12 December, 2017
More than 10,000 people filled a sports center in Hanoi last week to listen to American religious leader Franklin Graham.
The clergyman told the crowd he wants Vietnam's communist government to consider Christians its best citizens.
Vietnam is one of the fastest growing countries in Southeast Asia. The government has made a number of economic reforms over the past 30 years.
But the Communist Party still controls all parts of society, from media to religion. Human Rights Watch says more than 100 Vietnamese are in prison for taking part in peaceful religious and political activities.
Graham told the Associated Press that the event last Friday was one of the biggest ever held in Vietnam. He said the government did not set conditions on the prayer service. He added that Vietnamese officials did not give final permission until early this month.
"This is unprecedented, really for us and for the government," the clergyman said. "We don't want to do anything that would embarrass the government or the people of Vietnam. Again we're guests. The government has not told me what to say or not say. I'm going to talk about God -- we are not here to talk about politics."
Graham said he hoped the event will cause the government to see Christianity in a different way.
"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 said. "I hope it would be good for the churches and I hope this meeting would be good for the government and they will see us in a different light."
Graham leads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which was formed by his father. Like his father, he is one of the best-known religious leaders in the United States.
Franklin Graham says religious freedom has slowly improved in Vietnam.
"The fact that we are here today...shows you how much the government has changed in the last 20 years," he said.
In its latest report on religious freedom, the U.S. State Department says Vietnam limits activities of unrecognized religious groups -- especially those believed to be involved in political activity. The report said some religious leaders reported different forms of harassment, including physical assault, short-term detention, legal action, restrictions on travel and property seizure or destruction.
Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic clergyman, founded the pro-democracy group Bloc 8406. He was released last year after eight years in prison on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda.
There are about 6.5 million Catholics and more than one million Protestants among Vietnam's 95 million people. Most Vietnamese are Buddhists.
I'm Jonathan Evans.
Associated Press Correspondent Yves Dam Van reported this story from Hanoi. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section, or visit our 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
unprecedented – adj. not done or experienced before
embarrass – v. to make (someone) feel confused and foolish in front of other people
guest – n. a person who is invited to a place or an event as a special honor
church – n. a building that is used for Christian religious services
different light – expression to understand someone or something in a different way than before
harassment – n. the act of annoying or bothering (someone) in a constant or repeated way
assault – n. the crime of trying or threatening to hurt someone physically