On July 1st, at the invitation of the Kazakhstan government, IGE Vice President of Global Operations James Chen delivered a presentation to government officials on IGE’s relational diplomacy model, theory of change, and its success in catalyzing freedom of faith in Vietnam. The presentation was part of an online consultation organized by IGE partner Love Your Neighbor Community (LYNC) and the Kazakhstan government on “Developing Covenantal Pluralism in Modern Kazakhstani Society.”
The consultation was attended by key Kazakhstani officials from the Ministry of Information and Social Development (including the Committee on Religious Affairs), Ministry of Justice, and the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington, D.C. Modeled after IGE’s pioneering work in neighboring Uzbekistan, LYNC President Wade Kusack announced that a series of religious freedom roundtables, trainings, and conferences will be held in Kazakhstan starting in the fall.
Other major IGE partners also delivered presentations on their religious freedom work including Multi-Faith Neighbors Network Founder Pastor Bob Roberts, International Religious Freedom Roundtable Chairman Greg Mitchell, International Center for Law and Religion Studies Associate Director Elizabeth Clark, IGE President Emeritus Chris Seiple, and Michigan State University visiting professor and IGE Senior Fellow Martha Olcott.
James’ presentation focused on IGE’s “Theory and Strategy of Change.” He started off with the characteristics of IGE’s approach to its global work:
- Enter through the front door.
- Listen first, and then engage.
- Understand and account for the geopolitical context.
- Come alongside what the government and society are already doing.
- Jointly develop and implement a “4 S” roadmap.
James shared about IGE’s experience in Vietnam as a case study for how IGE works. In the 15 years that IGE has worked in the country, Vietnam has made significant progress in religious freedom. In recognition of this, the U.S. State Department removed Vietnam from its list of the worst violators of religious freedom, one of only two countries to have this distinction (the other is Uzbekistan).
IGE applies a “4 S” framework for catalyzing freedom of faith. The framework consists of four components: space, scholarship, standard, and structure.
- The first S, space, refers to the creation of a politically safe space where government officials, religious leaders, and scholars can freely discuss issues of religion. This space helps dismantle misconceptions and build trust between groups that would normally not interact with each other. As a result, common values and interests begin to emerge.
In Vietnam, IGE established a safe space through organizing numerous academic conferences on “religion and rule of law.” These conferences served as politically acceptable platforms for bringing government officials, faith leaders, and policy advisors together to candidly discuss religion, policy, and law. In the past, there were no venues where these kinds of conversations could take place in Vietnam. Now they are happening regularly!
- The second S, scholarship, refers to how the safe space produces new indigenous scholarship that makes the case for how and why religious freedom is essential in a flourishing and stable society, in the best self-interest of the state, and consistent with the local culture. This scholarship provides policymakers and leaders with tangible research and data to inform and advocate for changes in policies, laws, and popular attitudes.
In Vietnam, IGE and its local partners have published groundbreaking Vietnamese-language scholarship on religious freedom. For example, IGE and Vietnam National University’s Law School have published the first-ever textbook on religious freedom which will be incorporated into graduate-level law school courses.
- The third S, standard, refers to how the safe space and new scholarship enable the development of a standard for training that is both practical and deployable at the local level, which is where most religion-related conflicts occur. These training programs help government and religious leaders to further build trust and change mindsets, which lead to changed behavior. They also serve as de-facto town hall meetings that cultivate good governance locally.
In Vietnam, IGE has held multiple “religion and rule of law” training programs throughout the country, particularly in places that have been hotspots for religious restrictions or persecution. For example, IGE’s trainings have taken place in both the Northwest and Central Highlands involving local religious affairs officials and faith leaders. For many of them, this was the first time they had ever addressed topics related to religious freedom and examined international case studies.
- The fourth S is structure. Once progress has been made with the first three S-components, a network of like-minded influencers and change agents emerges consisting of government officials, faith leaders, and scholars who have participated in IGE’s conferences and training. This indigenous network is able to catalyze structural change by informing the appropriate processes through which constitutions, laws, policies, and government practices can be reformed.
In Vietnam, IGE’s local partners in both government and civil society have worked through the years to gradually reform and improve religious freedom in Vietnam through changing laws, policies, and social attitudes. For example, the Vietnamese government asked IGE to facilitate the gathering of international expert feedback on a draft religion law. A number of changes suggested by the experts were incorporated into the final ratified law.
IGE is encouraged that its experience in Vietnam has served as a model and inspiration for organizations like LYNC to adapt and implement in other regions of the world.