Cablegate: Surprising Revelations On Protestants in Central

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




Department for EAP/BCLTV, DRL, PRM

E. O. 12958: N/A

REF: HCMC 1270

1. (SBU) Summary: While the official rhetoric seemed to focus
on respect for religion and the importance of meeting the
"spiritual needs" of the people during the Ambassador's recent
visit to Dak Lak and Lam Dong provinces, local Protestant church
leaders told a story of continuing limits on organized religious
worship amidst a flourishing underground church. Unlike the
province's Catholics, who suffer most from official control over
numbers of seminarians and priests, Protestants seem to face
almost impossible conditions on sanctioned worship and the
registration of new churches. Most startling was the perhaps
unintended disclosure by local Protestant representatives that the
vast majority of unofficial house churches have already applied
for official recognition, despite government claims that only a
handful have tried to legalize their status. End summary.

2. (SBU) The Ambassador, Emboffs, and ConGenoffs visited Dak Lak
and Lam Dong provinces July 23-26, making calls on the People's
Committees, religious leaders, and the provincial government
offices responsible for religious and ethnic minority affairs.
They also visited government offices responsible for economic
planning and investment, private businesses, local universities,
and a local village (septels).

3. (SBU) Lam Dong People's Committee Chairman Phan Thien
described human rights and religious freedom as a process -- one
in which Vietnam wanted to obtain the highest level.
Acknowledging the importance of religion to fulfill the spiritual
needs of the people, Chairman Thien said that local authorities
should develop a better understanding of the regulations governing
religion to better deal with religious believers. At the same
time, he held the Protestants responsible for a historical
association with separatists that made it difficult to distinguish
between authentic believers and Dega. While comparing the
screening of applications for new Protestant churches to the
scrutiny accorded Muslims in the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11, he
assured the Ambassador that he had instructed the relevant
authorities to speed up the recognition process.

4. (SBU) Dak Lak People's Committee Chairman Nguyen Van Lang
characterized his guiding principle in dealing with religion as
respect for individual freedom to worship. He reminded the
Ambassador that 22 pastors from Dak Lak had traveled to attend the
organizing conference for the government recognized Southern
Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) in April 2001. Currently, he
said, there were two legal Protestant churches in the province.
Two more were under consideration by provincial officials. Asked
directly about reports of church closures, Chairman Lang responded
that no "churches" could have been closed since there were only
the two legal churches. (Comment: Betraying what may come closer
to his real feelings on the subject, he pointed out that the
ethnic minorities were never religious until they were converted
by foreigners. End comment) He noted a steady decrease in the
number of migrants to Dak Lak --both Kinh Vietnamese and ethnic
minorities -- even as the economy continued to grow.

5. (SBU) Vo Van Tai, Chairman of the Dak Lak provincial
Committee on Religious and Ethnic Minority Affairs, provided a
somewhat longer recitation on the current state of religion in Dak
Lak. He said there were presently 100,000 Buddhists (up from
40,000 in 1975), 5,000 Cao Dai, and 213,00 Catholics (up from
60,000 over the same period) in Dak Lak. The Catholic Church had
gone from one bishop and 34 priests to 2 bishops and 78 priests
during that time, and currently had three seminarians from the
province studying at the Sea Star Seminary in Nha Trang. He said
there were 130,000 Protestants in Dak Lak, including 40,000 who
had been "officially baptized," but became quite angry at the
Ambassador's reference to the "Dega" as Protestants. To
demonstrate the province's other achievements, he noted that a Dak
Lak pastor currently served on the SECV Executive Board in HCMC,
while two ethnic minority students studied at the SECV seminary
there. As an aside, he remarked that eight others had "failed" to
meet the entrance requirements for the seminary, but did not
elaborate on whether those were the requirements of the SECV or
the government.

6. (SBU) According to Chairman Tai, the two legal Protestant
churches, recognized in late 2001, served approximately 1,000
believers in Buon Me Thuot and Phuoc An (30 kilometers form the
provincial capital). Giving slightly different numbers than
Chairman Lang, he said that four more churches had applied for
recognition and were currently under consideration. The two
applications he had discussed with the Consul General on her last
visit (ref A) had merely been verbal at the time, but had now been
submitted officially in writing. Describing the registration
process, he said the SECV required that each church
("association") have 200 members before it could apply for
recognition. Once approved, they could then apply for permission
to build an actual church structure and assign a permanent pastor.
While all were free to practice at home alone, problems sometimes
arose when groups tried to practice their faith in an organized
manner. He added that churches could not be issued permits to
build until they were recognized. However, they could only be
recognized after they had gathered informally for a time and then
asked for permission. Unrecognized churches needed to be
disbanded because they were built without permits and were
inherently dangerous.

7. (SBU) Emphasizing that all legal church and social activities
were allowed so long as they did not harm society, Chairman Tai
gave his personal assurance that no provincial official had ever
tried to disband an existing church, or attempt to force the
renunciation of anyone's religious faith. Referring to the list
of specific cases provided by the Consul General on her last
visit, he assured the Ambassador that none of the 43 individuals
named could have been arrested for religious reasons because none
were on the provincial list of religious believers. The
Ambassador suggested Chairman Tai send the list to MPS to see if
any of the 43 was on the list of people who had actually been

8. (SBU) The provincial SECV Representative Board provided a
surprisingly frank assessment of the situation faced by
Protestants in Dak Lak. The local Board consists of ethnic
minority Ede pastors Y Ta and Y Ke Eban, as well as Truong Xuan
Dieu, a former chaplain in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and
the current legal pastor of the recognized church in Phuoc An.
They received the Ambassador in the home (and house church) of an
unrecognized Kinh pastor who serves as secretary to the Board.
Pastor Dieu was unable to attend. Speaking generally about
conditions for worship in Dak Lak, the pastors noted that the two
legal churches (Pastor Dieu's mixed Kinh and Ede congregation and
Pastor Mai Hai's predominantly Ede congregation in town) were able
to operate regular Sunday schools. Most of the remainder of the
province's Protestants practiced their faith at home, but some
still gathered together unofficially. While there were not enough
bibles to go around, the Board had requested more from provincial
authorities and the SECV offices in HCMC.

9. (SBU) The three pastors affirmed that there were currently
four applications for recognition pending government approval --
three belonging to them and a fourth for an ethnic minority M'nong
pastor in Dak Min District. The four congregations had close to
5,000 members between them (the Kinh was the smallest, with only
500), and the government had promised they would be approved this
year. They understood that the government needed to look at the
background of the pastors and the "conditions of worship" among
the believers, but assured the Ambassador that they were all
"authentic" Protestants.
"Troublemakers" sometimes came to local house churches talking of
separatism, but there was no contact with foreigners. The pastors
then confided that they had actually forwarded 70 applications for
recognition in late 2002. Provincial authorities had then picked
out just the four for possible approval.

10. (SBU) Comment: While the meetings with provincial officials
covered little or no new ground, the rather startling revelation
by the SECV Board regarding the large number of applications
submitted for official recognition provides the first real
evidence that the GVN has been going slow on new church approvals.
Prior to departing for the trip, ConGenoffs heard a similar
allegation from a Lam Dong pastor with whom they met in HCMC.
According to that source, all of the house churches in Lam Dong
had already applied for recognition through the appropriate SECV
channels. There, too, the provincial authorities seemed to be
picking and choosing a few churches for possible recognition,
while the others were afraid to press for attention. At the very
least, this points to something less than honesty and fair dealing
from the provincial administrations (and possibly the central
government). At the same time, this new information may present a
unique opportunity to challenge the government on the slow rate of
approvals and bring light to what has thus far been a very opaque
process. The bottom line, though, is that despite GVN heavy-
handedness and not atypical slow operating procedures, religious
life for Christians continues, albeit mostly in non-recognized,
unofficial church gatherings.

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