By BosNewsLife Asia Service
HANOI, VIETNAM (BosNewsLife) -- Christian rights activists say more than 100 Vietnamese pastors of house churches in Vietnam
remain jailed in Vietnam for refusing to join the central church in the communist nation.
"The government-controlled "official church" wants to combine multiple house churches in order to control and diminish the influence of the thriving independent churches," said advocacy group Voice Of the Martyrs Canada (VOMC), which closely follows the situation.
Christians say a group of house churches representing a total membership of 3,000 was ordered to merge their congregations and meet in a building that can hold only about 500 people.
One of the targeted leaders, identified only as Pastor Su for security reasons, expressed concern over the new ruling. "If the pastors refuse to sign a paper saying they would combine, and that their gatherings would not go over 500 people, they will be beaten or thrown into prison," said Su, who himself served a prison term between 1975 and 1984 for his Christian activities.
Christians with close knowledge about the situation said roughly 60 pastors of the over 100 currently jailed were recently detained, though the 15-year sentences they received in 2001 "for practising their faith" were completed.
Despite the apparent risks, Pastor Su and his team say they are continuing with their Christian mission in villages of Vietnam.
"In order for vitally needed ministry to endure, missionaries are trained secretly and Bible study groups move from village
to village so they cannot be tracked down," VOMC explained.
The reported crackdown comes amid concerns among the ruling Communist Party leaders about the spread of Christianity in the country, where Christians comprise at least roughly eight percent of the more than 94-million population.
Vietnam's Constitution and legal code claim to protect freedom of belief and religion, but critics saythere are many restrictions on the growth of Christians and other religious minorities.
Churches are forced to register to hold meetings and groups seen as as a threat to the communist government are often shut down.
Yet, "We can thank the Lord for the tremendous witnessing efforts and steadfast faith demonstrated by the persecuted Christians
of Vietnam," VOMC said in a statement to BosNewsLife.
"May these church leaders and their congregation members not be intimidated by the governmental stipulations but rather encouraged to stand firm on the promises of God -- relying on Him for the wisdom, diplomacy and favour required to deal appropriately with the authorities," the group added.
It said it had urged its supporters to "Pray for radical changes to take place in the hearts of the Communist leaders, especially those who are responsible for implementing and administering Vietnam's laws, so that the work of the Gospel will continue to thrive."
Vietnam's government has not commented on the 100 pastors still behind bars, but it has in the past denied wrongdoing against religious and ethnic minorities.
(With reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos).