April 11, 2017
Wilberforce A!ert: A New Approach in Vietnam
Last week, I joined other leaders in Vietnam to help influence what could become a new generation of thinking about religious freedom. But first, some background is needed.
Vietnam has been roiled by multiple wars. China subjugated northern Vietnam for more than one thousand years. French colonialists introduced Catholicism while brutally ruling and viciously suppressing dissent for close to a century. Japan occupied Vietnam from 1944-1945, which resulted in a famine that killed as many as two million people. However, what looms large in the minds of many in the U.S. is the Vietnam War, a conflict that left millions dead and deep scars of suffering and unresolved tension among millions more.
On April 30th, many will pause in remembrance of the official end of the Vietnam War, marked with the fall of Saigon in 1975. While numerous books, documentaries and movies have plumbed the depths of this conflict, and many whose living memories continue to shape and influence its recounting, what has been less explored is the impact of the Vietnam War on religious freedom within Vietnam today.
In the intervening forty-two years since the conclusion of the war, all religious groups in Vietnam have suffered, including Mahayana Buddhists, Cao Dai and Christians. With Catholicism associated with French colonialists and Protestantism with American missionaries, some of whom were believed, rightly or wrongly, to be working as informants for the CIA, governmental suppression of Christianity is not a surprise. In an article in February last year, USCIRF Commissioners Thomas Reese and Mary Ann Glendon wrote, “Religion in Vietnam today looks markedly different than it did 40 years ago …Vietnamese faithful conveyed, on the one hand, how religious freedom has expanded in the last four decades. On the other, they believe many government officials still misunderstand religion and the positive role it can play in society, instead subscribing to outdated fears and prejudices about the right to freely practice one’s faith.” This rings true with my own most recent experience in Vietnam
Last week I was grateful to participate in a conference co-hosted by the Institute for Religious Studies of the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences (VASS) and Glocal.net. VASS is the premier national think-tank, and its position papers directly influence the governmental policy. It was an honor to speak about how religious freedom helps economies grow and stabilizes countries. Additional conference presentations by both Vietnamese and American experts further elaborated on how inter-religious dialogue is shaping religious freedom within Vietnam and how faith communities contribute to human flourishing and the building of society.
What became increasingly clear is that while an older generation and mindset remains that regards religion with suspicion, VASS is pioneering a new way forward in Vietnam that has the potential to expand religious freedom across the entire country. It is doing so by both engaging in and dialoguing with the best of contemporary research, and by drawing upon longstanding values within Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, the father of modern Vietnam, included Catholics in his cabinet. The federal constitution provides for religious freedom. Contemporary Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has tirelessly pushed for creating contexts of peace and justice in Vietnam and around the world.
Vietnam is at a religious freedom crossroads. It is imperative that VASS and others engaged in creating a new freedom of conscience dialogue should be encouraged.
1. Mark April 30th as a day to pray for renewed religious freedom in both Vietnam and the U.S.
2. Learn more about the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences.
3. Extend the theme of the conference, “Inter-Religious Dialogue and Social Responsibility” by asking someone of another faith this week about the values within his or her religion that encourage religious freedom for all.