US evangelist preacher Franklin Graham speaks during a Christian evangelist rally attended by local Christians inside the Quan Ngua Sports Stadium in Hanoi on Dec. 9, 2017. (Hoang Dinh Nam/ AFP)
More than 10,000 Vietnamese filled a stadium in Hanoi last week for a rare Christian evangelistic event allowed by the Communist government which strictly controls religions.
U.S. evangelist preacher Reverend Franklin Graham said the government only gave permission for the event in the week leading up to the prayer rally and added it took a year to organize.
He told the Associated Press the Vietnamese government did not attach any conditions to the rally at the Quan Ngua Sports Stadium.
"This is unprecedented really for us and for the government," Graham 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 is president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and one of the most prominent American preachers.
He said that religious freedom has gradually improved in Vietnam.
"The fact that we are here today and that I'm going to be preaching Friday and Saturday in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, that is huge," he said. "It shows you how much the government has changed in the last 20 years."
Some who attended Friday's prayer rally were impressed.
"It's very impressive," said Nguyen Thi Lan, who watched the event on a large screen set up outside the Quan Ngua Sports Stadium. "I hope through this event, more people would come to know Jesus and believe in God."
Despite Graham’s claim, Human Rights Watch says more than 100 Vietnamese are in prison for peaceful religious and political activities.
The Communist government routinely limit activities of unrecognized and unregistered religious groups, particularly if they are perceived to be engaged in political activities.
Leaders of mainstream religions, including Catholics, have also been subject to harassment, assault, detention, monitoring and restriction on their movement.
On Dec. 5 Father John Luu Ngoc Quynh from the Redemptorist Community in Hanoi was stopped by security officials at Noi Bai.
He had was invited to attend the vow-taking ceremony of a Vietnamese alumni on Dec. 8 in France, but security officers told Father Quynh that he "was banned from traveling abroad for the protection of national security, social order and safety."
Last June the government banned another Redemptorist, Father John Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong, from traveling to Australia on a study trip.
On Sept. 4 a communist mob of armed with pistols, batons, and pepper spray descended on a Catholic church in southeast Vietnam’s Dong Nai province to confront the local priest after he called for political reform in the one-party country.