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Cablegate: Vietnamese Provinces Work to Get Religious Freedom Right

VZCZCXRO2634
RR RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHHI #0558/01 1340729
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 130729Z MAY 08
FM AMEMBASSY HANOI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 7803
INFO RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH 4703
RUEHROV/AMEMBASSY VATICAN 0053
RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HANOI 000558

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS AND DRL/IRF

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: KIRF PHUM PGOV PREL VM
SUBJECT: Vietnamese Provinces Work to Get Religious Freedom Right

HANOI 00000558 001.2 OF 003


1. (SBU) Summary: Although the Government of Vietnam's Committee on
Religious Affairs (CRA) struggles to implement of the legal
framework on religious freedom in some isolated provinces, a growing
number of provincial and local authorities are having real success
in promoting freedom of religion. On a recent visit to three of
Vietnam's northern provinces, both Catholic and Protestant leaders
highlighted a smooth registration process, freedom of assembly and
worship for religious organizations, provincial support for church
social and charitable activities, and a noticeable absence of land
and property disputes. End summary.

2. (SBU) Poloff recently traveled to the provinces of Thanh Hoa,
Ninh Binh and Nam Dinh south of Hanoi and met with provincial
authorities, Catholic Church leaders and pastors of the Evangelical
Church of Vietnam - North (ECVN). All highlighted a smooth
registration process and freedom of assembly and worship for
religious organizations, provincial support for church social and
charitable activities.

Smooth Registration for Churches
--------------------------------

3. (SBU) The Catholic Church was not required to register in any of
the three provinces, as it existed prior to the implementation of
the legal framework on religion, and has technically been recognized
by local authorities. The same was true of the small ECVN
congregation in Nam Dinh while the ECVN church in Thanh Hoa province
was required to register, as it was newly re-established in 2005.
The pastor in charge of the ECVN church in Thanh Hoa province
emphasized that his church received a great deal of assistance from
the provincial authorities in preparing the registration application
and establishing the church building and facilities. The church now
has 120 members and six congregations and is growing.

4. (SBU) The Director of the Thanh Hoa CRA told Poloff they have a
"positive relationship" with the ECVN and other religious
denominations. Since May 2006, nine Protestant sub-congregations
have applied for registration and been approved; six of those are
affiliated with the ECVN and none are pending. The Da Nang Cao Dai
missionary church has a small group of followers in Thanh Hoa
province and CRA is working with the church's leadership in Da Nang
to provide information and instructions on registering their
congregation in Thanh Hoa. In an overall effort to be transparent
and provide clear information on the registration process, the Thanh
Hoa CRA enlarged all of the registration instructions and forms to
poster size, and hung them outside of the CRA office in full public
view, a move that CRA said was receiving positive public feedback.


Churches Face Shortage of Trained Clergy
----------------------------------------

5. (SBU) Both the Bishop of Thanh Hoa and the Vicar General of Phat
Diem diocese in Ninh Binh province cited a shortage of trained
priests, resulting from the closure of Catholic seminaries following
the Communist takeover in Vietnam. The seminaries began to reopen in
1993, but can only accommodate a limited number of students. The
Phat Diem diocese has only 50 priests to serve 145,000 followers in
73 parishes. However, the Vicar General said the situation is
improving and his goal is to have at least one priest for every 1000
followers. The Bishop of Thanh Hoa echoed this problem - his
diocese currently has 60 priests to minister to some 135,000
followers, but he hopes to increase that number to 100 by 2010.

6. (SBU) The Bishop of Bui Chu diocese in Nam Dinh province said
that while his diocese currently has sufficient priests to minister
to his flock of 387,000, he hopes to be part of the solution to the
priest shortage in other provinces by opening a new seminary to
train 50 priests per year. The new seminary project is pending
final permission from the Holy See; the provincial authorities
already granted all necessary permission without any problems.

7. (SBU) The ECVN also struggles with a lack of trained pastors to
lead their faithful. The Nam Dinh ECVN pastor in charge reports
that four ECVN churches in three provinces (Nam Dinh, Thai Binh, and
Ha Nam) banded together to host short pastoral training courses.
Both the ECVN churches in Thanh Hoa and Nam Dinh provinces also send
pastoral students to training held by the main ECVN church in Hanoi
without any hindrance from local officials.

Churches Permitted to do Charitable Work
----------------------------------------

8. (SBU) Religious leaders said they are free to undertake social
and charitable activities in each of the three provinces; most
emphasized, however, that they do so within existing GVN rules and
regulations. In Thanh Hoa, the CRA deputy director said religious
groups are permitted to undertake social and charitable activities,

HANOI 00000558 002.2 OF 003


but must follow the same regulations as all other social groups. He
highlighted that both the Catholic and Buddhist churches are active
in disaster relief efforts and the nuns at a local convent have
opened a kindergarten. The Catholic Congregation of the Holy Cross
Lovers in Thanh Hoa province runs a small medical clinic with basic
care. The Buddhist church also provides services for the poor and
children with disabilities and the Catholic Church has permission to
run a youth vocational school. The Nam Dinh Catholic Church also
runs a kindergarten, as well as an orphanage housing approximately
100 children, including many who are physically or mentally
disabled.

9. (SBU) In Ninh Binh province one of the priests, Father Hai,
highlighted a program run by Orbis (a U.S.-based NGO) in which the
Catholic Church educates people on the benefits of cornea donation
following death and facilitates the recovery of corneas from those
who pass away. After a long effort to start the program, Father Hai
stepped in to work with Orbis and the provincial Department of
Foreign Affairs gave full credit to Father Hai as the man behind the
success of the program. Father Hai noted that cooperation with the
local hospital is excellent and they now have a system for donation.
Father Hai's success in introducing the program to priests,
families, and doctors is evidenced by the fact that in an 8000
person parish, 40-50 people have now donated their corneas after
death, in order to save the sight of others.

10. (SBU) ECVN provincial church leaders highlighted a lack of
resources and manpower as the primary reasons that their churches
are unable to do more social and charitable works. The pastor in
charge in Nam Dinh shared that "provincial officials are encouraging
me to conduct more charitable activities, but I only have 40-50
congregants and as they are largely poor themselves, they have a
hard time contributing much." He noted an ongoing relationship with
a Korean Protestant church, which funded the construction of a
hospital in the province. The Korean Protestant congregation
regularly funds two doctors to travel to Nam Dinh to provide medical
check-ups for the ECVN congregants and other poor people.

Inter-faith Soccer - Monks v. Priests
-------------------------------------

11. (SBU) The Christian church leaders said that while they do not
have much interaction with other religious faiths, their followers
generally live in harmony with those of other faiths. There are no
reports of religious-based conflicts between faiths in the three
provinces. In Ninh Binh the Provincial CRA facilitated a visit by
Vietnamese H'mong from France to Catholic churches in the province
in 2007 and, earlier this year, they conducted a joint tourism trip
to Hanoi for Catholic priests and Buddhist monks that was very well
received. The provincial CRA officials also noted that Catholic
priests and Buddhist monks compete against each other at a community
sports festival every year, culminating in a particularly
high-spirited soccer match.

Looking to the Future
---------------------

12. (SBU) Many of the church leaders reported that their
congregations are out growing their facilities. In Thanh Hoa, for
example, the diocese plans to build new facilities to accommodate a
seminary and housing for additional priests, while the ECVN pastor
is currently preparing a proposal for two new buildings that will
house Bible classes and a residence for the pastor in charge.

13. (SBU) At the same time, leaders of both faiths hope to expand
their social and charitable activities. The Bishop of Bui Chu
diocese in Nam Dinh province is working to open a house to care for
up to 20 pregnant women in need. When asked about permission from
the provincial authorities, he responded that the Church's
relationship with the province was such that there was no need to
ask permission. The Thanh Hoa diocese plans to establish an
educational scholarship fund to benefit poor students, Catholic or
not, to contribute to the overall community.

14. (SBU) In Nam Dinh province, the ECVN pastor in charge hopes to
set up a center for orphans and children with disabilities, but
noted that the church would need international funding and
assistance to get such a center off the ground. He also mentioned
that he is a member of the Religious Initiative by the Vietnam
Fatherland Front (the Communist Party's umbrella organization) to
increase participation by faith-based organizations in addressing
HIV-AIDS and recently attended a UNICEF-sponsored conference in
Bangkok on children with HIV/AIDS.

15. (SBU) The Vicar General of Phat Diem diocese noted that in
fulfilling their duties as Catholics, the church is also discussing
how to conduct missionary activities in accordance with the legal
framework on religion. He said the Bishop's office has a productive

HANOI 00000558 003.2 OF 003


relationship with the provincial CRA and is also having good
discussions with the People's Committee on the way forward, noting
that the two sides "meet regularly and talk in a frank and candid
manner." While the two sides sometimes have differing views, the
Vicar General stated that the Church understands it must respect the
national level ordinances and regulations, remarking that, "We need
more talks and still have a long way to go, but we will get there."


Comment: Provinces On the Right Track on Religion
--------------------------------------------- ----

16. (SBU) The overriding impression left by religious leaders in all
three provinces was very positive. All cited improved conditions,
freedom of administration of church affairs, and good working
relationships with provincial CRA and other local officials. The
ECVN pastors in both Nam Dinh and Thanh Hoa provinces confirmed that
provincial and local authorities have been supportive of the
development of their congregations and of church activities. The
same was true for the Bishop of Nam Dinh, who noted that in his
seven year tenure, the Catholic church has had no problems with any
local authorities on any issue and enjoys a positive and productive
relationship with government officials. The Bishop of Thanh Hoa
echoed these sentiments.

17. (SBU) A number of factors may account for the steady progress on
religious freedom in these three provinces. Both the Catholic and
Protestant churches have had a long term presence that likely
contributes to a greater understanding of Christianity and the view
that religious organizations can contribute to society. Further,
the sheer numbers of Catholic followers, close to 700,000, means
that the Christian faith and the Catholic Church are more integrated
into the community at large in these three provinces than they are
in many other areas. Indeed, one cannot drive more than a mile or
two in Nam Dinh province without having a Catholic church come into
view. As a result, Christian religious organizations in these
provinces are not regarded as "outside" or "Western" and are not
viewed as a threat to social stability or to the GVN's authority.

18. (SBU) Provincial officials, both from the People's Committee and
the Committee on Religious Affairs, expressed pride in their
promotion of the legal framework on religion and noted that they
continue to work with the various religious groups in their
provinces to ensure cooperative relations. While the potential for
isolated problems still exists, the progress made on religious
freedom in these provinces and the positive attitude and actions of
the provincial officials set a good example that other provinces in
Vietnam can follow over time.

MICHALAK

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