According to its Memorandum of Understanding with the Vietnamese government to promote greater religious freedom, the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) met with Prime Minister (PM) Dung last night immediately after his arrival in the United States (his first visit to Washington as PM). IGE’s meeting with Prime Minister Dung follows a June 2007 meeting in Washington and a November 2007 meeting in Hanoi with Vietnam’s President Triet. Prime Minister Dung will meet with President Bush today to discuss and deepen the bilateral relationship.

The PM was accompanied by Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem, Minister and Head of the Government Office Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Minister of Planning and Investment Vo Hong Phuc, Minister of Industry and Trade Vu Huy Hoang, and other officials.

The IGE delegation included IGE’s President, Dr. Chris Seiple, and IGE’s Chairman of the Board, Dr. Bob Roberts (founder and Senior Pastor of NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas); Dennis Jeffares, the International Director for Glocal Ventures (Northwood Church’s development NGO); Dr. Barrett Duke, Vice President for Public Policy and Research and Director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Research Institute of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Dr.Thomas F. Farr, the former first director of the State Department’s office of international religious freedom; James Standish, the Director of Legislative Affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s world headquarters; Alan Gallina, a Human Rights Specialist with the Office of General Counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jared Daugherty, IGE’s Program Officer for East Asia; Dr. David Rambo of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (former president of Canadian Bible College and Theological College, now Ambrose University College); and Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C.

Dr. Seiple opened the meeting by expressing the delegation’s condolences regarding the death of former Prime Minister Kiet, who did so much to open Vietnam’s economy. He also expressed the delegation’s affirmation of the PM’s leadership, especially concerning the progress and direction of religious freedom in Vietnam. Seiple noted, however, that there are ongoing issues and thanked the Prime Minister in advance for his continued attention to them. These issues include: the need for a more comprehensive and transparent rule of law at the local level such that churches can register more quickly and with less bureaucracy; the need to prosecute and punish violators of religious freedom; and an equitable solution to the property disputes between the government and the Protestant and Catholic churches in Vietnam. Seiple also thanked the PM for his government’s willingness to engage IGE in a dialogue about the education and training of government and religious officials at the local level.

Dr. Bob Roberts’ spoke of his church’s deep love and appreciation for Vietnam—from hundreds of visits to Vietnam by his congregation to hosting Vietnamese students in their homes—and invited the PM to speak at his church’s new worship center (where the foyer surrounding the sanctuary is modeled after a street in Hanoi, featuring the best paintings from Vietnamese artists). Dennis Jeffares described how Glocal Ventures, as a church-based development NGO, works in support of Vietnam’s five year socio-economic plan by serving the ethnic minority groups of the highlands.

Cardinal McCarrick and Dr. Farr emphasized the relationship between religious and economic freedom—making reference to the latest scholarship—and Cardinal McCarrick raised the issue of specific properties in Vietnam that previously belonged to the Catholic Church. Alan Gallina thanked the PM for the government’s invitation to the Jehovah’s Witnesses to register, and James Standish expressed his gratitude for the recent registration of the Seventh Day Adventists (Christmas 2006). Dr. Barrett Duke noted the relationship between religious freedom and free speech, asking for the release of two dissidents, as well as the opportunity to bring a Southern Baptist delegation to Vietnam. Dr. Rambo, on behalf of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), stated what a joy it has been for CMA to serve the Vietnamese people since introducing Protestantism to Vietnam in 1911. All participants emphasized their appreciation for the PM’s time and the work he and his government have done thus far for religious freedom in Vietnam.

Prime Minister Dung thanked everyone for their kind and candid words. He asked Dr. Farr for the citations regarding the link between religious freedom and socio-economic development. (Please see Dr. Brian J. Grim’s article in the current edition of The Review of Faith & International Affairs entitled “Religious Freedom: Good for What Ails Us?”.) He acknowledged that the property issue was a difficult one, especially when there had been multiple owners of the land in the past and/or when French or American officials had given the land away—prior to the unification of the country in 1975—without the permission of the Vietnamese. The solution that the government is pursuing is to offer a different space for people to practice their faith. The PM was also careful to state that there are no people in jail for their religious belief, only for their violation of Vietnamese law. The PM also encouraged Dr. Duke to bring a delegation to Vietnam.

Dr. Seiple thanked the PM again for his time, and concluded by paraphrasing a 1949 quote from Ho Chi Minh, which had taught him that “we all had much to learn from each other as long as there is candid and mutual respect—the very essence of religious freedom.”

“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.”— Ho Chi Minh, 1949

Later this week, IGE will also host a meeting of business leaders with the Prime Minister in Texas. For more information on IGE’s work in Vietnam, please see the May 2007 cover story of Christianity Today, or call IGE at 703.527.3100.