By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
HANOI, VIETNAM (BosNewsLife)-- U.S. evangelist Franklin Graham says thousands of people accepted his invitations to follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior during a historic Christian festival in communist-run Vietnam where authorities have oppressed religious minorities. "As the Holy Spirit worked in hearts, at least 4,500 people over two nights came forward publicly during the invitations, both inside the sports complex and outside in the extended area, to make life-changing decisions for Christ," he said in a statement following the December evangelism event in Hanoi, the capital.
"God did a mighty work in a city that, not so long ago, might have seemed an unlikely place," added Graham, the president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and one of America's most prominent preachers. On average, more than 10,000 Vietnamese filled up a stadium during the two-day 'Love Hanoi Festival' led by Graham, who said he wants the communist government to consider Christians its best citizens.
"On the second night, with people pressing into every available space at the front and more coming, a coordinator of volunteers called out in a loud voice in Vietnamese: 'More counselors! More counselors!'”, the evangelist recalled. "Believers in the crowd who were trained but not scheduled to serve that night quickly stepped up to help. Many wept for joy to see what God was doing," he said.
"We rejoice with them—and with the angels in heaven—for all who responded to God’s offer of salvation and new life through repentance and faith in His Son, Jesus Christ." Graham explained that each new believer was given a booklet "that explains how to have a deeper relationship with Jesus" and stressed that local churches are following up with the new Christians.
In separate remarks, Graham expressed hope that the government through the event would see Christianity differently. "I hope the government will see that Christians are not enemies, but Christians are some of the best citizens in Vietnam and people that they can trust and depend on," he told The Associated Press news agency.
He spoke amid concerns about the plight of devoted Christians in Vietnam. While noting some improvements, the U.S. State Department cautioned in its annual global report on religious freedom that Vietnamese authorities continued to limit activities of unrecognized faith groups and those without certificates of registration for religious activities, including house churches and those believed to be engaged in political work.
Several church leaders reported various forms of harassment, including physical assault, short-term detention, prosecution, monitoring, restrictions on travel, property seizure or destruction, it said. Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest and founder of the democracy group Bloc 8406, was freed last year after serving eight years in prison on charges of conducting anti-government propaganda.
Despite sweeping economic reforms over the past 30 years that made Vietnam one of the fasting growing countries in the region, the ruling Communist Party maintains strict control over all aspects of society, from media to religions. According to the Human Rights Watch group, more than 100 Vietnamese are jailed for peaceful religious and political activities.
However, Graham called the evangelism rallies in Hanoi a positive development and "unprecedented" in size for Vietnam. He said the government did not attach any conditions for the event, which took a year a organize. But Graham, who met government officials, admitted that authorities granted permission only a week before the rare evangelistic event.
People attending the rallies seemed thrilled. Pastor Jacob Bloemberg, who moved to Hanoi some 20 years ago, hopes the Love Hanoi Festival is part of many changes impacting Christians in Vietnam. "The Festival was a great opportunity to mobilize the local church,” Bloemberg explained. “This event had over 500 churches [participating] from all over northern Vietnam. That is such a milestone,” he added in published remarks.
“God made you and He created you as an individual,” Franklin Graham said during a rally in Hanoi. “You’re not a number. He knows your name. And He loves you.” That was music to the ears of Bloemberg: “For over a decade, we’ve been dreaming about this event.”
There are about 6.5 million Catholics and more than 1 million Protestants among Vietnam's 95 million people, a majority of whom are Buddhists, according to official estimates.
If it's up to Graham, the number of devoted Christians will grow. "I shared that God loves us, and I talked about the value of a soul. The Bible asks, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”," he said, referring to Bible verse Matthew 16:26. "God values a soul so highly that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem our souls from an eternity in Hell. Jesus died on a cross so that our souls could be saved if we would turn from our sins and accept Him by faith."
Those responding to his message included a man identified only as Tuân who was brought to the festival by two young Vietnamese believers. When he heard how "sin separates us from God, both now and for eternity, he knew that he wanted his life to be different and that he wanted to be with God eternally," Graham said.
During the invitation he reportedly told a prayer counselor, “That’s the reason I want to accept Jesus Christ as my Savior, to be forgiven of my sins.”
Additionally, "One woman, advanced in years, traveled miles to get to the event, bringing two unsaved friends," Graham remembered. "One of the friends brought along her two sons. The older woman prayed throughout the evening for her friends, and God opened their hearts to hear and understand the Gospel. Both went forward to give their lives to Christ. While they were talking and praying with a counselor, the two sons sidled up to their mother to tell her they had just prayed with a different counselor nearby to receive Christ."
He noted that another younger woman named Ky had made a commitment to Christ several years ago, but knew she wasn’t living as a child of God should. "'Have you been wasting your life?'" she heard me ask. 'Is your spirit empty?'", Graham stressed.
"God used those two questions to pierce her heart. She realized immediately that she needed to repent and make a U-turn in her life, receive God’s forgiveness, and begin to live like one of His children. “I don’t want to be a child who lays on the floor, sleeps, and is lazy,” she told a counselor. “I want to be a child who serves.”
Ahead of the weekend festival, at least 1,900 active believers from across northern Vietnam had reportedly completed training and signed up to serve as prayer counselors, an unexpectedly large number.
"It proved to be God’s provision for what He was about to do," Graham said.