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Cablegate: Religion in Lao Cai and Yen Bai - Different Stories

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

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HANOI 000592

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR DRL/IRF, DRL, and EAP/BCLTV

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM KIRF SOCI PGOV VM ETMIN HUMANR RELFREE
SUBJECT: Religion in Lao Cai and Yen Bai - Different Stories

Ref: A. 02 Hanoi 2628 B. Hanoi 0551

- C. Hanoi 566 D. Hanoi 073

1. (U) Summary: Local officials in two mountainous,
predominantly minority northwestern provinces appear to be
taking differing approaches towards religion. Lao Cai
officials talked a cautious and rigid line while trying to
explain how they have supported religious practice within
legal guidelines. They refused to acknowledge even the
existence of Protestantism in Lao Cai. Yen Bai authorities
highlighted the increase in the province's (still small)
number of Catholics and Buddhists, and expressed a live-and-
let-live attitude towards ethnic minority Protestants.
Septel will cover ethnic minority affairs in the two
provinces. End Summary.

2. (U) Poloff and Pol FSN met with the Acting Director Xan
Quang of the Lao Cai Department Religious Affairs on
February 19, with a TV cameraman present. Quang, making
frequent references to "great national unity," read a
doctrinaire explanation of the CPV's policy on religion and
its implementation through the GVN's Decree 26 of 1999.
Stressing the "favorable conditions" for religion provided
by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and the GVN, he
outlined the development of religious practice in Lao Cai
for Catholic and Buddhist believers.

Catholics in Lao Cai
--------------------

3. (U) Lao Cai's 10-12,000 Catholics are under Hung Hoa
Diocese, headquartered in Ha Tay province. There are two
parish churches, one in Lao Cai town, the other in Sapa
town, as well as five Catholic chapels. Members of the
Hmong minority worship at two of the chapels, while the
other congregations are almost entirely ethnic majority
Kinh. There are no priests assigned to Lao Cai, but a
diocesan "vicar" visits five times a year, spending about
100 days in the province.

4. (U) Quang, several other officials, and the TV
cameraman escorted poloffs to Lao Cai town's Coc Leo
Catholic Church. A Catholic worker ("tu sy," a term used in
Catholic circles apparently to describe seminary graduates
who have not yet been ordained) is resident at the church.
Provincial officials claimed that the Chinese had destroyed
the original Catholic church in Lao Cai during the 1979
border fighting. The current large concrete cruciform
structure rising prominently near the Red River was built
between 1999-2002. There are three services each Saturday
and Sunday, with over 1000 people attending on a weekly
basis. The Catholic worker conducts some religious
education classes, but most are taught by specially trained
laypersons who are "recognized" by provincial authorities.
Provincial officials expressed confidence that there would
"soon" be a priest in Lao Cai, probably at Coc Leo Church,
but claimed the final decision depended on the bishop.

No Protestants in Lao Cai
-------------------------

5. (U) Quang did not mention Protestants at all in his
prepared statement. In response to questions, he claimed
that he had not been notified that the GVN-recognized
Evangelical Church of Vietnam-North (ECVN) had enrolled any
Lai Cai-based Protestant congregations (ref a). He further
claimed that he had heard "nothing" about Protestants in the
province. When asked if it was legal to posses a Bible,
Quang answered that this would be decided according to
specific case-by-case circumstances, based on the policy of
the CPV and the GVN. However, all "officially published
documents" were permissible, including Bibles published by
the GVN's Religious Publishing House, he clarified.

6. (U) Poloff expressed concern over numerous reports of
problems Hmong Protestants in Lao Cai's Bao Thang district
were experiencing in trying peacefully to practice their
faith (ref b provides details on allegations of attempts at
forced renunciation in several districts in Lao Cai).
Poloff emphasized that such reports were publicized overseas
and would hurt Vietnam's international image. Poloff
assured Quang and his colleagues that there was no American
plot to divide Vietnam and that US policy supports the
territorial integrity of Vietnam. He urged officials to
allow Protestants to practice their religion peacefully
without interference. Poloff asked Quang to comment on
these reports, but Quang only replied that he had no "formal
documentation" about such reports and categorically refused
to comment further. He assured Poloff that he knew
Protestantism was not an "American" religion and added that
it was actually a "good" religion.
A Few Buddhists
---------------

7. (U) Quang said that there were "a few thousand"
Buddhists and one pagoda in Lao Cai, but no monks. In
principle, he explained, there was no problem with assigning
a monk to the pagoda, but there had been no formal request
yet. He said that monks come from Quan Su Pagoda in Hanoi
once or twice a year to perform ceremonies. (An official at
Quan Su Pagoda later confirmed this.)

8. (U) Poloffs visited Cam Lo Pagoda in an agricultural
village near Cam Duong town about 15 km outside Lao Cai
town. About a dozen people, mostly women, were at the
pagoda praying, while others were preparing decorations. A
pagoda attendant confirmed that monks come from Hanoi to
perform ceremonies during some important holidays such as
the Buddha's birthday. She indicated that these requests
were made on an ad hoc basis rather than as part of an
annual plan submitted to provincial authorities. Like Coc
Leo Church, Cam Lo Pagoda was said to have been destroyed
during the 1979 Chinese invasion. The pagoda was rebuilt
around 1990 on the site of the original structure. Much of
the pagoda's financial support was apparently local, but a
large portion of the pagoda's publicly listed donors showed
residences elsewhere in Vietnam. In addition to the pagoda,
there are Buddhist shrines in at least some of the temples
for other traditional religions in Lao Cai.

Traditional Temples
-------------------

9. (U) In response to Embassy's overall request to visit
various religious establishments in Lao Cai, Quang also took
poloffs to a large traditional complex dedicated to 16th
century general Tran Hung Dao, located directly across the
Nanxi river from China. Except for a huge banyan tree,
several steles and some furnishings, the temple was entirely
rebuilt after the 1979 border conflict. Poloffs had visited
the temple on their own the evening before; during both
visits, a variety of people were participating in rituals in
different parts of the temple. The temple's attendant
claimed that a recent festival had attracted 160,000 people
from all over Vietnam. There was still some evidence of a
recent large gathering.

10. (U) Poloffs also visited two other local temples,
including one dedicated to the traditional "motherhood
goddess." This well-maintained temple in Lao Cai town is
located on what looks like prime real estate next to the
bridge over the Nanxi River dividing Vietnam and China.
Even at 9:00 p.m., dozens of people were visiting the
temple, including more than a dozen mostly young women
participating in a ceremony presided over by two robed
attendants to ask for the "help of ancestors in heaven." A
number of people were also visiting the traditional temple
next to Cam Lo Pagoda at the time poloffs visited.

Religion "Strongly Developing" in Yen Bai
-----------------------------------------

11. (U) Yen Bai provincial Director of Religious Affairs
Tran Duc Thang briefed poloffs on February 21 and later
escorted them to the Catholic church in Yen Bai city. Thang
made brief reference to CPV resolutions and Decree 26,
emphasizing that the province did not discriminate on the
basis of religion. He highlighted that Yen Bai officials
only carried out their "state management tasks" and did not
interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups. He
explained that a People's Committee member and a member of
the Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF) in each local
jurisdiction were responsible for religious affairs. The
Yen Bai VFF had launched an "excellent movement" to mobilize
Catholics; a Catholic farmers' group was particularly
successful, Thang claimed.

Catholics in Yen Bai
--------------------

12. (U) Thang said that only over six percent of the
province's population was either Catholic or Buddhist.
Since the province divided from Lao Cai in 1992, the number
of Catholics had increased from 34,000 to 44,000. About
3,000 of the Catholics were Hmong. The 36 Catholic
facilities in 1992 had grown to 69, and the 37 Catholic
congregations to 85. There are five priests, two ordained
in 2000, according to Director Thang. Three of the priests
were not yet legally resident in the province. Two Yen Bai
students are now attending the Catholic seminary in Hanoi,
he added. Thang claimed that there were over 20 nuns in Yen
Bai, an increase from two in 1992. (Note: This claim is in
marked contrast to the difficulties nuns face in receiving
GVN recognition elsewhere in Vietnam -- see refs c and d.
End note.) Each Catholic congregation received a priest
three or four times a year, he asserted. The province also
facilitated special requests by Yen Bai's priests and visits
by priests from other provinces, he claimed. He cited the
participation of 30 to 40 priests in two ceremonies in
recent years at the Catholic church in Yen Bai town as well
as the activities of the three non-resident priests.

13. (U) The priest at Yen Bai's Catholic church said that
he was responsible for three of Yen Bai's districts as well
as Yen Bai town and that another priest was responsible for
the other four. He was assisted by a seminarian, scheduled
to graduate in 2004. He admitted some difficulty
communicating with the Hmong Catholics in his charge when he
began working in Yen Bai in 1992 and noted that there were
still no church documents available in the Hmong language.
A priest at the Hung Hoa diocesan office later confirmed
that, while there are two priests resident in Yen Bai, only
one (not three) non-resident priest is currently working in
the province. He said that one of the province's two
seminarians is scheduled to graduate in June and that the
diocese expects to assign him to Yen Bai, pending provincial
government approval.

Buddhists in Yen Bai
--------------------

14. (U) Thang claimed that the 1,000 Buddhists in Yen Bai
in 1992 had now increased to 5,000. He said that "due to
wars and disinterest" there were "almost no" Buddhist
facilities in 1992, but that there were now nine. He added
that the provincial administration had approved the
assignment of monks and said that they would come "soon."

Protestants
-----------

15. (U) In response to questions, Thang said that the
authorities were aware of several thousand Hmong Protestants
in Yen Bai. He claimed that the Protestants did not know a
great deal about their religion, but that they caused no
problems and the authorities left them alone. Most of them
were not actually from Yen Bai, but had migrated from other
provinces such as Lao Cai, according to Thang.

16. (U) Poloff noted frequent reports in the international
media about abuses of religious freedom in Vietnam,
particularly of Protestants, which cause problems for
Vietnam's image abroad. Reports do not seem to come from
Yen Bai, however; poloff remarked that the authorities'
stance of leaving the Hmong Protestants alone seems
positive. He noted to Thang that such a hands off attitude
would be a good example for other provinces to follow.

Comment
-------

17. (U) Lao Cai and Yen Bai have grown apart in their
attitude towards regulating religion since their split in
1992. While post has received many reports of religious
freedom problems in Lao Cai, Embassy sources could not come
up with any specific problems for Protestants in Yen Bai.
Although Yen Bai's depiction of religion in the province
appears to have been somewhat sugarcoated, the differences
between the two provinces are nonetheless striking. These
differences demonstrate the important influence of local
officials on religious practice in Vietnam. Concerns about
"national unity" -- real or imagined -- seem to be a major
excuse in cracking down on religious freedom in Vietnam;
such worries are likely felt more keenly in border
provinces.
PORTER

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