Cablegate: Ambassador Hanford Calls On Local Officials, Legal

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 0770 B) HCMC 0710 C) HCMC 0766 D) HCMC 0933 E)
HCMC 1009 F) HCMC 0993

1. (SBU) Summary: In an October 18 meeting with Ambassador at
Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford, three
leaders of the GVN-recognized Southern Evangelical Church of
Vietnam (SECV) urged continued, focused USG pressure on the GVN to
relax restrictions on unregistered house churches and pastors. At
the same time, they cautioned that designation of Vietnam as a
Country of Particular Concern (CPC) might prove counterproductive,
urging that the GVN be given more time to improve its record. The
SECV is the only legal Protestant church organization in southern
Vietnam. These leaders said their current priorities were to
reopen closed churches, officially ordain greater numbers of
practicing pastors (with more freedom to assign them), open a
bible school in the Central Highlands, and obtain more space for
the HCMC seminary, which just opened in February 2003. Ambassador
Hanford met the following day with HCMC Committee for Religious
Affairs (CRA) chairman Nguyen Ngoc San, who dismissed recent
allegations that the government was targeting unregistered
Protestant house churches in the city.

SECV: We Need More Pastors, Property, and Permission to Worship
--------------------------------------------- -------------------
2. (SBU) The SECV leaders told Ambassador Hanford they had
recently given the GVN a list of 214 confiscated properties that
they wanted returned. They said they would be happy to take new
properties in exchange for old properties that were now beyond
their use. Ideally, they hoped to get back the old Protestant
seminary in Nha Trang, which was confiscated by the GVN in 1976.
The SECV representatives asked Ambassador Hanford to pressure the
GVN on this specific point. As an alternative, they mentioned a
seven-hectare property (10 times the size of the current space
they currently share with the SECV church and offices) that they
already own and could build on immediately, without any need for
outside funding. The SECV leaders admitted that they had
compromised in their haste to make a deal to open the seminary in
HCMC, without waiting for the right conditions. They thought the
GVN probably assumed the SECV would forget all about the old Nha
Trang property once the new seminary opened, but the SECV has not.

3. (SBU) The SECV leaders described a very mixed picture for
Protestant worship in Vietnam. While there is generally more
freedom to worship in urban areas, the situation in the provinces
can often depend much more on local authorities than on central
policies. In the Northwest highlands, they noted, some pastors
are not allowed to be ordained because they let ethnic minorities
worship in their house churches. They also reported stories of
forced renunciations (including some at gunpoint), beatings, and
soldiers moving into homes, but it was unclear how they obtained
this information from the North. The SECV church leaders said it
was "rare" to have "terrible things" like that happen in the
South. Still, they complained that many of the 755 pastors who
had trained "underground" had not been ordained in the South,
despite having been approved by the SECV and the Committee for
Religious Affairs at the central level. They blamed delays on the
provinces, citing the old Vietnamese proverb that, "The authority
of the Emperor stops at the village gate." One leader later
added, "Maybe the GVN is happy to turn a blind eye to the excesses
of the provinces." Another said, "The GVN has the power to make
the provinces obey." Without providing specifics, the SECV
representatives noted that Protestants were discriminated against
in jobs, health care, and education.

4. (SBU) The SECV leaders described a legal Protestant church
which is more and more willing to challenge the GVN on issues that
matter, but still reluctant to cross an invisible line. They said
the GVN had changed its attitude a bit after SECV Acting President
Duong Thanh sent a letter to top government and Communist Party
officials last year urging them to relax restrictions on
Protestant worship in the Central Highlands. The government had
started to make some concessions in words, but had not yet
followed through. One example the SECV representatives gave was
GVN agreement to allow 213 villages in Dak Lak Province to have
their own churches, and to allow "branch" churches outside those
villages to operate freely pending their own recognition. The
SECV leaders are also relying on government promises that the
Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, and WEC (Worldwide Evangelism
Crusade) would soon be allowed to affiliate with the SECV and
register legal churches. They emphasized the need to prioritize
and focus on specific issues in dealing with the GVN.

5. (SBU) All three SECV leaders agreed that designating Vietnam a
CPC could potentially anger the GVN , maybe even leading to the
kind of religious persecution that existed 10 years ago. They
also cautioned that economic sanctions hurt everyone, including
Protestants. ("When the economy is strong, everyone's lives are
better.") They recommended that the USG clearly define priorities
and come back often to measure progress. According to them,
setting deadlines is a useful tool, but not if they forced the
U.S. to actually designate Vietnam as a CPC. The SECV leaders
urged Ambassador Hanford to devise a "pending" CPC list in order
"to threaten" the GVN. Ambassador Hanford reminded the SECV Board
members that he had already set a six-month deadline back in
November 2002 for progress on the release of religious prisoners,
the opening of closed churches, and new church registration.
Unlike many other violations of religious freedom in Vietnam,
these sorts of restrictive actions did not leave much room for
flexibility in avoiding CPC designation. The SECV leaders called
on the U.S. to continue applying constant, steady pressure on the
GVN, but to be careful to "avoid the impression that (you are)
working in concert with the SECV." In the end, however, at least
two of the three leaders agreed with Ambassador Hanford's proposal
that he give the GVN a second chance, but indicate it was likely
Vietnam would be designated if there were not significant
improvement within a short period of time, e.g., about six months.

CRA: Rules are Rules
6. (SBU) Meeting on Sunday, October 19, with Mr. Nguyen Ngoc San,
chairman of the HCMC Committee for Religious Affairs, Ambassador
Hanford stressed that he was here to find a way -- for the good of
the bilateral relationship -- to avoid having to designate Vietnam
as a CPC. Mr. San responded with the usual figures on the growth
of religious worship in HCMC, and the official policy line that
everyone is free to worship on their own (ref A). He described
his role as one of facilitating religious practice, while "helping
government officials in the city carry out their duties."
Ambassador Hanford assured Mr. San that HCMC has a better
reputation for religious freedom than elsewhere in Vietnam, which
made more troubling the occasional reports of disruption of
religious services, confiscation of religious materials, and
imposition of fines for religious activities. Mr. San noted that
there had been dramatic increases in the frequency of travel by
religious leaders, with some traveling six to seven times per
year, as well as in the number of religious publications approved
by the CRA.

7. (SBU) Discussing three recent cases affecting Protestant house
churches in the city which have garnered attention overseas, CRA
chairman San justified government actions which were in accordance
with existing administrative regulations, and faulted the
congregations instead. In the case of the Thu Thiem church in
District 2 (ref B), he noted, the municipal government had allowed
the church to stand, even though it was constructed illegally
without a permit. For the Full Gospel Assembly Church in District
11 (ref C), he accused church members of having organized a prayer
service without permission. The house church in Binh Khanh, Can
Gio (ref D) was also illegally constructed, he said. It was torn
down as part of a wider move to "restore public order" to
residential construction (frequently done without building
permits), and was done only after giving adequate notice.
Ambassador Hanford reminded the CRA chairman of the importance of
allowing even those denominations who do not wish to register to
worship freely. Mr. San reiterated GVN policy that religion
should be practiced only in appropriately designated houses of
worship or at home. But he pointed to support for several
Protestant denominations that have yet to be approved for
registration, such as the Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists, as
proof of the government's flexibility. He also presented the
(somewhat novel) argument that it was necessary to regulate the
many Protestant denominations in order to avoid traffic congestion
and noise pollution. He assured Ambassador Hanford that HCMC
would soon see more religious services in foreign languages to
accommodate the many expatriates in the city.

8. (SBU) Mr. San told Ambassador Hanford the GVN was eager to
facilitate the training needs of all religions in order to ensure
quality leaders. Toward that end, he was supportive of efforts to
expand the cramped facilities of the new SECV seminary. He also
expressed support for more one-month basic training courses,
similar to those that had been conducted since 1993, eight years
before the GVN officially recognized the SECV. Mr. San indicated
there might be some movement toward opening a long awaited seventh
Catholic seminary, but thought it preferable to utilize the former
seminary property at 6 bis Ton Duc Thang (confiscated by the GVN
in 1975), rather than locate new premises in Dong Nai Province.
He claimed to be unaware of any government efforts to block the
ordination of SECV pastors, saying he had just received a list of
ten and approved them all. The CRA's only concern, he claimed,
was for none of the candidates to have a criminal record. He also
denied knowledge of any restrictions on the assignment of SECV
pastors, outside of the usual administrative requirements for
changing one's household registration.

9. (SBU) Responding to a question on confiscated properties, the
CRA chairman observed that properties formerly operated as
hospitals and schools by various religious groups would continue
to be utilized by the GVN for those same functions, but for the
welfare of everyone. For other types of buildings, such as
churches and offices, GVN policy was to return the property, pay
cash compensation, or provide property of equivalent value. He
said only four such properties remained in government hands: 6 bis
Ton Duc Thang, 171 Ly Thuc Thang, 43 Nguyen Thang, and 320 Le Van
Sy. Asked about the former Protestant church across the street
from the Consulate at 2 bis Le Duan (ref E), he said he was
unaware of a confiscated property at that address, but would check
into it. He declined to comment officially on the return of the
seminary in Nha Trang, as it lies geographically outside the
borders of his jurisdiction, but he seemed certain it would be
returned one day soon, now that the GVN had recognized the SECV.

10. (SBU) Mr. San used the same technique to deflect concerns over
recent government action (ref F) against leaders of the banned
Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV). He pointed out that
since the UBCV was not itself a legal organization, it was not
permissible to organize religious or organizational activities
under that name. When the leaders of the outlawed group were
found to be in possession of "state secrets" following their
illegal organizational meeting in Quy Nhon, the GVN had no choice
but to "administratively detain" those involved. Oddly enough, he
said that only Thich Tue Sy, Thich Thanh Huyen, and Thich Nguyen
Ly had been administratively detained in HCMC, pending further
investigation, while UBCV Deputy Thich Quang Do was not. Asked if
USG officials could meet with Thich Quang Do, however, he advised
that Thich Quang Do was still under investigation and hoped the
USG would be patient during this "sensitive time." He promised to
"create favorable conditions" for such a visit as soon as

11. (U) Ambassador Hanford did not have a chance to clear this
cable before his departure.


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