In 2004, nearly thirty years after the last U.S. helicopters flew out of Saigon, Vietnam was one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. Although the government had left behind Marxist economics, it followed the logic of communism in regarding religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as a danger to society. Since taking power at the end of the Vietnam War, it had sought to eradicate Christianity, practiced among 10% of its population of 93 million, through a combination of forced recantations, imprisonment, torture, church burnings, and labor camps. In the Northwest and Central Highlands regions, religious persecution was a regular event and there were no registered churches. In that year, the U.S. government designated Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern according to provisions of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
Today, the situation has markedly improved. Vietnam is the only country in Southeast Asia where religious discrimination against minorities has decreased from 1990 to 2014, as political scientist Jonathan Fox has documented. By 2016, more than 2800 churches were registered in the Northwest and Central Highlands. In November 2016, the Vietnamese National Assembly passed the country’s first law on religion and belief, whose aim is to protect religious freedom. While the law is flawed in some places and the situation in Vietnam still has much room for improvement, the government has gone from being overtly hostile to religion to viewing the protection of religious freedom as a matter of self-interest. Religious believers enjoy more security in the practice of their faith and safety to participate in public life.
What brought about the change? A large role was played by the Institute for Global Engagement, a Washington-D.C. based NGO whose Board of Directors I joined this past April. Through the careful building of relationships among government officials, church leaders, NGO officials, and scholars, IGE built a network of reformers who advocated for religious freedom in Vietnam. Through training programs and conferences, IGE educated some 4000 socially influential agents of change who went on to influence legislation and administrative policy. IGE advised the government on, and helped to shape tangibly, its religion law of 2016.
“Relational diplomacy” is the way that IGE describes its approach, which it has been developing since its founding in 2000. The concept reflects the Biblical notion of justice as righteousness, a holistic condition of right relationship among the members of a community and God. As it has developed into modern times, this justice includes widely held principles like human rights but embeds them in a wider set of relationships. Eschewing public confrontation and pressure, IGE’s relational diplomacy emphasizes friendship, the building of networks, dialogue and education. It also involves the restoration of relationships in the wake of injustices, or reconciliation. The pursuit of religious freedom, a central goal of IGE, is often combined with humanitarian aid, conflict resolution, and practices like forgiveness that promote healing.
With this approach, IGE has pursued religious freedom and reconciliation in numerous venues and contexts during a period of history in which religion has resurged in its political influence all across the globe. It has sought to assist victims of religious violence in the Middle East, particularly at the hands of ISIS, by providing humanitarian aid to over 125,000 people, enabling refugees of the violence of ISIS to return to their homes, and providing trauma counseling to more than 300 female survivors of the same violence. It has engaged the Chinese government on issues related to Tibetans, Muslims, and rule of law. In light of this government’s crackdown on religion over the past three years, IGE’s work may not seem like great progress, but the foundation it has laid likely will have long-term fruits, especially as Christianity continues to grow like wildfire even in the face of repression. A leadership training program for women of faith around the world; a widely respected journal of faith and international affairs; and initiatives in Laos and Myanmar are among IGE’s manifold initiatives as well.
Though dust jacket quotes are often tempting to discount, this praise from former Congressman Geoff Davis (KY) describes IGE with striking genuineness:
IGE is one of the most effective organizations in the world for opening and maintaining a critical dialogue on some of the most sensitive political and human rights issues in potentially volatile regions . . .. IGE is the one organization I know that is an ambassador of reconciliation, and is often more effective than almost all the government and diplomatic efforts I have seen in my 40 years of military, government, and community service.
IGE is an outfit whose work, we may pray, will prosper well into the future.
A generous body of supporters has pledged to match any gifts given to IGE up until September 15th. If the work of IGE resonates and encourages you, I encourage you to stay involved with the critical work IGE is doing across the globe.
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