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Vietnam Wrestles With Christianity By Seb Rumsby

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Why hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hmong have converted to Christianity in Vietnam over the past 30 years. 

Upland Vietnam has witnessed a remarkable religious transformation within one marginalized ethnic minority in the past three decades. Since the 1980s, where Protestant Christianity was virtually unheard of in Vietnam’s northern highlands, an estimated 300,000 out of the 1 million ethnic Hmong in Vietnam are now Christians. Over time, the social, economic, and political impacts of religious change – from persecution and migration to lifestyle changes and new gender relations – are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Today there are roughly 4 million Hmong speakers spread across the borderlands of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, plus significant diasporas in the United States and Australia. Their shared ethnic identity is built around speaking mutually intelligible languages and sharing the same clan surnames.

Somewhat akin to the Kurds of the Middle East, the Hmong are split into significant but marginalized national minorities. During the Cold War, the Hmong found themselves on both sides of the conflict between communist and American forces, with the infamous anti-communist general Vang Pao being funded by the CIA in Laos.

Surprisingly, no foreign missionaries were physically present in Vietnam’s highlands when Christianity started to spread in the late 1980s. Instead, villagers stumbled across a Hmong-language evangelistic radio program broadcast from Manila. Thrilled by hearing their own language on air, Hmong listeners told neighbors and relatives to tune in as the message spread like wildfire.

Vietnamese authorities reacted to Hmong Christian growth by denying its existence, publishing anti-Christian propaganda, and restricting religious freedom. With its history of struggle against Western imperialism, the government accused “hostile external forces” of promoting Christianity to undermine the people’s faith in Communism and trigger social unrest along the strategically important Sino-Vietnamese borderlands.

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