The Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) and a small group of evangelical pastors met with Vietnam’s President Triet last week on his historic U.S. visit, the first by a Vietnamese head of state since 1975. The meeting, unprecedented in Vietnam’s diplomatic history, allowed evangelicals a rare opportunity to speak openly with the President about issues of religious freedom, a hot topic in recent months.

Last November, the U.S. removed Vietnam from its list of Countries of Particular Concern (a blacklist of countries with systematic and egregious religious freedom abuses), citing “significant progress” toward religious freedom. However, Vietnam has since come under attack for its arrest of democracy activists, among them a Catholic priest, Father Ly, and several Christian human rights lawyers. Because of their Christian identity and involvement in religious freedom cases, many believed the arrests to be indicative of a lack of commitment to religious freedom by the Vietnamese government. For example, last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that Vietnam be re-designated as a Country of Particular Concern, noting its “severe crackdown” on activists and “stalled” religious freedom progress.{footnote}See Jared Daugherty’s “Constructive Advocacy” op-ed on this issue.{/footnote}

President Triet opened the meeting with the IGE delegation by raising the issue of the arrested activists, asking: “Do we all agree that people must obey the laws of the country?” He argued that the activists had disobeyed Vietnamese law and their arrests were therefore appropriate. (Article 88{footnote}”The National Legal Database”. Article 88 states: “1.Those who commit one of the following acts against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam shall be sentenced to between three and twelve years of imprisonment: a) Propagating against, distorting and/or defaming the people’s administration; b) Propagating psychological warfare and spreading fabricated news in order to foment confusion among people; c) Making, storing and/or circulating documents and/or cultural products with contents against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. 2. In the case of committing less serious crimes, the offenders shall be sentenced to between ten and twenty years of imprisonment.”{/footnote} of Vietnam’s penal code prohibits many acts of opposition to the state.) He expressed his desire for open dialogue with Americans in order to change the perception of Vietnam.

Pastor Bob Roberts said, “I am doing everything I can to change perceptions of Vietnam in my congregation. It is not always easy to be an advocate for Vietnam; many are concerned by what has happened to Father Ly.” All of the pastors emphasized their ongoing prayers for Vietnam, and their support for the Vietnamese government’s continued progress in religious freedom amidst the recent arrests.

IGE President Chris Seiple affirmed the President’s leadership in Vietnam’s recent progress toward greater religious freedom. He noted IGE’s desire to assist Vietnam in continuing this progress in three key areas: acceleration of church registrations; provincial-level training of government and religious leaders in Vietnam’s new religion ordinances; and theological training for Vietnamese pastors (which helps prevent the development of anti-state ideologies within Christian churches).

President Triet concluded the meeting by conveying his gratitude for the delegation’s expressions of respect and love for the Vietnamese people and government. He promised to note and respond to the issues raised, and to remember the message of hospitality that the delegation had communicated.

The delegation included: Phuc Dang, Pastor of Vietnamese Baptist Church (TX); Jared Daugherty, East Asia Program Officer at IGE; John Jenkins, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Glenarden (MD); Rick McKinley, Pastor of Imago Dei Community (OR); Frank Page, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors (SC) and President of the Southern Baptist Convention; Bob Roberts, Pastor of NorthWood Church (TX); Amy Rowe, Director of Country Programs at IGE; Chris Seiple, President of IGE; and Brian Tome, Pastor of Crossroads Community Church (OH).