Cablegate: Legal Protestants Hold Unauthorized Meeting: Want

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





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) HCMC 0993 B) HCMC 1000

1. (SBU) In violation of their own GVN-approved charter,
approximately 400 legal pastors and another 400 "lay volunteers"
of the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) met in Ho Chi
Minh City September 10-11. While the 2001 charter allows for only
one conference every four years, the leadership did not want to
wait until 2005. Several members of the SECV Executive Board met
recently with Pol JO to recount the proceedings of this first ever
"General Congregational Meeting." They said the primary focus of
the meeting was the training of church workers and future goals.
Major outcomes included a plan to petition the GVN for the return
of 214 confiscated church properties and to open a new training
center in HCMC. The SECV is the only legal, GVN-recognized
Protestant church for all of southern Vietnam.

2. (SBU) The SECV leaders told Pol JO they had submitted an
official request to the GVN in August seeking the return of 214
pre-1975 church properties in HCMC and the 32 provinces from Quang
Tri south to Ca Mau. Over the years, the GVN had destroyed some
of the structures and converted others to "public" uses. Three
HCMC properties of specific interest named were: 7 Tran Cao Van,
the former "national" Protestant church and now a cultural center;
2bis Le Duan (across the street from the Consulate General), now a
karaoke bar; and Dong Tam in Go Vap District, now closed. The
SECV leaders said they hoped to restore 7 Tran Cao Van to its
former status as their primary church. (The current "main" SECV
church in HCMC is co-located with the offices of the SECV on Tran
Hung Dao Street.)

3. (SBU) The SECV Board also mentioned plans to submit a formal
request within the next month to break ground on a new bible
college in HCMC's District 2 by January 2004. Current facilities,
attached to their offices on Tran Hung Dao Street, were simply
inadequate for their training needs. The Board asked the
Consulate General to raise this issue with local authorities after
the SECV had submitted its official proposal. Linked to this
proposal were plans to request GVN permission for more pastors to
travel overseas for study, especially those seeking advanced
training and degrees. The SECV leaders told Pol JO they had
already been in contact with several seminaries in the U.S.
(Note: Post has already seen a dramatic increase in the number of
both SECV and house church pastors traveling to the U.S. over the
past year. End note.)

4. (SBU) One of the SECV leaders also asked the Consulate General
to raise the issue of foreigner-only worship services with the GVN
at an appropriate opportunity. According to this pastor, local
authorities had broken up a prayer meeting at the Furama Resort
Hotel near Danang about six months ago, telling the exclusively
foreign congregation that such services were illegal. While the
Danang SECV leadership had later submitted a request to establish
a foreigner-only religious service at an area hotel, local
authorities had yet to act on the request. (Note: Foreigner-only
hotel services exist in both HCMC and Hanoi. End Note.)

5. (SBU) Comment: As has often been the case in the past, the
SECV Board members were somewhat reluctant to address most issues
in any detail -- especially those involving difficulties with the
GVN. While the SECV leadership does not seem to have suffered any
repercussions from this unauthorized meeting, at least as of four
weeks after the fact, it will be interesting to see how the GVN
reacts in light of the restrictions placed on leaders of the
banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam after their own meeting
(reftels). Perhaps the absence of any dire consequences indicates
the value of legal recognition in the eyes of the GVN. Whatever
the outcome, the SECV's plans continue to reflect their primary
focus on building up their church step-by-step and a willingness
to try to work through official channels, but also to step outside
the bounds when they see it as necessary to achieving their goals.
Protestant groups in Vietnam that have not joined the SECV often
complain that its leadership is unwilling to take risks. The SECV
decision to hold an "illegal" conference without first getting
permission, as well as their highly publicized letter to the GVN
last year protesting religious repression in the Central
Highlands, suggests that is too simple.


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