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Cablegate: Tens of Thousands Attend Religious Holiday Events Throughout

VZCZCXRO6179
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHNH
DE RUEHHM #0134/01 0311410
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 311410Z JAN 08
FM AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3668
INFO RUEHHI/AMEMBASSY HANOI PRIORITY 2469
RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE
RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY 3888

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HO CHI MINH CITY 000134

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, DRL/IRF, AND DRL/AWH

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL PHUM KIRF VT VM
SUBJECT: TENS OF THOUSANDS ATTEND RELIGIOUS HOLIDAY EVENTS THROUGHOUT
SOUTHERN VIETNAM

HO CHI MIN 00000134 001.2 OF 003


SUBJECT: Tens of Thousands Attend Religious Holiday Events

Summary
-------
1. (SBU) 2007 Christmas celebrations held by Protestant and
Catholic congregations throughout Southern Vietnam were an
exuberant affirmation of Vietnam's progress on religious freedom
in recent years. While some celebrations were a first, like the
soccer stadium rally of fifteen Protestant house church groups
that drew crowds of 8,000 to 13,000 people, others were a
continuation of long-held Christmas traditions, like the
thousands of Catholics who gathered for Midnight Mass at Notre
Dame Cathedral on Christmas Eve. Protestant leaders reported the
majority of their congregations in the South celebrated
Christmas freely, including the Central Highlands. Even some
dissident Catholic priests reported an incident-free Christmas
this year. The few congregations who reported problems were
located in areas where Christianity is a relatively new concept
and/or where local officials still perceive the spread of
Christianity as a possible threat to public order. In some
cases, church leaders held firm and convinced local authorities
to allow celebrations to take place. Many religious leaders
credited their expanding dialogue with GVN over recent years as
a factor in their eventual success. Unsurprisingly, problems
with religious freedom tend to be more prevalent in places where
poor leadership,corruption and poverty persist. End summary.

Thousands Join in Christmas Celebrations Across South
--------------------------------------------- --------
2. (SBU) For the first time, approximately 13,000 Protestant
followers and their friends (representing around fifteen
different denominations) gathered to attend four hour-long
Evangelical Christmas celebrations at a soccer stadium behind
the former Presidential Palace in the heart Ho Chi Minh City
during the week before Christmas. The event featured group
prayers, hymns and the conversion of over 1500 new followers.
The event was organized by the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship
(VEF), an umbrella group that represents over 50 Protestant
house church denominations. Event organizers said local
authorities authorized the event two days in advance and allowed
the VEF to post fifteen large advertisements and hand out
Evangelical pamphlets and flyers to attendees. Performers ranged
from a 64-voice choir to a popular local television singer who
became a Baptist a year ago sang songs praising Jesus onstage.
Audience members sang along as they viewed the performance from
two large TV screens. The VEF leadership said representatives
from the HCMC Committee for Religious Affairs and the police
also attended the event.

3. (SBU) A wide variety of other Protestant groups from across
Central and Southern Vietnam also said they held special
Christmas services ranging from 50 to 2,000 participants.
Leaders of the Methodist Church, Good News Mission, United
Gospel Outreach Church, Vietnam Baptist Convention, United
Baptist Church, Assembly of God and one of the two
Inter-Evangelical Movement branches also told ConGen officers
holding Christmas celebrations "was easier this year." Pastor
Henry Nguyen Ngoc Hien from the Vietnam Baptist Convention (VBC)
believes the National Committee for Religious Affairs explicitly
instructed regional authorities to help facilitate Christmas
celebrations for all Christian groups. Religious groups said
they were only required to give prior notification of their
plans and to adhere to fire safety standards. While not all of
the congregations actually notified the authorities, those that
did were given approval for their events quickly and
efficiently. Those that didn't pre-notify reported they were
still able to hold their events successfully.

4. (SBU) Pastor Pham Toan Ai from the United Baptist Church said
his congregations organized 92 celebrations that went "very
smoothly." Pastor Henry from VBC said all 100 of his
congregations held "successful Christmas celebrations." Pastor
Steven Doan Trung Tin from the Vietnam Good News Mission (VGNM)
told us he had not heard of any problems for his 92
congregations during Christmas. VGNM Evangelist Mai Hong Sanh
from Ea H'leo district of the Central Highlands province of Dak
Lak also reported "great celebrations that lasted for 3 days."
(Note: For the past two years, this congregation has reported
pressure from local authorities trying to convince their
followers to join the GVN-recognized SECV congregation. The US
Committee on International Religious Freedom also visited this
congregation and talked with Mai Hong Sanh in Oct 2007. End
note.)

For Some Groups, Christmas Crowds Routine
-----------------------------------------
5. (SBU) Churches with national-level registration like the
Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) and United World

HO CHI MIN 00000134 002.2 OF 003


Mission (UWM) reported a "very good round" of Christmas
celebrations for their congregations. The SECV in HCMC held a
two-day rally downtown for the third consecutive year, drawing
crowds of up to 10,000 followers each night. SECV leaders
across the Central Highlands provinces reported hundreds of
celebrations with no negative incidents. In the Mekong Delta
province of Tra Vinh, where one SECV church in a small commune
has recently experienced hostilities from the majority Khmer
community, Christmas celebrations were moved to another, less
volatile area and held successfully.

6. (SBU) The Catholic Church held its annual Christmas Masses
throughout ConGen's consular district and around one million
people poured into HCMC to see the Christmas lights and attend
Midnight Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral on Christmas eve. In
addition to the local observances, the international choir of
HCMC held its first Christmas performance in a church since
1974. This ground-breaking event started with a predominantly
foreign audience but more and more Vietnamese filtered into the
church as the performance went on. One church official
speculated that perhaps the Vietnamese had initially stayed away
to see if the police would allow the religious carols to proceed
and then joined the audience once they were sure the coast was
clear.

7. (SBU) Dissident Catholic priests Chan Tin and Nguyen Huu
Giai, ardent democracy activists and friends of imprisoned
Catholic priest Father Ly, said they were able to participate
freely in Christmas services this year. Highlighting the
long-standing issue of GVN-confiscated properties, Cardinal Pham
Minh Man sent a message to all parishes asking followers to pray
for the return of a HCMC church property. Father Chan Tin
preached to a crowd of 3,000--including HCMC People's Committee
Vice Chairman Nguyen Thanh Tai--and called on the government to
keep its promise to compensate for Church land cut in half by a
development project. In Hue, Father Giai held Mass at his church
while fellow dissident priest Phan Van Loi held Mass at home.
(Note: Father Giai and Father Loi also met with the USCIRF
delegation in October 2007 at Father Loi's home. In April 2007,
former Deputy Consul General Ken Chern was stopped from visiting
both priests by local police. End note.)

Problems in Binh Phuoc
----------------------
8. (SBU) Leaders of some Protestant groups reported harassment
in some provinces, the worst being in the border province of
Binh Phuoc. Local authorities attempted to intimidate followers
from attending Christmas celebrations held by the
Inter-Evangelistic Movement (IEM) and the United Gospel Outreach
Church (UGOC), two groups that do not yet have national-level
registration. HCMC-based UGOC leader Pastor Daniel Pham Dinh
Nhan said local authorities prevented "outsiders" from joining
the celebrations at his congregation of about 600 followers in
Thanh An commune, Binh Long district, Binh Phuoc. Pastor
Daniel's call to the Ministry of Public Security and provincial
religious officials helped secure permission for him to attend
the Christmas service, but it did not stop the authorities from
cutting the electricity supply to the meeting point during the
event. After turning the power back on, followers had to guard
an electrical post in the neighborhood to make sure there were
no more blackouts. In Chon Thanh district, authorities refused
to give approval for one Methodist group to hold Christmas
festivities at all. In Dong Phu district, local authorities
stopped a Presbyterian group's services and told the head pastor
not to hold gatherings. A HCMC-based Presbyterian preacher was
also given a warning after preaching in Binh Phouc during the
holidays.

Persistence Pays Off in the End
-------------------------------
9. (SBU) In some cases, intervention from higher authorities
responding to protests from religious leaders brought about
positive results. Despite intimidation by local authorities in
Binh Phuoc, IEM leaders repeatedly pressed for their right to
celebrate Christmas until "government officials finally gave
in." In fact, IEM Pastor Le Minh Duc said authorities ended up
sending a provincial TV crew to cover their rally of about 700
followers. Methodist leader Pastor Lam Huu Duc said local
officials in the Tien Phuoc district of Quang Nam province
initially denied permission for a meeting point of fifty
followers to hold Christmas services, but when Pastor Duc called
the District Committee for Religious Affairs Chief, he
personally authorized and attended the celebration.

Comment
-------
10. (SBU) Unprecedented public rallies of Protestant groups in
HCMC and widespread Christmas celebrations throughout the South

HO CHI MIN 00000134 003.2 OF 003


were undeniable evidence of the progress being made on religious
freedom in Vietnam today. Post credits the ease with which
Christmas services were held this year with the expanding
dialogue between religious groups and the GVN. While some
problems were reported, the fact that pastors felt confident and
comfortable enough to raise their cases with higher authorities
meant many issues were resolved on the spot.

12. (SBU) While Christmas services have become fairly routine
for many of the larger and more established groups such as the
Catholics and the SECV, the chance of problems occurring goes up
for smaller and unregistered religious groups. Many Protestant
groups who reported harassment by local authorities are
currently trying to establish footholds in areas where
Christianity is still a relatively new concept and not
well-understood or received by the locals. Officials' attempts
to ban "outsiders" from attending celebrations also reflect a
tendency by at least some in the GVN to keep Protestantism from
spreading outside existing, well-established congregations.

13. (SBU) This year's "problem province" of Binh Phuoc
highlights another important factor related to the issue of
religious freedom. By all measurements, Binh Phuoc is an
underperformer. Foreign investment is scarce, most likely
because officials there have been criticized for corruption and
confiscation of properties from ethnic minorities and the
majority Kinh population alike. As a result, Binh Phuoc's
provincial economic competitiveness ranking was the lowest among
the Southern Focal Economic Zone provinces in 2006 and 2007. In
our discussions with pastors around the consular district, it is
overwhelmingly the case that religious freedom problems are more
prevalent in areas where corruption, poverty, and poor
provincial leadership persist.
FAIRFAX

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