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Building Neighborly L.O.V.E. in Vietnam Through Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy

  • Hien Vu
  • April 27, 2024

Last summer I had the privilege of participating in a unique convening at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan on cross-cultural religious literacy (CCRL). I was encouraged by the opportunity to listen to and learn from great scholars and practitioners about the various ways they live out their call to “love their neighbor” by developing and applying CCRL through practical engagement.

As I was pondering how these concepts of neighborly love and CCRL might help inform the work I do for the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) in Vietnam, I heard a statement from one of the convening participants that struck me hard, which I paraphrase here: “I don’t need ‘love’ from all my neighbors—I just need the neighborhood to be fair!”

The statement brought to mind a conversation I once had with an evangelical pastor in Vietnam about how Protestant churches contribute to drug rehabilitation for the addicted. There are about 60 Protestant drug rehabilitation centers in Vietnam. When I remarked to him that, “It would be great if church-affiliated rehabilitation centers could get some support from the government, as they have many resources and facilities for this work.” The pastor told me, with a concerned face, “Oh, we don’t need any support or resources from the government. All we ask for is justice and freedom to maximize our capacity to help more people out there!”

This is a voice from a religious minority group, longing for fairness and justice and for religious freedom rights to practice their faith and to help their fellow citizens.

It seems fairness and justice can be a “language” of neighborly love.

I’ve learned from more than 15 years of promoting religious freedom in Vietnam that it is not easy for human beings to love others when they have to get out of their comfort zone and when they don’t see any benefits for their own. Trying to be in the other’s shoes to understand and sympathize with them is not that easy, especially for the parties that have more power in relationships.

This is why the concept of CCRL is so promising in the context of building religious freedom, especially in environments scarred by histories of repression or tensions related to religion. For a religious freedom methodology to gain any real traction, it needs to meet people where they are. CCRL promotes precisely this kind of realistic and relational approach to neighborly “love.”

The Fezter Institute convening on CCRL was led by IGE President Emeritus Chris Seiple, who has coined a very useful acronym for neighborly “L.O.V.E” as it relates to basic relational diplomacy: Listen, Observe, Verify, and Engage. This balanced approach is key to why CCRL holds so much potential for a place like Vietnam. I think of CCRL as an educational process in which all parties are learning and doing critical thinking together before making decisions. And it can help to give a chance for voices from minority groups to be heard and respected.

CCRL education can help address the very long-standing negative mindsets and tensions between the government and people of faith in Vietnam. CCRL would deepen government-grassroots engagement by convening these two sectors together to find solutions for legal protection of religious freedom and equal citizenship, which contribute to building social cohesion and holistic development in a free and flourishing Vietnam. Multi-faith engagement will be a part of the process.

More specifically, I would recommend a two-tiered approach to CCRL training & education in Vietnam. Tier 1 is short-term training on CCRL for all parties, especially those involved in policy-making and implementation to address immediate needs. Tier 2 is longer-term education on CCRL for the whole society, especially through K-12 schools and through ongoing dialogue. Training methodology needs to be designed to cultivate neighborly “love”—which is, at a minimum, the capacity to Listen, Observe, Verify, and Engage.


CCRL Tier 1 Training

As a realistic place to start on the Tier 1 model, I would suggest a four-day CCRL certificate training. Convening parties should include officials working on religious affairs from the government and faith leaders from registered and unregistered religious groups.

This training would equip participants with the necessary skills and knowledge about religious rights, but more importantly, create a safe space for frank discussion and honest dialogue about how to increase religious groups’ autonomy. The training needs to address the fears of the government about letting religious groups—new and old, established and not established, registered and unregistered—operate on their own, without the need to constantly seek permission for their religious practices including faith-based charitable work. Participants need as much time as possible to discuss the opportunities and challenges.

Peacebuilding and conflict resolution skills should be taught at this training. Mediation methodologies, integrated with local culture, are highly recommended for this training. Through mediation, government officials and faith leaders should be given equal opportunities to present their perspectives on religious freedom. It would also be very helpful to establish a group of mediators including government officials and faith leaders who can travel to the locations that have religion-based conflicts to help conflicting parties solve their conflicts.

The content of the CCRL training can be built on the programs and partnerships that IGE has established in the country over the past 15 years. The research materials translated from English to Vietnamese and published in Vietnam by IGE and its partners in Vietnam are also great resources for the CCRL training.


CCRL Tier 2 Education

This ideal long-term education would enable Vietnam’s society to gradually absorb the CCRL-based attitude toward religious diversity. This program would require coordinators to be familiar with the nation’s culture, the political system’s philosophy and strategy, and the public education system. This tier would convene government and faith leaders, who would work together to develop and implement curricula and teacher training for K-12 schools about CCRL and religious rights and respect.

This tier would also support broader education through a series of dialogues about religion and society in Vietnam. Such dialogues would afford all parties opportunities, in a safe space, to listen to each other about what it means to them to have genuine legal protection of religious rights. This tier could also support religion-related academic conferences and events by government and/or grassroots.



CCRL education will help Vietnamese leaders to recognize the need to transform from a dogmatically secularist state to a form of governance that is still “secular” but in a much more accommodating and fair way regarding religion. A holistic, multi-level approach to such education will help Vietnam progress toward religious freedom, fairness, and flourishing for all.

Cultivating CCRL within both the governmental and religious sectors will also help create an open environment in which all parties can brainstorm and discern together how to collaborate. Once CCRL education takes place, capacities to work together to promote religious freedom and holistic development for all—with empathy, humility, and a sense of justice—will increase exponentially.

About Hien Vu

Hien Vu serves as the Vietnam Program Manager at IGE, focusing on religious freedom and human rights at the intersection of culture, politics, and religion. Her experience prior to IGE includes working in the Voluntary Repatriation Program at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong. She graduated from Fresno Pacific University with her Master’s degree in Peacemaking and Conflict Studies and Hanoi University with a Bachelor’s degree in English.

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