Due to limited road access, many participants living in high mountainous areas spent 2-4 days traveling, using all transportation means possible—by foot, motorbike, taxi, and/or bus—to attend the seminars. Mr. Sung Chu Khu, Head of the Veteran Association of Ta Tong commune, MuongTe district, Lai Chau province, who traveled 2 days each way (300 kilometers=186 miles) between his home and the training location, said, “this is my first time attending this kind of training. I understand more about Protestant faith and policies at this training. Participating at the training helps me much with my work on religion-related issues with people in my commune.” Protestants are present in eight of the ten villages in his district, and make up to more than 50% of total population in his commune.

The training seminars also deepened the developing relationship between the local government and Protestant groups in Lai Chau and Dien Bien; enhanced their understanding regarding each other’s responsibilities and rights toward enabling faster legal registration for house churches; promoted government-house church collaboration; and, increased house church registration. Lai Chau and Dien Bien have the largest population of Protestants out of the six provinces in the Northwest Highlands. According to CRA’s latest statistics, there are about 33,000 Protestants forming 181 house churches, of which 13 are legally registered in Lai Chau. In Dien Bie, there are 36,000 Protestants forming an estimated 267 house churches, of which 3 are legally registered. Lai Chau provincial authorities plan to register 15 more house churches before the end of the year and Dien Bien provincial authorities plan to register 5 more house churches before the end of year.

Additionally, the seminars provided a unique opportunity for participants to candidly discuss how to deal with cultural and spiritual differences between Protestants and non-Protestants within a family as well as a community. The participants discussed equal opportunity access to government jobs and Communist party membership; Protestant’s request to construct common meeting places; and, issues regarding religion, public security, and national defense. Without these seminars, there would not be a space for such dialogue to take place at the commune or district level.

During a training session, Dr. Nguyen ThanhXuan, CRA Vice Chairman and one of the key speakers, said: “All Vietnamese citizens have the right of religious freedom. Government officials have to make sure these rights are respected and protected. Government officials are not to grant privilege of these rights to people in their communities but help people of faith to recognize and exercise their rights responsibly.” He also emphasized that government officials are supposed to respect the independence of religious group’s operation including close relationships between people of faith and their leaders.

With support from the government’s provincial leaders, IGE and CRA conducted similar training for local officials and church leaders in 2010 and 2011. IGE and CRA are planning more training seminars in 2013.

Provincial media reported on both of the religious freedom training seminars. Footage from the Lai Chau seminar is available to watch here and footage from the religious freedom seminar in Dien Bien is available to watch here.