Secretary of State John Kerry's December trip to Vietnam was meant to improve relations and urge greater protection of human rights in a country that climbed three spots on a list of the world's worst persecutors of Christians.

Kerry attended Mass in Ho Chi Minh City, a move faith-based adviser Shaun Casey called a step "beyond rhetoric to highlight religious freedom."

Life Without Limbs evangelist Nick Vujicic's visit seven months earlier was even more notable, said Reg Reimer, former missionary and longtime advocate for religious freedom in Vietnam.

Vujicic took the stage before more than 60,000 Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, sparking hope that the Communist country may be easing its religious restrictions.

"Nick's visit was a bright spot in Vietnam's long, dreary, turn toward a better way of treating religions," Reimer said.

The visit indicated that some in the Vietnamese government are comfortable with foreigners publicly sharing their faith, said Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) president Chris Seiple. "It is also in Vietnam's self-interest to be known as open to such things."

It is encouragement sorely needed. Vietnam's Decree 92, which went into effect in January 2013 and was meant to clarify earlier laws, allows religious groups to legally register. But before they can preach, perform sacraments, or choose their own leaders, they must have worshiped for 20 years without disturbing the government.

The 2014 World Watch List, a ranking from Open Doors of the countries that most persecute Christians, put Vietnam at No. 18, up from No. 21 last year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) again recommended that the State Department designate Vietnam a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC), citing at least 13 Vietnamese imprisoned for religious practice or advocating for religious freedom. (Though the USCIRF has recommended Vietnam be a CPC since 2001, the State Department has kept it off the list since 2006.)

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 405 to 3 in August to prohibit aid increases to Vietnam if it doesn't make significant progress in human rights, including ending religious abuse and returning confiscated property to churches.

Vietnamese political leaders are inconsistent on religious liberty, said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. "There is some liberalization, and then some crackdowns, particularly when they feel they can get away with it, out of sight of the international view," she said.

While democracy isn't always necessary for religious freedom, accepting ideological pluralism is, and Vietnam hasn't done that, she said.

But it is beginning to allow a little, Seiple said, citing IGE's ability to gather and train more than 2,600 church leaders and government officials over 18 months. "Where there was no space to have these conversations, there now is," he said.

Seiple and Reimer both say that Vietnam's religious controls can be inconsistent and unpredictable, but abuses like forced recantations are less frequent.

"Strategically, the dial has shifted from persecution to isolated harassment," Seiple said. "Now, it still stinks to be harassed, to have your church registration denied, or have people listen in on your phone conversations. But you're not being tortured. By and large that has disappeared. We've seen in a very short period of time a significant and strategic change. On the other hand, there is a long way to go."

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