I was completely frustrated. Our SUVs were sunk in mud. And while still morning, I felt the December daylight already racing away. It seemed we would never reach our intended village in northwest Vietnam, nestled between Laos and China.
It was my second trip in 2010 to Dien Bien province, home to the famous Vietnamese military victory over French colonial forces in 1954. The government was always happy to facilitate tours of the Dien Bien Phu battlefield.
But I wasn’t there to see the battlefield. I was there to understand why the local government was not allowing churches to register.
There I was, literally stuck, prevented from reaching Muong Thin, a White Hmong village that—if it existed—allegedly contained one of the only three registered house churches in the entire province. “I’ve traveled 10,000 miles to be stuck on a road to nowhere,” I thought. “Am I getting played by the local officials?”
Working on religious freedom is like that road to Muong Thin. You are never quite sure if the road works, or where it leads, or who the partners may (not) be. All you know is that you have to keep showing up, believing that God has gone before you, trusting the relationships—no matter how unlikely—that he has revealed.
Since the US Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, many ambassadorial positions, along with several inter-governmental and non-governmental entities, have been established across the world, often working together [see footnote at bottom].
Yet, despite the institutionalization of positions and alliances over the past 23 years, the world has never seen greater violations of international religious freedom (IRF). Governmental restrictions on religion have never been higher worldwide, while social hostilities have also soared.
In short, those who care about religious freedom have never been more organized to such little effect.
Just check the latest Open Doors report, released last week, on the top 50 countries that harass and persecute Christians for their belief. While Open Doors only tracks persecution against Christians, the Pew Research Center has chronicled how religious freedom has worsened over the past decade for Christians (harassed in 145 countries as of 2018), Muslims (in 139 countries), Jews (in 88 countries), and those of other faiths or no faith.
At the start of a new year, in the wake of National Religious Freedom Day (January 16) and as the Biden administration takes the IRF torch from the Trump administration, it is good to reflect on what has worked and what has not worked in our collective efforts to protect and promote religious freedom.
A point of reference in this needed discussion is the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE). This NGO was founded in 2000 by my parents to steward their global relationships after their experiences at Eastern University, World Vision, and the State Department where my dad served as the first US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom (1998–2000). I joined IGE in January of 2001 to “operationalize the answer” to their big question: Instead of reacting tactically, fighting to get people out of jail for their faith—a noble cause, to be sure—could a proactive strategy be developed that helped “transform the structures of persecution” within a country, such that people didn’t go to jail for their beliefs in the first place? And could a relational diplomacy discern leverage points of self-interest that resulted in “win-win” situations for all parties?
By 2012, I was able to articulate a theory of change from my own Christian perspective about how best to operationalize the building of religious freedom within a country, instead of advocating for it from outside a country. In 2014, I refined and discussed this theory from a secular perspective. More recently, I’ve had the privilege of working on an even broader framework: a covenantal pluralism where each and all have the obligation to engage, respect, and protect those different from themselves as a function of their inherent, God-given dignity and their God-given liberty of conscience.
But I’ve never taken the time to succinctly state some of the best practices of engagement that guide day-to-day operations. Here are 10 best practices that help me engage complicated places, based on IGE’s experiences in Vietnam:
1. Articulate the principles of engagement that form and inform your best practices.
In April of 2001, we wrote up IGE’s Principles of Engagement on one piece of paper. It is a natural thing, I suppose, to want to “change the world.” But these principles suggest something different: We followers of Christ engage the world not to change it, but because we are changed.
What changed most in me these past 20 years is that I now understand that we glorify God when we care about the liberty of conscience of everyone (not just our fellow believers). I believe that liberty of conscience is the greatest gift from a gift-giving God. Without the freedom to think, there is no freedom to accept grace.
What are your principles of engagement that encourage you to seek his face, so that you can know yourself, and therefore be positioned to know his world? What is your theology of engagement? Such questions must be constantly asked, as the only thing more dangerous than thinking without doing is doing without thinking.
2. Hire people, not positions.
This work requires team players who can think holistically, and historically. You need people who look for the whole, past and present, not accepting any simple explanatory framework. You need people who know how to Listen, Observe, Verify, and Engage. You need people who are humble and honest, empathetic and elicitive, patient and persevering. You need people familiar with suffering, which should be discussed during the interview process. And you need people who have and/or seek the skills of engagement: evaluation, negotiation, and communication. You must be intentional about educating (how to think) and training (what to do), as a part of your mutual and ongoing discipleship within your organization.
3. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No” be no (Matthew 5:37).
We Christians believe that God knows and sees everything, but we don’t always act that way. In an authoritarian context, the government sees everything but does not know everything. What you say in the official meeting must be consistent with what you say in the van ride, what you say at dinner, and what you say at the hotel.
A Vietnamese official once said to me: “Thank you for telling the truth … we know who you are.” There will always be those who do not want you to succeed. Don’t give them leverage by violating your integrity.
4. Harness self-interest.
Usually, it is the tactical transaction that eventually leads to tangible transformation. Make the case that allowing citizens to believe as they wish is good for the country’s stability, economic development, women’s empowerment, and better regional and global relations (not least with the United States).
I quickly learned to argue that “seminary is security”—that the more theologically trained pastors, imams, and monks there were, the more likely their congregations were to live out the best of their faith, and thus the more likely they were to be loyal citizens. After many years of making this case to the Vietnamese government, a Protestant seminary was established in 2013 in North Vietnam—the first of its kind.
5. Act at the invitation of government officials (who, by the way, are also made in the image of God).
Doug Johnston, president emeritus of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (which he founded in 2000), once told me: “There are always good people in bad places.” If you expect a boogeyman behind every conversation, you will find one. And to be sure, there is a spiritual oppression in certain places. But most government officials care about their people. Many officials do not have other opportunities for a livelihood. Almost none can emigrate to another place. And all government officials don’t want to be embarrassed or have attention drawn to their challenges or mistakes.
Some things have to be said in public; others at dinner. Work with them, recognizing that religious freedom might be your top issue, but it is almost always No. 11 on their daily Top 10 list. The right government partner can ensure geographic access while providing political cover.
IGE’s work in Vietnam began because, after spending a day with us in May 2004, a senior Vietnamese official said: “You are the first Americans not to give us a list and tell us what to do.” We were welcomed through open doors after that.
6. Allow relationships to reveal strategy.
There are many that you are supposed to meet in a country, but few that you were meant to meet. Listen to everyone, but make time to spend time with those that “have something about them.” Don’t worry about the schedule (especially on the first trips). Let the activities give you the excuse to build relationships.
And don’t be afraid to go sightseeing. I was usually against this idea in my younger years, because I was there to “get something done.” But sightseeing is an opportunity for your hosts to express pride in their country. And it’s an opportunity to understand how they understand their history. Such excursions and meals—and above all, riding in a van or SUV together—reveal all kinds of conversations that would not develop at the proverbial “strategy session” with local partners.
The result is that you are prepared to propose a strategy that is consistent with its environment, because it has been developed together. Relational diplomacy takes time; and your team, board, and donors must be educated to understand and support this patience.
7. Work top-down (with government officials) and bottom-up (with grassroots organizations).
In my experience, religious freedom work usually starts with the former, because the whole reason for your presence is to better understand why there are problems (even as government officials assure you otherwise). As sufficient trust emerges, push the envelope. Expand the location of your activities, as well as the invitation list: first go with the religious leaders that the government suggests; then suggest some of your own registered religious leaders; then move to unregistered religious leaders. And then go see those religious leaders in their local context.
Your visits may not (immediately) change policy or practice, but you do make hope tangible by spending time with the religious community—even as you signal to the government that you now know these people and that you will be checking on them. And please, seek to discern the individual and institutional power dynamics at play as you engage, as they are almost always a function of the relationship between the ethno-religious majority and the ethno-religious minorities, shading everything from access to education to economic development to religious freedom.
Working with government officials also includes your own government. It is vital to understand the ebb and flow of the bilateral relationship between your government and theirs, to include the points of self-interest. Relationships in the various elements of your government, not least its political parties, are critical. Sometimes I call this holistic effort, at home and abroad, “Track 1.5 Diplomacy.” If Track 1 is government-to-government relations, and Track 2 is people-to-people encounters, sustainable solutions take place at their intersection.
8. Find the story.
Every culture has a mechanism for respect, for welcoming the stranger. Every country has a potential future rooted in the best of its past. I’ve always told my hosts: “I’m not here to name, blame, and shame you, although I will speak truth to you behind closed doors—because that’s what friends do. But I do want to come alongside the best of who you already are. I want to be your ambassador to the rest of the world, telling your story to others who otherwise wouldn’t hear it, let alone listen.”
I remember being in a Hanoi museum on one of my first visits. I found this 1949 quote on the wall from Ho Chi Minh, who is revered across all sectors of society as the founder of modern-day Vietnam:
“The teaching of Confucius has a strong point; i.e., self-improvement of personal virtue. Jesus’ Bible has a strong point; i.e., noble altruism. Marxism has a strong point; i.e., a dialectical working method. Ton Dat Tun’s doctrine has a strong point; i.e., their policies are suited to conditions in our country. Does Confucianism, Jesus, Marx and Ton Dat Tun share common points? Yes. They all pursued a way to bring happiness to human beings and benefit to society. If they were still alive today, and if they were grouped together, I believe they would live in harmony, like close friends. I try to become their pupil.”
I used this quote time and again, all over Vietnam, saying that we wanted to help create the table where all beliefs and none had a seat, so that all citizens could become pupils in order to make Vietnam better, together.
9. Develop a practical and non-threatening way forward—with and through local partners—for the short and long term.
Design agreements (with public signings) for which the government can take credit. These agreements, however, must provide practical short steps that build on each other. The agreement is not binding, legally, but it is binding publicly, as such agreements are never about the law but about the public perception of what is (not) being done in a country.
That said, the transparent rule of law equally applied to all citizens is the long-term goal. It is often difficult to implement because there is little prior understanding of, let alone training for, the rule of law. The solution is to create non-threatening spaces—as part of the signed agreements—that present academic and comparative contexts from around the world, equipping government and religious leaders to make their own decisions based on these global case studies.
From the beginning, IGE partnered with The International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS) at Brigham Young University, the flagship school of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Also founded in 2000, by Cole Durham, ICLRS and IGE have worked together in Vietnam, Laos, China, Myanmar, and Uzbekistan. While we have different theological views, it was and remains true that IGE wanted to work with the best. And why is ICLRS the best? Because they remember their faith’s own persecution in the US. They know what it is like to be a minority, and their members go to the best law schools to protect and preserve their freedom to believe as a function of everyone’s freedom of conscience or belief.
When Vietnam developed a draft law on religion, its drafters came to IGE and ICLRS, which provided a 51-page critique of the law (which we spent three hours discussing at the Vietnamese National Assembly). This partnership continues to walk with Vietnam, providing the best and ongoing advice, as friends should.
And while these academic conferences are non-threatening, providing different perspectives on how the rule of law might evolve in a particular country over the long-term, their most important function in the near-term is to allow people to meet who otherwise would not. Conferences are excuses for coffee breaks. And coffee breaks are where a religious minority leader from the provinces can meet a national leader from the capital. A relationship is begun. Stereotypes begin to soften. Honest conversations about community, citizenship, and constitution take root.
10. Always remember: The method is the message, the process is the product.
Everything you do—from planning to programs—must speak to and model the ends you seek. Your words and actions testify to Christ as you help local partners build an inclusive table, where everybody gets a seat, with the freedom to not only express, share, and/or change beliefs, but to bring those beliefs to the public square. This kind of consistent integrity—sometimes, unknowingly—builds trust, enabling the path forward.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to testify before the US Senate Finance Committee. Because I had been to Vietnam three times in the previous 18 months (including trips to the Central Highlands, where there had been problems), I was able to name the challenges as well as the positive trends that were emerging. I recommended that Vietnam be removed from the State Department’s religious freedom violations list, that the US establish permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam, and that the US support Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization. And, wouldn’t you know it, those things actually happened, in that order!
Almost 10 years later, I was at an event in Hanoi with Vietnamese officials, discussing how far the partnership between IGE and Vietnam had come. One of the officials pulled me aside and said something I will never forget: “Do you remember when you gave that Senate testimony? All of us were watching here in Hanoi. You did not shy away from our challenges but you also gave us credit for what we were doing. You were honest. I think that is why IGE has been successful. We trust you.”
In other words, while what you do is important, how you do it is vital. At the end of the day, trust is the only commodity you trade in when it comes to working cross-culturally in contexts that you will never fully understand.
We eventually made it to Muong Thin village. There we met Pastor Tu of the White Hmong people. He shared with us what it was like to pastor a 148-person church in the Northwest Highlands of Vietnam. We prayed and sang. His church sang “Silent Night” for us—truly a joyful noise!
While IGE serves all faiths and none—as a function of our belief—it was a wonderful way, as Christians during that 2010 Advent season, to close out what became one of the most significant trips I ever took.
In my frustration about trying to find the village that morning, I had forgotten that earlier that week, IGE and its partners had completed the first-ever meeting between Protestant church leaders from across Vietnam and government officials and scholars in Hanoi. This meeting led to another roundtable in 2011 with 18 church leaders, and a third in 2012 with 23 church leaders. These roundtables set a vital precedent, as they began to mainstream—to the government and to the general population—the idea that Vietnamese Christians were good citizens and loved their country as much as anyone else. This momentum contributed to the establishment in 2013 of the first Protestant seminary in North Vietnam (as noted above).
My faithless pessimism that morning on the way to Muong Thin also did not know that we would be given the privilege of speaking into Vietnamese society. Vietnam’s national news agency, VTV4, would do a three-minute report on our delegation’s visit. Also, “Talk Vietnam” would eventually air a 45-minute interview, which is still available (part 1 and part 2).
We were told that December in 2010—as Vietnam’s central government tried to register more churches—that the local government had registered only three churches in Dien Bien. Today, the province has 115 registered churches—transparently living out their faith, serving their communities and country. Perhaps some of the above “best practices” contributed to this steady progress.
I end with the conclusion from my Dien Bien trip report to the IGE board: “In all of this, there is the healthy reminder that as Christians who worship a sovereign God, we are liberated from definitions of success. In fact, we at IGE have foremost learned that working overseas is merely the opportunity to be faithful, showing up and shutting up, seeking to come alongside what God is already doing through those whom He has appointed and/or anointed for this time.”
Chris Seiple, PhD, is president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, which played a significant role in helping to remove Vietnam (2007) and Uzbekistan (2019) from the US State Department’s religious freedom violations list. He is a senior fellow at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies, and is co-editor, with Dennis Hoover, of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook on Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement.