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Cablegate: Ambassador Tackles Religious Freedom Issues in the Foothills

VZCZCXRO8127
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHNH
DE RUEHHM #0689/01 1791012
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 281012Z JUN 07
FM AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2810
INFO RUEHHI/AMEMBASSY HANOI PRIORITY 2001
RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE
RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY 3011

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 HO CHI MINH CITY 000689

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL KIRF PREF PINR VM
SUBJECT: AMBASSADOR TACKLES RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ISSUES IN THE FOOTHILLS
OF THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS


HO CHI MIN 00000689 001.2 OF 002


1. (SBU) Summary: On a June 6-8 trip to Dak Nong, Binh Phuoc
and Tay Ninh provinces, leaders from the GVN-recognized and
house church communities told the Ambassador that church members
were free to worship and practice their faith. However, the
GVN-recognized Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) has
encountered difficulties in organizing religious training
courses in Binh Phuoc and Dak Nong for its predominantly ethnic
minority membership. The legalization process in both provinces
also continues to drag; long-pending registrations and
church-building permits for both the SECV and a house church
organization were issued only shortly before the Ambassador's
visit. The Cao Dai Archbishop in Tay Ninh said he was satisfied
with government treatment of his church. Although Binh Phuoc
and Dak Nong have lagged behind other provinces, behind even
others in the Central Highlands, progress has been made. With
continued monitoring and interaction with local government
officials, religious freedom issues should remain on track. End
Summary.

2. (SBU) In meetings in Cambodian-border provinces of Dak Nong,
Binh Phuoc and Tay Ninh June 6 to 8, provincial Party
Secretaries and People's Committee Chairmen told the Ambassador

SIPDIS
that they continued to make progress to ensure the religious
freedoms of their citizens. Binh Phuoc Party Secretary Nguyen
Huu Luat claimed that his province has allowed religious
trainers to conduct classes and that has facilitated the
construction of worship places, although he did not give any
specific details. Dak Nong People's Committee Chairman Dang Duc
Yen said that while the province would protect religious rights,
it would not register a congregation that represented less than
15 households. The Ambassador stressed that there must be
greater trust between religious groups and the provincial
governments and urged that governments be as flexible as
possible in the registration process.

3. (SBU) Provincial leaders acknowledged that the registration
process could be slow, but said that it was caused by "normal
administrative delays." They stressed that house church
organizations would not be allowed to hold training courses in
the province or build new churches until they were registered at
the provincial level, as stipulated in the legal framework on
religion. The Ambassador emphasized the importance of helping
religious groups ensure that they have well-trained spiritual
leaders.

The View From the Trenches

--------------------------

4. (SBU) Representatives of the GVN-recognized Southern
Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) and other house church
organizations told the Ambassador that the groups were able to
hold religious services for their members, but legalization of
churches and other aspects of managing church operations
continued to be problematic. Assembly of God (AOG) Chief Pastor
Dieu Srong told the Ambassador that his 30 house churches in Dak
Nong Province serving 1,654 ethnic minority followers have been
operating normally. However, government approvals for
registration have been very slow. After applying for
registration in July 2006, the Pastor's own house church had
only been officially registered one week before the Ambassador's
visit. Srong has not been able to gain permission to conduct
religious training in Dak Nong. Local authorities have told him
that his church members would have to go to Ho Chi Minh City for
courses. He complained that AOG trainers who have come to the
province in the past have faced harassment and questioning from
the local police.

5. (SBU) Conditions were similar for the SECV in Dak Nong
province. According to its chief provincial representative,
Pastor Rmah Loan, the SECV has been able to hold regular Sunday
services, as well as Christmas and Easter celebrations, without
difficulty in its 142 meetings points serving 33,210 members.
However, Dak Nong authorities were not particularly helpful in
supporting his efforts to organize religious training courses.
For example, only recently did local authorities relent and
allow him to hold a five-month training course in his home in
Dak Mil district for 35 ethnic minority students. This decision
came after many months of negotiations with local authorities
who insisted that the pastor hold his course at a location of
their choosing in the provincial capital of Gia Nghia even
though the SECV did not have a significant presence there.
Additionally, the SECV has had problems obtaining permits for
construction of new churches. In one district with over 800
followers, district authorities have not given permission for
the upgrade of an SECV chapel, stating that the congregation
must be recognized first. The congregation in question may be
legalized in July. A second building permit -- for the SECV's
largest congregation in the province -- was pending since
October, but finally approved in late May.

HO CHI MIN 00000689 002.2 OF 002

6. (SBU) During a visit to an ethnic minority SECV congregation
in Binh Phuoc, Pastor Mo Long told the Ambassador that the
provincial government was allowing the SECV to operate 177
"meeting points" pending registration. Three congregations have
been recognized thus far. (The SECV has 41,800 members in Binh
Phuoc.) In the presence of local officials and the media, the
pastor told the Ambassador that the province could only register
a congregation after it has a trained pastor or evangelist in
charge. This situation will improve soon, since the SECV in
Binh Phuoc is running a pastoral training course for 62 students
that will conclude in July. The pastor noted that he has faced
"difficulties" in traveling to many of the 177 unrecognized
meeting points. These congregations also have been unable to
obtain permits for renovation and construction of church
buildings.

7. (SBU) In Tay Ninh, Cao Dai Archbishop Thuong Tam Thanh told
the Ambassador that the Cao Dai have no problems practicing
their faith. Cao Dai church leaders work closely with national
and local governments, who are responsive to their concerns.
The Archbishop declined the Ambassador's offer to raise church
issues in his meetings with the provincial officials. Thanh
explained that he has been able to manage the church's affairs
adequately through the church's normal channels. (NOTE: The Cao
Dai faith was founded in 1926 and claims over five million
followers nationwide. In Tay Ninh, the Cao Dai claim 600,000
followers, roughly 80 per cent of the province's population. End
Note)

8. (SBU) Comment: Binh Phuoc and Dak Nong are the two toughest
provinces remaining in the HCMC Consular District on religious
freedom issues. Progress in both has been slower than elsewhere
in the Central Highlands and the officials less predisposed to
implement the legal framework on religion. Nonetheless, even in
these two provinces, the overall trend has been positive.
Churches have been able to operate without severe harassment and
the registration and recognition process has begun. We are
confident that, with our continued monitoring and, when needed,
intercession with local governments, religious freedom progress
will continue on track. End Comment.
WINNICK

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