President Clinton announced the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Vietnam last month, 20 years after Saigon fell to the Communists.

But Vietnam's burgeoning evangelical Christian community is ambivalent about the impact new economic and political ties may have on a church that for decades has suffered isolation, restriction, and persecution.

For some Vietnamese Christians, economic reform-culminating with the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo in February 1994-has already led to new religious tolerance. For others, particularly in the remote tribal highlands where Protestant Christianity is growing rapidly, political changes wrought in Hanoi and Washington have virtually no impact on daily life.

And to the lament of those who pinned high hopes on new economic and political openness, many Protestant house churches outside the auspices of the state-sanctioned Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ecvn) continue to report police harassment, surveillance, and restriction.

Bob Seiple, president of Monrovia, California-based World Vision-the largest relief-and-development organization working in Vietnam-believes the diplomatic recognition may produce a flood of U.S. missionaries. Many Americans have anguished memories of U.S. troops evacuating Saigon by helicopter in 1975. Seiple, who as a marine captain flew 300 combat missions in the Vietnam War, praised Clinton's decision as an opportunity to bring closure to the war. "Our actions 20 years ago said that the war wasn't worth winning, because we left early," Seiple says. "By refusing full reconciliation, we say that the war wasn't worth bringing to an end."

An Asia-based representative of a Western evangelical mission group working in Vietnam, who asked not to be identified, ...

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