From 23-24 July 2012 IGE Vietnam Program Officer Hien Vu observed two days of Religious Freedom training in Vietnam’s most southern province, Ca Mau. The training raised awareness among Protestant church leaders regarding the government’s two main policies on religion: 1) The National Assembly’s Decree 22/2005 on guidance to implement Ordinance 21/2004 regarding religion and belief; and, 2) the Prime Minister’s Decree 01/2005 on tasks regarding Protestantism. At the training, the Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA) staff briefed church leaders on the growth and demographics of Protestantism throughout the country. Additionally, CRA emphasized the rights and responsibilities of both Protestant groups and local authorities to ensure the freedom of assembly for churches before and after church registration.

More than 210 church leaders including pastors and church deacons from six provinces in the Southwest region of Vietnam participated in the training. Participants came from the  An Giang, Bac Lieu, Ca Mau, Kien Giang, Soc Trang, and Tra Vinh provinces. Church leaders told IGE staff that they have gradually had more freedom to practice their faith over the last eight years. However, there are a few districts and villages where house churches still face difficulties because local authorities have limited knowledge or little enthusiasm to implement the central government’s religious freedom policies. Also, these challenging districts and villages have not established positive attitudes or appropriate methodology for constructive dialogue between church leaders and local authorities.

During the training, church leaders and CRA staff addressed mutual concerns about  the need to conduct more religious freedom training for local authorities; delayed church registration process; interruption of Sunday services by local authorities; religious land issues; regulations on Protestants’ applications to join the Communist party; and, controversy over Protestant faith and Vietnamese traditional rituals and culture.

Church leaders and CRA staff expressed their appreciation of one another’s on-going efforts to enhance proper implementation of the central government’s religious freedom policy and to build relationships and trust between the government and people of faith. However, both groups agreed that there is still a great need to increase dialogue between government and church leaders at the provincial and district levels.

IGE and CRA have been collaborating on a series of the Vietnamese government’s religious freedom training program at provincial and district levels since 2010. IGE and CRA are currently working on a schedule to co-conduct trainings at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 to address the training needs in the Northwest Highland provinces.