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Cablegate: Protestant Church Can Stay -- For Now

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 000710

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

DEPARTMENT FOR EAP/BCLTV, AND DRL

E. O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PGOV SOCI PREL KIRF VM RELFREE HUMANR
SUBJECT: PROTESTANT CHURCH CAN STAY -- FOR NOW

REF: (A) HCMC 520 (B) HCMC 551

1. (SBU) Summary: The HCMC People's Committee has decided that
an illegally constructed Protestant church in the Thu Thiem area
of District 2 can remain open as a house of worship, pending
approval of the required permits. While city officials made clear
that they hold both church leaders and local authorities
responsible for the current impasse, they have nonetheless
promised to speed necessary approvals to allow the church to build
a new, legal structure. End summary.

2. (SBU) Acting Consul General raised the issue of a Protestant
house church recently constructed without permission in HCMC's
District 2 (reftels) during a meeting with Mr. Nguyen Thanh Tai,
Vice Chairman of the HCMC People's Committee. Vice Chairman Tai's
portfolio includes religious affairs. Noting that the new
church's difficulties in obtaining the required permits had been
publicized in a press release by Compass Direct, A/CG offered the
Vice Chairman an opportunity to provide his views on the
situation.

3. (SBU) Vice Chairman Tai seemed immediately aware of the
controversy surrounding the new structure and took advantage of
the opportunity to present the "official" version of events to
avoid "misinformation." Recounting the recent history of the
disputed property, he said that people from the local house church
congregation had originally bought the land under their own names,
then later claimed they wanted to use it for their "house of
worship" (this term was used repeatedly, rather than the more
common Vietnamese word for "church"). That change from a private
to a public purpose led to the current dispute over land-use
rights and created delays in the issuance of permits.

4. (SBU) Permission to build was also held up pending official
recognition for the "new" congregation. (Note: Pastor Truong Van
Nganh, leader of the District 2 congregation, is a legally
recognized pastor with the official Southern Evangelical Church of
Vietnam (SECV). It is not clear, however, whether that status
entitles him automatically to open a legal church in another
location. End note.) A lack of clear communication between the
parties only exacerbated the problem. Meanwhile, some members of
the congregation "took advantage" of the situation to commence the
unauthorized construction.

5. (SBU) Upon learning of the problem, Vice Chairman Tai
immediately convened a meeting with SECV representatives and local
authorities from District 2. (Note: This would appear to be the
meeting that was described in the Compass Direct report as an
appointment with the Committee for Religious Affairs. End note.)
He reprimanded Pastor Nganh for setting a bad example and
chastised him for failing to observe safe building practices at a
site that was deemed to be "sacred" (the Vice Chairman's word) and
would house many worshippers.

6. (SBU) Stating up front that the Pastor had broken the law and
would need to eventually tear down the structure, the Vice
Chairman laid out additional steps the church could take to build
a legal structure on the site. Based on what he called the
"spiritual need" for a church in the area, however, he gave the
congregation permission to use the illegal building until they
received their permit for a new building. At the same time, he
blamed the local authorities for delaying the permits and required
them to sign a document admitting their mistakes. He then
directed the relevant authorities to make sure the land was
properly demarcated and the permits issued.

7. (SBU) Pastor Nganh reported to ConGenoffs earlier that he had
submitted an application for an address for the new church on July
21. The local authorities had denied his request on the grounds
that the construction was illegal. On July 25, the People's
Committee of District 2 had levied a fine for the illegal
construction and ordered him to remove the offending structure.
He was also instructed to withdraw an earlier complaint regarding
the initial denial of his permit and write a letter seeking
reexamination of the issues related to his violation. While
Pastor Nganh felt compelled to comply with these requirements
during the meeting, he had subsequently complained to the HCMC
Committee for Religious Affairs. He was still awaiting their
response. A number of house church pastors associated with the
project but unaffiliated with the SECV criticized Pastor Nganh for
his compromise and pledged to hold the line against removing the
current structure.

8. (SBU) Comment: At this point, the ball seems to rest firmly
in the hands of Pastor Nganh and his followers. Are they willing
and financially able to remove the old church and build a new one?
If so, can they overcome "hard-line" elements in the church that
consider the victory already won and don't want to back down?
While there would still seem to be many questions regarding the
legal status of the congregation in District 2, the highest levels
of the city administration have clearly given them the go-ahead to
carry on religious activities at the site now and in the future if
they accept the compromise that has been offered.
WHITE

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