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Cablegate: The Yin and Yang of the Sea Star Catholic Seminary

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

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 HO CHI MINH CITY 000468

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

STATE FOR EAP/BCLTV; DRL
PLEASE PASS TO CIRF

E.O.12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM KIRF SOCI VM RELFREE HUMANR
SUBJECT: THE YIN AND YANG OF THE SEA STAR CATHOLIC SEMINARY

REF: 02 Ho Chi Minh City 1304

1. (SBU) Summary: The Ambassador met with Father Tran
Thanh Phong, director of the Nha Trang Sea Star Seminary
during a visit to Khanh Hoa province, May 15-17. During
the discussion, which took place in a large, well-
maintained reception hall, Father Phong was careful not to
explicitly criticize the GVN, but he did comment that it
might be difficult for Western logic to comprehend "the
convolutedness" of the Seminary/Catholic Church's
relationship with the Vietnamese Government. Father Phong
painted a picture of a Catholic diocese that has made its
peace with the GVN, reconciled to enjoying some freedoms
while operating within certain restrictions. End Summary.

2. (U) Ambassador Raymond F. Burghardt and the Consul
General met for over an hour with Father Tran Thanh Phong.
Father Phong described the Sea Star Seminary as responsible
for training priests for three dioceses: Nha Trang (Khanh
Hoa province and Phan Rang in Ninh Thuan province); Buon Me
Thuot (Dak Lak province and part of Binh Phuoc province);
and Quy Nhon (Binh Dinh, Phu Yen, and Quang Ngai
provinces). Six seminaries Q in Nha Trang, Hue, Hanoi,
Thanh Hoa, Ho Chi Minh City, and Can Tho Q are officially
recognized by the GVN. Nha Trang was recognized ten years
ago. (Prior to 1975, the Sea Star Seminary was a minor
one. The major seminaries were those in Dalat and Saigon.)

3. (SBU) According to Father Phong, Sea Star Seminary
currently has 84 seminarians who follow a six-year course
of study. Every two years, each diocese is permitted to
select 10 candidates who have graduated from university.
The "ideal" candidate is about 25 years-old, has a
bachelor's degree, and gets the stamp of approval from the
local People's Committee and Ministry of Public Security
(MPS) for having a "sound mind" (here the priest smilingly
tapped his head).

4. (SBU) The six-year training program includes two years
of philosophy and four years of theology, as well as
courses on politics and economics Q taught by professors
assigned by the local authorities. There is about a ten
percent drop out rate, but usually not due to a diagnosis
of wrong-headedness by the MPS. The Ministry of Public
Security and the local government make their appearance
again at graduation, when they "check" the seminarians to
ensure they are still of "sound mind."

5. (U) After graduation, the seminarians are usually
assigned as assistants for a two-year internship to
ordained priests. After a successful internship (and by
that time, over the age of 30, the minimum age to become a
priest in Vietnam), they are ordained. The diocese then
decides which parish to send the newly-ordained priest to -
as a junior priest, who will eventually take over as the
full parish priest. There are currently 120 priests in the
Nha Trang diocese, according to Father Phong, many of whom
are old and infirm. "We need a younger generation," he
emphasized. Since the Sea Star Seminary is limited in its
intake of seminarians, Father Phong was asked whether any
devout Catholics go overseas to pursue their theological
studies. He noted that they could go overseas as regular
students, but not as seminarians. Only priests who are
trained and ordained in Vietnam can serve here.

6. (SBU) Father Phong said that he and the Seminary get
along with the provincial government, but are required to
get permission from the authorities whenever they wanted to
travel or meet with outsiders Q including priests and
believers from other towns and diocese. Local authorities
must approve the Seminary's training curriculum, the
professors/priests who will teach the classes, and their
lesson plans. There have been no foreign priests as
teachers; the Seminary has never asked for permission
because it "knows the request will not be approved." (Post
Note: Demonstrating that situations are relative and vary
from province to province, it would appear Khanh Hoa
province exercises stricter control over the Catholic
Church than Ho Chi Minh City does. The Catholic hierarchy
in HCMC generally travels unimpeded and simply notifies
local authorities of their plans Q sometimes after the
fact. They also meet with ConGenoffs and other "outsiders"
without asking permission. End note.)

7. (U) However, Sea Star Seminary has been able to send
some faculty members to study in Rome, Paris, and the U.S.
Right now, bioethics is a sensitive issue, and regional
priests attended classes led by the Bishop of Can Tho
earlier this month. In response to a question from the
Ambassador, Father Phong indicated that the Seminar
receives some financial assistance from Rome and its own
parishioners. Individual overseas Vietnamese also donate,
but on a case-by-case basis.

8. (SBU) During a brief tour of the Seminary, the
Ambassador stopped by a darkened room with several
computers. Father Phong explained that while seminarians
have access to the Internet, they are forbidden by the
provincial government to download any files. (Post Note:
While we do not know specifically about the Catholic
seminary in HCMC, in cities like HCMC and Danang, the
internet cafes and universities can download from any
website that is not firewalled by the government. End
note.) The Sea Star Seminary itself is built on land
granted to it in compensation for the old building (now a
teachers' college) in a different location. Father Phong
ruefully chuckled when he related that the local government
said it was giving the Church a "good deal."

9. (SBU) Comment: Father Phong was an informative
interlocutor who became more animated as the discussion
progressed. He acknowledged that Catholic life had been
difficult after the war, but said things had improved over
the past 10 years. His statement that contemporary
Vietnamese society is deteriorating because people say the
right things, but do not act on principle or with virtue
could be interpreted as an oblique criticism of Vietnam's
current political system. Although a priest, Father Phong
seemed to place some faith in the "yin" and "yang" of life,
and accept that in return for certain freedoms, there would
be certain restrictions on the Catholic Church in Khanh Hoa
province. YAMAUCHI

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