HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam Thousands of Vietnamese filled the soccer stadium in their Communist-ruled country, and millions more watched from home, as an Australian evangelical preacher approached the stage to deliver his inspirational, and unprecedented, message.
"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 play, and we are going to race."
Vujicic was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder branded 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.
"We are a unique ministry," Vujicic said backstage Thursday. "We can go on national TV where other Christians cannot. 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."
That single remark about loving God was Vujicic's only direct reference to his Christian faith during a night that was otherwise motivational, but his appearance is a sign to many that the Vietnamese government may be loosening its severe religious restrictions.
Vujicic's tour, which came to be the largest gathering of Vietnamese to be addressed by a foreigner in the country's recent history, marked the first time a foreign Christian had been allowed to speak publicly to Vietnamese citizens, according to "Team Nick," Vujicic's mostly Californian crew.
Nguyen Dat An, one of the trip's organizers, said he was surprised the state broadcaster didn't cut off Vujicic's speech when he brought up God and heaven.
Vujicic's translator appeared to be caught off-guard as well, and stumbled. "Come on man," said the Australian, urging him to translate his somewhat daring words.
"This was a miracle in Vietnam," An said. "God is the general director of this event."
Vietnam is about 8 percent Christian and 16 percent Buddhist, while about 45 percent 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 favor of democracy face abuse, arrest, and long sentences.
"Even though our churches are filled with people, we can't be involved in health care or in education," said Rev. Peter Kham, the Roman Catholic deputy bishop of Ho Chi Minh City.
"Everything belongs to the government. There is a political monopoly. There is still friction, but there have been developments."
Kham welcomed Vijicic's visit, saying he was "personally so happy to see a Christian preaching what he believes."Vijicic founded his California-based ministry, which brought in more than $1.6 million last year, when he was 19. Now 30 and married with one son, he has visited 47 countries as part of his global outreach, has millions of hits on YouTube, and is the author of three bestselling books.