The Institute for Global Engagement hosted a high-level Vietnamese delegation in Washington, D.C., from 24 February to 4 March 2006. The visit’s purpose was to strengthen U.S.-Vietnam relations by facilitating off-the record meetings about religion and the rule of law.

In July of 2005, the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) and the Vietnamese-USA Society (VUS) agreed to establish an initial framework for improving U.S.-Vietnam relations. This framework included three practical, and confidence-building, steps for 2006: 1) a Vietnamese delegation’s visit to the U.S. (February); 2) a U.S. delegation’s visit to Hanoi (June); and 3) the first-ever conference on religion and rule of law in Southeast Asia, held in Hanoi (September).

This February visit was unique on several counts. It was the first time the two countries held an informal dialogue, which was not organized by the government, on such a sensitive issue as religious freedom. It was also the first time that Vietnamese religious representatives in an international delegation were not chosen by the government. Moreover, the two pastors that IGE selected traveled separately from the delegation, another first. Seemingly small, these arrangements send a strong signal that Vietnam is serious about discussing the issue of religious freedom.

During the week, the delegation met with various U.S. representatives to discuss holistic approaches to religious freedom in Vietnam. These meetings included the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and State Department, Capitol Hill, and interested NGOs, among others.

In addition, on 28 February the delegation participated in an off-the-record conference of experts that IGE cosponsored with Georgetown University and The George Washington University. This forum provided an opportunity for American and Vietnamese officials and practitioners to meet and discuss many issues related to religious freedom, including ones related to the U.S.’s current designation of Vietnam as a “country of particular concern.”

During the delegation’s visit, several themes became clear, providing a practical reference point for the implementation of the IGE-VUS agreement:

    Vietnam and the U.S. are both multi-religious societies in which the peoples of Vietnam and America have great respect for religion.

    In both societies, the government seeks to interact with religion as a partner, recognizing the positive and practical role it can play when various faith groups have the opportunity to exercise their freedom responsibly.

    All participants acknowledged the great progress that has been made in Vietnam, especially since the publishing by the government of more transparent religious freedom ordinances and guidelines in June 2004.

    All participants also acknowledged that certain problems remain in Vietnam at the local level where it has been difficult sometimes to implement the ordinances on religious freedom.

    In building relationships across social and national boundaries, mere “tolerance” is not enough as a guiding principle; there needs to be a comprehensive understanding of historical, cultural, economic, social, security, etc., factors, conducive to a healthy and informed “respect” that enables and sustains cooperation.

The delegation and IGE—as well as conference and meeting participants from throughout the week—were greatly encouraged by this visit. A small but strategic step, this visit signals a sustained commitment to this practical dialogue from both parties, strengthening the U.S.-Vietnam relationship as a result. IGE and VUS are excited to implement the remaining confidence-building steps of their July 2005 agreement and ask for your prayers and support in doing so.