Cablegate: Vietnam On Religious Freedom

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Vietnam on Religious Freedom

REF: A. Hanoi 072 B. 02 STATE 235694

- C. 02 Hanoi 2862 D. 02 Hanoi 2969

1. (SBU) Summary: In two recent meetings with the
Ambassador, GVN officials discussed religious freedom issues
originally raised by Ambassador Hanford at the November 2002
Human Rights Dialogue in a frank manner, but had little
specific information. The most welcome news was that the
Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam should be able to
open its long-anticipated theological school to 50 students
in January. Reductions in restrictions on Thich Huyen Quang
and Thich Quang Do remain possible and Father Nguyen Van
Ly's sentence might be reduced as well, based on "good
attitude." Officials promised to continue to investigate
various problems cited by Ambassador Hanford and Ambassador
Burghardt, including an apparently official document
describing efforts on renunciations of faith. Officials
also indicated the possibility that independent foreign
observers might be allowed to investigate problems. While
these good discussions were welcome and offer the
possibility of Vietnam moving more in the right direction on
these issues, concrete GVN actions since Ambassador
Hanford's November demarche have been few. End summary.

Expressing USG Concerns

2. (U) Ambassador met separately with Government Committee
on Religious Affairs (CRA) Chairman Le Quang Vinh and Deputy
Foreign Minister Le Van Bang on January 14 to discuss
religious freedom issues initially raised by Ambassador
Hanford during the November 8, 2002 US-Vietnam Human Rights
Dialogue (ref b). He noted that he had also discussed these
issues in late November with Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien
(ref c).

3. (U) Ambassador noted that concerns about new reported
religious freedom problems circulated in the international
press had drawn considerable attention, including from
members of Congress. Moreover, the International Religious
Freedom Act (IRFA) requires Ambassador Hanford to make
recommendations on Country of Particular Concern designation
based on the best available information. Even if
information was difficult to obtain and verify, the IRFA
still required an annual recommendation. Ambassador
emphasized that the main purpose of meeting with both
Chairman Vinh and DFM Bang was to clarify specific
allegations, to determine if the GVN was investigating them,
and learn what was being done if the allegations were true.

4. (U) Observing that the GVN was often defensive about
religious freedom issues, Ambassador suggested the GVN
undertake a more pro-active stance, such as inviting
journalists, human rights NGO's, and diplomats freely to
investigate reported problems, rather than the GVN issuing
blanket denials. The most noteworthy problems recently
included reports of house church closings, forced
renunciations of faith, disappearances of about 40
Protestant leaders in the Central Highlands as well as
others in the Northwest Highlands. Ambassador also asked
for any information relevant to allegations that police had
beaten Hmong Christian leader Mua Bua Senh a number of
times, leading to Senh's eventual death in August 2002.

5. (U) Following up on the Embassy's provision to the CRA
in December 2002 of a copy of what was purported to be a
Khanh Hoa provincial police document that described efforts
to convince citizens to renounce their faith (ref a),
Ambassador asked if the CRA had yet investigated the
document and, if genuine, if anything had been done to the
involved authorities. If the document was false, Ambassador
urged the GVN to make this clear as well as to reaffirm that
forced renunciations of faith were counter to GVN policy on
religious freedom.

6. (U) Ambassador also asked if reports that hundreds of
house church closings in the Central Highlands and Northwest
Highlands were true. He expressed concern that formal
registration remained so difficult that many house churches
do not try to register, and urged instead that local
authorities provide assistance and encourage registration.

7. (U) Noting that the last congress of the Evangelical
Church of Vietnam-North (ECVN) was in 1988, Ambassador noted
that this delay had fueled suspicions that the GVN was
afraid that the ECVN would select leaders that the GVN did
not like. He urged that the GVN work with the ECVN to
encourage it to hold its congress, rather than continue to
claim that this delay was due to ECVN internal reasons only.
8. (U) Ambassador noted that one of the most frequent
complaints from both Catholics and Protestants was that they
do not have enough clergy. He regretted the delays in
opening a new Catholic seminary (or seminary branch) in Dong
Nai province as well as the theological school of the
Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) in Ho Chi Minh
City; he urged the GVN to provide adequate permission and
assistance in the establishment of these overdue and much-
needed facilities.

9. (U) Ambassador rejected GVN claims that Vietnam had no
religious prisoners, noting that there are clearly prisoners
whom people overseas see as religious leaders. He expressed
concern that it was almost impossible for foreigners to get
information about these prisoners or to meet with them. He
offered his personal view that the single best and easiest
thing Vietnam could do to gain international respect would
be to drop restrictions on highly respected Buddhist leaders
Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do so that they might live
where they wish, see whom they wish, and do what they want.
Regarding prisoner Father Nguyen Van Ly, Ambassador
emphasized that GVN stories about Father Ly's personal life
were beside the point; regardless, 15 years imprisonment was
too long a sentence for doing nothing more than saying
something that the GVN did not like. Ambassador asked for
assistance in delivering the many Christmas cards he has
received for Father Ly.

GVN Responses

10. (U) SECV Theological school: CRA Chairman Vinh
assured Ambassador that the SECV would be able to open its
theological school in January. He said that he had
personally informed the SECV of this after Christmas,
following the Prime Minister's approval. The school was
currently recruiting students and facility as well as
establishing its curriculum, and would be able to admit 50
students. For the time being, however, its student body
would be limited due to its temporary location at the SECV
headquarters. He claimed that delay in opening had stemmed
from Ho Chi Minh City authorities. Separately, DFM Bang
appeared to be aware of the decision regarding the SECV
theological school, but offered no further comment.

11. (U) New Catholic Seminary: CRA Chairman Vinh
explained that the new Catholic seminary in Dong Nai had
similarly been held up by the adamant refusal of provincial
authorities; the CRA was now encouraging the search for a
different site. (Note: Dong Nai authorities have
attributed their reluctance to approve the seminary to the
lack of provincial educational authorities able to supervise
a tertiary-level institution. End note)

12. (U) Persons of concern: Chairman Vinh promised that
the CRA would work with the Ministry of Public Security and
"higher authorities" to facilitate actions regarding persons
of concern such as Thich Huyen Quang, Thich Quang Do, and
Father Nguyen Van Ly. He claimed that it should be possible
to forward mail to prisoners, including Father Ly.
Separately, DFM Bang said that he had heard that Father Ly's
attitude in prison had improved, a precondition to reduction
in sentence. MFA officials also indicated that they would
ask MPS to identify the prison location of Father Ly, and
share that information with Embassy. DFM Bang added that
MFA was continuing to research the list of persons of
concern the Ambassador Hanford provided in August 2002, and
agreed to determine whether any of them had been amnestied
in 2002.

13. (U) Independent investigations: Chairman Vinh
responded positively to the suggestion of inviting
journalists, NGO's, and diplomats to investigate reported
problems. While he clarified that he could not make
decisions about such matters, he promised to recommend the
idea to his superiors.

14. (U) Renunciations: Chairman Vinh confirmed that the
GVN strictly prohibited discriminatory treatment on
religious grounds. He emphasized that a citizen is free to
persuade a fellow citizen to adopt or drop a religious
belief, but that the State definitely would not do so. He
pledged that the GVN would openly address any violations of
that policy and would criticize -- or discipline -- any
officials guilty of such violations. In answer to
Ambassador's question, Vinh claimed that the GVN had
actually done so in some cases already, while admitting that
central authorities could not easily inspect and control
activities in many remote places. Ambassador urged the GVN
to publicize when it punished officials for interfering with
citizens' freedom of belief.

15. (U) Khanh Hoa: Chairman Vinh promised to report the
information on forced renunciations, including the Khanh Hoa
document, to higher authorities. However, he did not
respond specifically to the validity of the Khanh Hoa
document. DFM Bang did not address the Khanh Hoa document
either, but the MFA Americas Department staff requested a
copy, which Embassy provided on January 15.

16. (U) Highlands: Both Chairman Vinh and MFA officials
described the situation in the Central Highlands and the
Northwest Highlands as "special." Chairman Vinh provided a
lengthy account of separate efforts to establish a "Dega"
state in the Central Highlands and a Hmong kingdom
encompassing parts on Vietnam, Laos, China, Thailand, and
Burma. Tracing these efforts to FULRO on the one hand and
Vang Pao on the other, Vinh claimed that the violent history
of these efforts and their current use of "Dega"
Protestantism and "Vang Chu" (a Hmong term for
Protestantism) "worries" provincial authorities. MFA
officials echoed these points in less detail. Ambassador
noted that, although only a few people seemed to be involved
in these movements, local authorities appeared to treat all
Protestants in these areas the same regardless of whether
they had anything to do with the separatist groups. This
probably had the negative effect of driving more people into
these movements. Chairman Vinh replied that central
authorities had spoken "many times" with local officials
about the need to respect religion. While the State was
working hard to ensure respect for "those who practice
religion with pure intent," it could not ignore those who
"use religion as a cover for political conspiracies."

17. (U) Mua Bua Senh: Chairman Vinh claimed that he was
not aware of the case of Mua Bua Senh, but promised that he
would contact local authorities. He expressed disbelief
that Senh had been beaten just because of his religion.

18. (U) ECVN: Chairman Vinh explained that, although the
ECVN is small, it had two factions that sued each other
after the last ECVN congress over a financial issue. Until
that dispute was resolved, Vinh claimed, it would not be
possible to hold another congress. He rejected Ambassador's
suggestion that the ECVN settle the dispute at a congress,
because the settlement and congress must happen "according
to law." He added that the situation was further muddied by
"unqualified" persons who claim to be "authorized voices" as
well as evangelists within the ECVN. He noted that CRA
officials recently traveled to help provincial authorities
sort out who was and who was not an ECVN official. Vinh
emphasized that the CRA indeed wanted the ECVN to hold a
congress and was trying to be supportive.

19. (SBU) Hanford demarche: DFM Bang said that the MFA
was investigating the four points Ambassador Hanford
highlighted during the November 2002 Human Rights Dialogue.
He invited Ambassador Hanford to visit Vietnam again. He
noted that it was also important to keep in sight how the
overall religious situation in Vietnam had improved over the
last ten years. He revealed that the CPV Central Committee
had discussed how to work out religious issues over the long-
term during the second session of its seventh plenum, which
began on January 13. This was unprecedented, he claimed,
and showed how seriously CPV and GVN authorities were about
further improving the situation of religious freedom. He
noted that CPV General Secretary Nong Duc Manh had
acknowledged that one-fourth of the Vietnamese population
followed religion, and that religion had strong beneficial
effect on the youth. He pointed out Vietnam's relations
with the Vatican were much better than China's, and that
Vietnam had a great deal more religious freedom than
countries like Saudi Arabia.

20. (SBU) Comment: These two meetings were the broadest
and most candid on the subject of religion that Ambassador
has conducted with GVN officials since his arrival over one
year ago. The increasing willingness of the GVN to engage
in a discussion as detailed as this would have been
unthinkable not too many years ago. They had some solid
good news on the SECV theological school and indicated new
signs of flexibility about investigating other areas of
concern. This offers the possibility of Vietnam moving in
the right direction on these issues. That said, Ambassador
Hanford's own demarche to the GVN delegation in November
should have set the ball in motion about addressing our main
concerns, but there does not appear to have been much
significant movement in the intervening months in response.

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