for religious activities. [14]

Despite the successful escape of some Evangelical faithful, many pastors with close ties to the southern Vietnamese and U.S. government were sent to reeducation camps. [15] This group included pastors who had been chaplains in the military of the former Republic of Vietnam.

After 1975, the Vietnamese Communist government regarded Protestantism as an evil doctrine propagated by the Americans. In North Korea, the Communist regime viewed the Protestant pastors as American spies. [16]

However, a handful of churches remained open in southern Vietnam for unclear reasons. For instance, the An Dong Church opened its doors in June 1976 and attracted many followers despite eventually being shut down in 1983. [17]

In 1976, the General Confederation of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) was elected for the 42nd time. However, it took another 26 years before the government allowed elections again. From 1975 to 1985, the evangelical faith in Vietnam was in a state of stagnation. [18]

Operating Under State Control

Starting from the late 1980s, alongside the reintroduction of a market economy in Vietnam, Protestantism was permitted to resume activities, yet considerable challenges remained. Before this, the government confiscated funding from international organizations directly allocated to evangelical groups. [19]

From 1988 to 2004, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) did not convene its General Assembly even under the government's pressure. The Church used this to protest and press the government into accepting its personnel appointments. [20]

In 1992, the government began to allow the import of 33,000 Bibles and 20,000 hymnals. Between 1994 and 2000, the local printing of Bibles, hymnals, religious stories, and other written works was authorized. [21]

By 2001, the government officially recognized the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South).

The revival of Protestant activities in Vietnam coincided with Hanoi's process of seeking membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. During this time, the United States made religious freedom a condition for Vietnam's WTO acceptance.

In 2004, the United States placed Vietnam on the CPC list (countries of particular concern for religious freedom). [22]

In 2005, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai issued a special directive that was only applicable to Protestantism. This directive allowed this religion to expand its activities and gradually permitted the pre-1975 evangelical denominations to recommence their operations. [23]

In 2006, the Vietnamese government was compelled to sign an agreement with the United States to improve the country's religious freedom. This agreement led to Vietnam's removal from the CPC list. [24]

Protestantism's Role in Ethnic Minority Communities

Starting in 1940, Protestantism began establishing missionary organizations in the Central Highlands.

In 2022, the Xây dựng Đảng (Party Building) Magazine stated that out of the 1.2 million nationwide Protestant followers, 73% were from ethnic minority groups. [25]

The number of Protestant followers in ethnic minority areas within northern Vietnam's Central Highlands and other mountainous regions has sharply risen.

The Central Highlands remains the region with the country's largest concentration of Protestant followers. After 1975, the number of Protestant followers surged predominantly among the Montagnard people who had converted to Christianity.

In Gia Lai Province, from 1975 to 1999, the number of Protestant followers increased by 432%. [26] In 2022, the government reported that out of the 873,700 Protestant followers who were members of ethnic minorities, 575,940 were living in the Central Highlands. [27]

In the northern region, the Hmong ethnic group accounts for most Protestant followers. Protestantism was introduced to them around the mid-1980s. In 1986, only around 1,000 Hmong people were followers of Christianity. [28] This number remarkably climbed to 170,000 by 2011 (not including the approximately 37,000 Hmong people from the north who had migrated to the Central Highlands). [29]

A Protestant follower in Vietnam, cited on the Open Doors website – an organization that advocates for religious freedom for Protestants in the United Kingdom and Scotland – said that if an individual or a family converts to Protestantism, they can easily influence their entire village to convert. [30]

The government did not want to see a rapid increase in the number of Protestants in ethnic minority regions. Consequently, these two above-mentioned regions have experienced a level of religious oppression significantly higher than in the lower-level areas of the country.

This article was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on August 17, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated the article into English.


1. Khái quát về Hội thánh Tin lành Việt Nam (miền Bắc). (n.d.). Ban Tôn Giáo Chính Phủ. https://btgcp.gov.vn/gioi-thieu-cac-to-chuc-ton-giao-da-duoc-cong-nhan/Khai_quat_ve_Hoi_thanh_Tin_lanh_Viet_Nam__mien_Bac_-post9DR3VLpnLp.html

2. Nguyễn Thanh Xuân, Một số tôn giáo ở Việt Nam, trang 298, Ban Tôn giáo Chính phủ.

3. Tập, B. B. (2009, October 12). 100 năm Tin lành đến VN Kỳ 5: Hội Thánh Tin Lành Miền Bắc sau 1954 - HOITHANH.COM. HOITHANH.COM. https://web.archive.org/web/20230726092152/https://hoithanh.com/10029/hoi-thanh-tin-lanh-mien-bac-sau-1954.html

4. Freedom of Religion in North and South Vietnam. (1974). CIA. https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP80B01495R000500050039-3.pdf

5. Một số Hội Thánh tại Miền Bắc Việt Nam. (2011, September 11). Thông Công Hà Nội. https://thongconghanoi.wordpress.com/2011/09/11/m%E1%BB%99t-s%E1%BB%91-h%E1%BB%99i-thanh-t%E1%BA%A1i-mi%E1%BB%81n-b%E1%BA%AFc-vi%E1%BB%87t-nam/

6. Kỳ 6: Hội thánh miền Nam sau năm 1954. (2009). Hoithanh.com. https://web.archive.org/web/20230726091812/https://hoithanh.com/10031/hoi-thanh-tin-lanh-mien-nam-sau-1954.html

7. Evangelizing Post-Đổi Mới Vietnam: The Rise of Protestantism and the State’s Response. (2017). ISEAS. https://www.iseas.edu.sg/images/pdf/ISEAS_Perspective_2017_34.pdf

8. Mission Church Goes Into the World. (1981). Newspapers. https://www.newspapers.com/image/62489670/?terms=Protestant%20church%20in%20Vietnam&match=1

9. Alliance Church seeks assistance relocating 500 Vietnam members. (1975). Newspapers. https://www.newspapers.com/image/223071299/?terms=Protestant%20church%20in%20Vietnam&match=1

10. Nguyễn Thanh Xuân, Một số tôn giáo ở Việt Nam, trang 293, Ban Tôn giáo Chính phủ.

11. See [10].

12. See [10], page 295.

13. See [9].

14. See [4].

15. See [7].

16. Online, A. T. (n.d.-b). Asia Times Online :: Korea News and Korean Business and Economy, Pyongyang News. Asia Times Online. https://web.archive.org/web/20050318052905/http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/GC16Dg03.html

17. Tuan L. (2020). TP. HCM: Kỷ Niệm 45 Năm Thành Lập HTTL An Đông. Hội Thánh Tin Lành Việt Nam. https://web.archive.org/web/20230731135838/https://httlvn.org/tp-hcm-ky-niem-45-nam-thanh-lap-httl-an-dong.html

18. See [7].

19. See [3].

20. See [3].

21. See [6]

22. Tâm, V. (2022). Mỹ đưa Việt Nam vào Danh sách Theo dõi Đặc biệt về tự do tôn giáo: 16 năm vẫn quanh quẩn. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.com/2022/12/viet-nam-lot-vao-danh-sach-theo-doi-dac-biet-ve-tu-do-ton-giao-cua-my-16-nam-van-quanh-quan/

23. Thuvienphapluat.Vn. (n.d.). Chỉ thị 01/2005/CT-TTg công tác đạo Tin lành. Copyright © 2011 by thuvienphapluat.vn. https://thuvienphapluat.vn/van-ban/Quyen-dan-su/Chi-thi-01-2005-CT-TTg-cong-tac-dao-Tin-lanh-52822.aspx

24. See [22].

25. Trường, T. (2022, August 18). Tôn giáo tháng 7/2022: Chính quyền gia tăng trấn áp các nhóm Tin Lành độc lập, xét xử vụ án Tịnh Thất Bồng Lai. Luật Khoa tạp chí. https://luatkhoa.org/2022/08/ton-giao-thang-7-2022-chinh-quyen-gia-tang-tran-ap-cac-nhom-tin-lanh-doc-lap-xet-xu-vu-an-tinh-that-bong-lai/

26. Duy, T. (2019, September 8). Khi Tây Nguyên không còn là nhà. Luật Khoa tạp chí. https://luatkhoa.org/2019/09/khi-tay-nguyen-khong-con-la-nha/

27. See [23].

28. See [7].

29. Nguyễn Thanh Xuân. Một số tôn giáo ở Việt Nam. trang 302. Ban Tôn giáo Chính phủ.

30. Vietnam. (n.d.). https://www.opendoorsuk.org/persecution/world-watch-list/vietnam/

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