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Cablegate: Current Religious Situation - the Official View

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 002077

SIPDIS

STATE FOR DRL/IRF AND EAP/BCLTV

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PGOV VM HUMANR RELFREE
SUBJECT: CURRENT RELIGIOUS SITUATION - THE OFFICIAL VIEW

REF: HANOI 1698

1. (U) Summary: Officials from the Government Committee on
Religious Affairs and the Ho Chi Minh Political Academy's
Centers on Human Rights and Religious Studies have
reiterated that Vietnamese are free to practice religion,
that the GVN not only permits the practice of religion but
actively supports and facilitates it, and that abuses
reported in the Central and Northwest Highlands are the
fault of misguided local officials and do not represent
official policy. Septel provides some contrary views of
some religious officials. End summary.

Committee on Religious Affairs
------------------------------

2. (U) In a meeting with EAP/BCLTV's Charles Jess, Charge
Porter, and poloff Moeling on August 13, Chairman Ngo Yen
Thi of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA)
explained that he had just returned from the Central
Highlands, where he had found that more and more local
administrations were permitting Protestant groups to operate
in their areas. The local officials he met promised to try
further to facilitate the normalization of religious
activities in the region. He added that he believed the
situation would soon be returning to "normal."

3. (U) In principle, Chairman Thi claimed, the State did
not interfere with religion, but merely issued regulations
to ensure "normal activities and equal treatment to avoid
inequality." The CRA facilitated religious activities, and
tried to "create conditions" for the operation of religious
training activities. The CRA also needed to organize
"protection" for places of worship, as well as repair and
restore damaged churches and temples, he noted. The CRA
worked with the state to promote and protect religious and
human rights, although he admitted that there was the
problem of local officials not "respecting" all of the
regulations. Another problem was that of "untrained clergy"
acting on behalf of unrecognized organizations and provoking
locals to rise up against the government, such as the Dega
Protestants, he claimed.

4. (U) Chairman Thi said that the Vietnamese people demand
a high level of ethics and dignity from their religious and
spiritual leaders, and want their leaders to look after
their spiritual and material well-being. The Vietnamese
would never accept a priest suspected of sexual harassment,
he claimed. The state has an "obligation" to protect the
people and to ensure that those who act against the state
and have compromised ethical standards are punished, he
stressed.

5. (U) Jess noted repeated reports of forced renunciations
and occasional destruction of churches, which have prompted
concern in the U.S. and may be factors in a decision to
designate Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern" under
the International Religious Freedom Act. Chairman Thi
admitted that the understanding of local GVN officials is
not always "consistent" regarding rules and regulation of
religion. Thi said that Vietnam must rely on education to
change the local officials to compel them to act in
accordance with the law, and was gradually making progress,
something not reflected in U.S. reports. He added that the
reports of forced renunciations had gone to the National
Assembly, which has demanded an investigation and which will
send its own delegation to examine the situation.

6. (U) Thi emphasized that religious rights and human rights
should be considered in Vietnam in the broader framework of
poverty reduction, health care, education, and other
humanitarian concerns. As a poor country, Vietnam could not
provide everything. In the SRV, the spiritual needs of the
community were not merely the responsibility of the church,
but also the state, he claimed.

7. (U) Charge reiterated that the perception in the U.S. is
that the religious freedom situation in Vietnam is getting
worse, particularly in the area of forced renunciations.
These perceptions could affect the relationship negatively,
in the same way as the decision on catfish and the various
flag ordinances have affected Vietnam's perception of the
U.S. The Charge said we appreciated the Chairman's
frankness, and highlighted that the cases where local
officials did not follow the law were important ones.
Where such cases occurred, the U.S. would like to see
punishment; this would have a positive effect on Vietnam's
image.

8. (U) Thi reiterated that forced renunciations of faith
were not the policy of the central government, even noting
that the GVN did not want to fall into the same mistakes of
the feudal period when a Vietnamese emperor forced Catholics
to renounce their religion. The SRV would not make that
mistake, he pledged.

Party research centers
----------------------

9. (U) On August 12, Jess and poloff met with the Directors
General of the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy's
Human Rights Research Center and Religious Studies Research
Center (reftel), accompanied by the DG for the Department of
International Cooperation. According to Cao Duc Thai,
director of the Human Rights Research Center, there were
areas of agreement and areas of difference between the U.S.
and Vietnam on human rights; he preferred to focus on the
areas of agreement. The center itself had been started in
1994, and had conducted some valuable training courses for
prosecutors and inspectors, some with the participation of
outside observers and consultants, notably from Sweden and
Holland. Topics had included when to use force; the
definition of self-defense; legal procedures; and the
definition of excessive force. There had been lively
discussions on the use of the death penalty, he added.

10. (U) Dr. Thai admitted that even his understanding of
the human rights situation in Vietnam was inadequate, and
with that in mind, he had recently sent senior staff
specifically to check out the Central Highlands situation.
Asked about his Center's perception of international
criticism of Vietnam (i.e., the IRF report or the HRR), Thai
responded that many U.S. politicians receive inaccurate
information about Vietnam. As an example, he raised the
issue of confiscation of church property. Thai claimed that
the GVN had never taken any church property, although some
of it was "perhaps contributed" to the State during the
socialism-building period. Thai expressed a hope that more
U.S. politicians would come to Vietnam to see for themselves
that Vietnam was a country trying to guarantee human rights.

11. (U) Dr. Luu Dat Thuyet of the Center for Religious
Studies said there were two main points on religious
freedom: first, Vietnam respects religious rights; second,
the purpose of religion was to "unify" the population. He
quoted Ho Chi Minh's statement that "religion should be free
and religious believers should unite." This doctrine,
Thuyet said, was institutionalized in 1946 and added to the
constitution in 1992. In his opinion, when considering a
country's religious freedom record, the U.S. should evaluate
the atmosphere and see how people were conducting religious
activities. In Vietnam, religion is practiced openly and
actively, he claimed, adding that "tens of thousands" of
believers attend religious festivals. He reiterated that
the CPV and GVN genuinely try to facilitate the exercise of
religious rights.

12. (U) Dr. Thuyet urged that the U.S. make note of the
training and appointment of religious leaders in Vietnam,
about which there has been substantial progress, with six
Catholic seminaries and three Buddhist universities as well
as other training schools for other religions. (Note:
Beginning in 2003, there is also a Protestant seminary in
HCMC. end note) In addition, the GVN published many
religious books and documents such as the Bible, he noted.
In addition, places of worship had also been tremendously
improved, with state support. Some clergy and their
followers had admitted that the current environment was the
best ever for practicing religion in the history of Vietnam,
he claimed.

13. (U) Thuyet acknowledged that "here and there" were
mistakes and wrongdoing, but these did not reflect either
official policy or overall trends. These cases were
anomalies and individual cases due to mistakes at low
levels. Overall, he asserted that the religious situation
in Vietnam has a distinctive character; while there are many
religions and different belief systems, Vietnam has never
had a religious conflict. Unity between believers and
nonbelievers has always been a tradition.

14. (U) Comment: Septel will report some less positive
views by religious practitioners. As usual, GVN and CPV
officials say mostly the right things about respect for
religion, but there continue to appear to be problems at
least in the field. It appears that officials of the state,
party, and National Assembly are beginning to take such
reports more seriously, to the extent of promising
investigations. We will continue to press for more such
efforts -- and more feedback on what official investigations
uncover -- but are not optimistic.
PORTER

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