Limbless preacher tests Vietnam's religious freedoms
Nick Vujicic, born without limbs, addresses thousands in televised appearance billed as 'motivational' event to avoid official obstruction
The 25,000 people at the soccer stadium and the millions more watching at home waited 90 minutes before the Australian evangelical preacher got to the message he had come to Communist-ruled Vietnam to deliver.
"Do you know why I love God," Nick Vujicic asked a young girl on stage who, like him, was born without arms and legs. "Because heaven is real. And one day when we get to heaven, we are going to have arms and legs. And we are going to run, and we are going to play, and we are going to race."
The remark was Vujicic's only direct reference to his faith in a night that was otherwise motivational. Most people in the audience were not Christians, but were attracted to Vujicic as a living example of overcoming adversity.
Yet Vujicic's appearance is a sign of how a government that once severely restricted religion as a challenge to its authoritarian one-party rule is now taking a slightly more relaxed attitude. Those associated with Vujicic's Vietnam tour said it was the first by a foreign Christian - and the largest gathering to be addressed by a foreigner in the country's recent history.
For Vujicic and the 12 members of "Team Nick", the mostly Californian crew organising his Asian tour, it was another country to add to the long list in which he has spread the Gospel. His charity had revenues of more than US$1.6 million last year, his YouTube videos have been watched millions of times and he has authored three bestselling books.
"We are a unique ministry. We can go on national TV where other Christians cannot," Vujicic said backstage on Thursday. "Of course, in Vietnam there are limitations in how you can and can't talk about your faith, but with wisdom we come in. Some places we go we have to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves."
Nguyen Dat An, a Christian who organised the trip, said he was surprised the state broadcaster did not cut off Vujicic's speech when he brought up God and heaven.
Vujicic's translator appeared to be caught unawares, and stumbled. "Come on man," said the Australian, urging him to translate his words.
"This was a miracle in Vietnam," An said. "God is the general director of this event."
Vietnam is about 8 per cent Christian and 16 per cent Buddhist, while about 45 per cent of Vietnamese belong to indigenous religions, according to the 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Vietnam's constitutions provide for religious freedom, but in practice it is regulated and in some cases restricted. Followers who speak up in favour of democracy face abuse, arrest and long prison sentences.
The US State Department's 2012 report on international religious freedom noted the restrictions but said there "were signs of progress". Vietnam is often compared favorably to neighbouring China in discussions on religious freedom.
Vujicic was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterised by the absence of all four limbs. Amid childhood bullying, he once tried to drown himself.
He credits Christianity with giving him the will to continue, and founded a California-based religious charitable organisation when he was 19. Now 30 and married with one son, he has visited 47 countries as part of his global outreach.
"I just want to see him in real life," said 19-year-old student Tong Thi Nhung, who found out about Vujicic on Facebook. "He is amazing."
Many disabled people attended. Some joined Vujicic on stage and embraced him. His message on the need to help and respect those with disabilities had extra resonance in a country where birth defects linked to Agent Orange defoliant sprayed by the US during the Vietnam war are widespread.
Peter Kham, the Roman Catholic deputy bishop of Ho Chi Minh City, welcomed the trip, saying he was "personally so happy to see a Christian preaching what he believes".
In recent years, Vietnam has generally allowed large congregations to gather, churches and temples to be built and made it easier to register new denominations. But Kham also said the country, which does not celebrate any religious holidays as national holidays and has no televised religious programmes, still has a long way to go.
"Even though our churches are filled with people, we can't be involved in health care or in education. Everything belongs to the government. There is a political monopoly," said Kham. "There is still friction, but there have been developments."
As part of his Asian regional tour, Vujicic arrives in Hong Kong next weekend.