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Cablegate: Regulating Religion

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 002546

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

STATE FOR EAP/BCLTV AND DRL/IRF

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PGOV SOCI VM HUMANR RELFREE
SUBJECT: Regulating religion

Ref: A. Hanoi 1698 B. Hanoi 0175

1. (SBU) Summary. Vietnamese continue privately to debate
the contents -- but not the merits -- of a new formal
ordinance on religion that would supersede existing
Government-issued regulations with a more definitive and, it
is hoped, clearer version, to be passed by the National
Assembly Standing Committee. Officials claim that the
proposed legislation would mostly ratify existing policy,
rather than institute any sweeping changes. Potentially,
the new ordinance could provide additional protections for
religious groups and workers, but it might also be used to
prosecute those outside the recognized religious bodies or
those who are deemed to use religion for "subversive"
purposes. The GVN's insistence on oversight and vigilance
against perceived anti-State and anti-CPV activities under
the guise of religion is not exclusively focused on
religious groups, however. Instead, this reflects a broader
CPV tradition of on attempting to regulate all aspects of
society "in the interest of the nation," even as actual day-
to-day control and supervision over Vietnamese citizens have
diminished over the past decade. End summary.

Legal precedents
----------------

2. (SBU) According to GVN and CPV participants, there have
now been 21 "discussion seminars" organized by the Vietnam
Fatherland Front including officials from the VFF, the CPV's
Mass Mobilization Commission, and the GVN, as well as by
religious leaders, to debate the proposed contents of a
formal "Ordinance on Religion." The issue is not whether to
have the National Assembly's Standing Committee pass the
legislation; apparently, all agree on the need for
legislation to supplant -- and in a more genuinely
democratic form -- existing government decrees and
Constitutional protections on religion. After passage of an
ordinance, the next goal would be to draft a formal "Law on
Religion" to be considered and approved by the full National
Assembly, but observers predict that this will be many years
in the future. Participants in the discussion seminars
declined to predict with any certainty when there will be
consensus on the language of the new ordinance, but have
expressed mild hope for a revised draft to consider again by
the end of 2003, with a slight chance of presentation to the
NASC in 2004.

3. (U) As detailed in a September 25 article in the CPV's
flagstaff "People" daily (Nhan Dan), the CPV's and GVN's
favorable policy on religion has legal precedents dating
back to September 3, 1945, when Ho Chi Minh presented a
report including a reference to freedom of religion at the
first GVN Cabinet meeting, following his declaration of
independence. One of the first orders of the Cabinet was to
"respect and protect worship centers, temples, churches and
all places of all religions." Ho Chi Minh also signed
Decree 65 on November 23, 1945 giving tax-free status to
religious properties.

4. (U) The same article further detailed how the 1946
Constitution's Article 10 reiterated the principle of
freedom of religion. In the 1959 Constitution's Article 26,
this was modified somewhat to note freedom of religion "to
follow or not follow whatever religion." The 1980
Constitution's Article 68 supplemented this right with a
warning that "no one can use religion to go against the law
and policy of the State." The 1992 Constitution specified
additionally that all religions were "equal before the law"
and that places of religious worship were "protected by
law." It also continued the injunction against using
religion against the law or State policy. These policies
were further promulgated by the GVN in Decree 234 of 1955,
Decree 69 of 1991, and Decree 26 of 1999. The author's main
contention, which he described at length in person to Pol/C
and poloff on October 2, is that CPV and GVN policies on
religion have been consistent and favorable, not that the
current search for new ordinance language or the 7th plenum
resolution on religion (ref b) marked any divergence or new
approach per se.

What's in the new text
----------------------

5. (SBU) A reliable Protestant source provided Pol/C with
what appears to be a recent draft of the proposed ordinance,
although definitely not the very latest version in the wake
of the 21st discussion seminar. Among its salient
provisions:
-- The State "respects and protects" freedom of religion, to
follow or not follow whatever religion;
-- all religious believers, non-believers, and religions
are "equal before the law";
-- all religions must operate "in the framework of the
Constitution and laws of the SRV";
-- all places of religious worship are protected by law;
-- the State "encourages religious activities in the
interest of the nation and the people" and recognizes the
"beautiful cultural and humanitarian values" of religion;
-- the VFF has an important role in promoting "solidarity"
among religions in the process of building and protecting
the nation;
-- the State "strictly bans" any actions to violate the
freedom of belief or religion of citizens as well as
activities to "use" religion or belief in illegal manners;
-- religious believers have the rights to express their
faith, pray at home and in religious centers as well as to
participate in "normal" religious activities and services;
-- religious believers also have the "obligations" to carry
out State regulations about public order and ensure that
religious faith "does not affect carrying out their duties
as citizens"; and,
-- those who wish to become religious workers must do so
voluntarily; those under 16 must have the permission of
their parents or guardian.

6. (SBU) According to the draft, the role of the State
remains pervasive:
-- all religious groups must have a legally acceptable
Charter or set of regulations; the Committee on Religious
Affairs must have accepted their leadership rosters;
-- religious activities and organization fall under the
supervision of the relevant People's Committees; all
exceptional activities (especially outside of normal worship
centers) must have prior permission;
-- the Prime Minister must approve the appointments of
Catholic Cardinals, Bishops, and Apostolic Administrators as
well as equivalent senior officials of other religions;
-- Provincial People's Committee chairmen must approve the
appointments and transfers of other religious workers;
-- the State nonetheless "encourages and creates
conditions" for religious groups or religious believers to
offer humanitarian, health, sports and other cultural
activities, including schools for children.

7. (SBU) Some potential flashpoints in the draft
apparently include:
-- a prohibition on any religious activities that "oppose
the SRV," "divide the people," "hurt ethnic cultural
traditions," have an "influence on public order or
security," "affect public health," "violate the basic
freedoms of others," or undertake "superstitious
activities";
-- a "strict ban" on "illegal proselytizing";
-- raising funds or receiving personnel assistance from
overseas groups or individuals must be according to
"government regulations" or with the permission of the head
of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs;
-- definitions of "belief" as attitudes that "still cannot
be proved or go beyond the natural world" and "religion" as
a "social organization" built according to a "stable"
religious system or group.

Some critiques
--------------

8. (SBU) Embassy also obtained from a reliable source what
appears to be a genuine written summary of an April 4, 2003
meeting by Catholics (including priests, a nun, lawyers, and
other believers) in Ho Chi Minh City to discuss the draft
ordinance. Among the concerns raised by participants were:
-- failure to provide for explicit recognition of the legal
status of all major religious groups (one commentator noted
that only the Protestants and Cao Dai have such formal legal
status so far, but the more numerous Buddhists and Catholics
do not);
-- vagueness in the ordinance about the legal status of
real property belonging to religious groups;
-- while not especially new, provisions for an "irrational"
amount of interference into religious life of citizens by
requiring oversight, the need for "permission," etc.;
-- the draft authorizes religious groups to open schools
for "children," but does not give the option for education
beyond this level, apparently out of GVN "fears" that
religious groups would use these schools to inculcate
religious belief. One participant called for the ordinance
to permit religious individuals and groups to establish even
high schools and universities, just as non-religious
individuals and groups may now do;
-- the reference to "normal" religious activities is
troubling; who defines what is "normal?"
-- a lack of clarity about what would constitute acceptable
religious activities by foreigners in Vietnam.

9. (SBU) Another issue raised by these Catholics as well
as by GVN and CPV participants in various discussion
seminars is how to define legal vs. illegal evangelism and
proselytizing. Participants have noted that this issue
remains difficult to define clearly and that opinions vary
widely on what should and should not be acceptable
practices. They predicted that this will remain a bone of
contention for the foreseeable future.

Comment
-------

10. (SBU) Having a NASC-approved Ordinance in place will
likely not change much in the lives and practices of
religious believers and organizations in Vietnam. The GVN
and CPV will continue to insist on at least administrative
oversight of religious groups, and will remain vigilant
against any sign of anti-State or anti-CPV behavior or
comments by religious individuals and groups. These
tendencies, however, are not exclusively directed against
religion, but are also reflected in how the CPV and GVN deal
with all social and other entities in Vietnam. This long-
standing Leninist impulse to regulate society flies in the
face of the trend over the past decade of diminished day-to-
day control and interference in the lives of Vietnamese
citizens by the GVN and CPV, however. In any event, few if
any observers expect any imminent action on the draft
Ordinance on Religion.
PORTER

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