Religious Freedom and Security Comes to Vietnam

Religious Freedom and Security Comes to Vietnam
Credit: Religious Freedom and Security Comes to VietnamReligious Freedom and Security Comes to Vietnam

In 2004, the United States State Department designated Vietnam a country of particular concern. This meant that Vietnam exhibited ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom. However, just over a decade later, it is rapidly becoming a model nation in Southeast Asia for dealing with issues of religious freedom and the law.

This is to say that while individual incidents of religious harassment are still reported, they have significantly decreased in frequency. There are other tangible indicators of transformation too. For example, in 2004, no churches were legally recognized by the government, with the safety from persecution this represents. But by 2012, over 95% of churches in large parts of the country were registered. Similarly, in 2004, there were only two recognized Christian denominations. By 2012, that number had risen to ten.

Further still, the government has recently approved the establishment of a Protestant seminary in the North for the first time. The slogan “Seminary is Security” captures the thought behind this development, namely that theologically educated religious leaders are enabled to promote the common good and flourishing of citizens. So what has brought about this remarkable turnaround?

It has been facilitated by the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), a “think-and-do tank” at the forefront of the field of religion and political affairs, funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation. “The truth is that a decade ago when we began our engagement in Vietnam, crucial issues to do with belief and worship could simply not be discussed,” explains Chris Seiple, president of IGE. “By creating a safe space in which to bring various parties together, this success story has begun to emerge.”

Addressing the fear of change is a central concern. IGE deploys a model that creates a safe space within which faith leaders, academics, lawyers, and government officials can openly engage. They do so by discussing how other countries around the world deal with religious freedom and the law. This raises similarities and differences with the situation as they see it in Vietnam. It is that comparative understanding which is key and empowers the participants to consider what might work given the issues they face.

Chris Seiple, President of IGE

IGE’s model supports a network effect too. It invites key individuals to undergo a certificated training program, as opposed to taking part in one-off conferences. This creates an alumni base, now numbering in the hundreds in Vietnam. Informed and equipped individuals are, therefore, on site to advise on national and local difficulties with majority and minority faiths in mind. The network also means that the momentum for change is sustainable.

“I also call it ‘relationship diplomacy,’ which means treating others as your neighbor,” Seiple continues. “With that attitude, changes that seemed impossible happen pretty quickly. Given the history of the country, I am still delighted and surprised when individuals express views that would have landed them in a lot of trouble before, and what shifts the airing of such views nurtures. You might say that respectful talk leads to shared trust, and that in turn leads to the tangible differences we are seeing.”

The trust and respect that the Vietnamese government has for IGE has also been critical. IGE is, in fact, the only American non-government organization (NGO) that the government works with on these issues in the country. Seiple believes their model of working is key because it does not impose an imported secular blueprint or legal construct, but instead equips individuals to create ways of resolving religious tensions from the bottom-up. “People see us not as outsiders with answers, but outsiders who have some comparative lessons that can be used by the Vietnamese,” Seiple adds.

There is also a personal story behind IGE’s work. Seiple’s father fought in the Vietnam War, and afterwards became an active participant in the work of reconciliation. He developed relationships with Vietnamese officials that provided the grounds from which the work of his son, Chris, could grow. “I think of it as the creation of new spiritual capital of the kind that Sir John Templeton delighted in,” he explains.