Cablegate: Ambassador Hanford Investigates Abuses in the Central

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 1087 B) HCMC 1093 C) HCMC 2897

1. (SBU) Summary: Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious
Freedom John Hanford traveled to Gia Lai and Dak Lak provinces
from October 20-22 to meet with local officials and gain a
firsthand view of conditions for Protestant worship in Vietnam's
Central Highlands. Raising the specter of Country of Particular
Concern (CPC) status, Ambassador Hanford laid out demands for an
end to serious abuses (such as arrests, beatings and forced
renunciations), called for the reopening of closed churches, and
urged speedier registration of house churches wishing to affiliate
with the government recognized Southern Evangelical Church of
Vietnam (SECV). He left lists of religious prisoners with
provincial leaders and promised to follow up. As expected, local
officials did not admit to any serious violations of religious
freedom in their provinces. Still, the visit provided some unique
insights into life in this heavily controlled area of Vietnam, as
Ambassador Hanford met with local Protestant leaders and sought to
investigate allegations of abuse in remote villages on the drive
between the two provinces. Ambassador Burghardt and Consul
General joined him on the trip. Reftels report on official and
unofficial meetings in HCMC and Hanoi. End summary.

2. (SBU) Meeting on October 20 with Gia Lai People's Committee
Chairman Nguyen Vi Ha and other local officials responsible for
overseeing ethnic minority and religious affairs, Ambassador
Hanford stressed the need to reopen more than 300 churches that
had been closed since the ethnic unrest of early 2001, as well as
to speed up registrations for those churches wanting legal
recognition. He also called on the Chairman to prevent abuses by
local police, such as beatings and forced renunciations. He said
he had received information on such abuses from too many sources
to believe they were overstated. What's more, his information
indicated the majority of those being oppressed were true
Christian believers with legitimate, peaceful motives. Only a
"tiny percentage" belonged to the Dega separatist movement.
Chairman Ha denied police pressure on religious believers, but
added that both Dega and former FULRO elements are a real threat
and had infiltrated many churches. He promised no one is in
prison in Gia Lai for purely religious reasons. Those individuals
in prison are there because of their allegiance to Dega or other
political agendas, or for common criminal acts incompatible with

3. (SBU) According to Chairman Ha, there are 71,000 Protestants in
five different denominations in Gia Lai Province. Nearly all
(66,000) belong to the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA),
the principal denomination of the SECV. Seven churches have been
legally registered, but registration requires that a congregation
have both approved facilities and a government recognized pastor.
(The deputy head of the Committee for Religious Affairs pointed
out that there were only 31 Protestant churches in the province
before 1975.) There are only four legal pastors and seven lay
pastors at the moment, but two students from the province are
studying at the new SECV seminary in HCMC. Protestants who do not
live near one of the legal churches are still free to worship
quietly at home pending registration of their own churches, but
Chairman Ha did not see the need to allow worshippers to gather in
large numbers at "temporary" house churches. He rejected the
notion that the government had closed churches by refusing to
recognize house churches as legitimate churches. He acknowledged,
however, that 20 Dega churches had been closed. The Chairman
asked for more time to deal with the registration of new SECV
churches, faulting the SECV for organizational delays in
identifying suitable new churches.

4. (SBU) Ambassador Hanford met with Dak Lak provincial People's
Committee Chairman Nguyen Van Lang and a similar supporting cast
on October 21, and inquired about reports that hundreds of
churches had been closed and registrations of new churches were
proceeding very slowly. Like Chairman Ha, Chairman Lang noted the
importance of training qualified pastors to lead new
congregations. He confirmed that there are still only two legal
Protestant churches for the entire province, with five more still
under consideration. While he admitted that the Dak Lak
provincial SECV Representative Board had included 70 congregations
on its list for eventual registration, he said they had only
submitted applications for five. Meanwhile, he said, most of the
province's 120,000 Protestant believers (40,000 "baptized")
continue to worship at home in small family units of up to six or
seven. Ambassador Hanford challenged Chairman Lang to explain
what appeared to be official documents calling on local officials
to eradicate Christianity and obtain renunciations. Ambassador
Hanford also criticized the reported closure of 440 churches and
provided specific cases of beatings and forced renunciations. He
said that every Christian leader with whom he had spoken had
assured him that the Dega represented a very small percentage of
the overall Christian population. When Chairman Lang blamed the
U.S. for supporting the Dega movement, Ambassador Burghardt asked
for concrete information that anyone in the U.S. was lending
support to activities seeking the overthrow by violence of the
current GVN. Ambassador Burghardt also urged Chairman Lang not to
block passports for Dak Lak residents seeking to join relatives
who had been resettled in the U.S. under various refugee programs.

5. (SBU) Meetings with members of the provincial SECV
representative boards in the two provinces provided a contrasting
picture. In Gia Lai, the board members told Ambassador Hanford
that they had been given a different time for the meeting. Hence
the two Protestants believers whom they had invited from 25
kilometers away, where there had been many recent incidents of
government repression, were unable to attend. The SECV board
members said there were two applications for registration under
consideration, and three more in the preparation stage.
Unfortunately, they were only allowed to submit applications for
congregations that they already knew would be approved. In
addition to 347 churches which had been closed, they cited another
500 "meeting points" which had experienced problems. They
estimated that the government had completely shut down
approximately 50 percent of the total number of worship places,
and regularly visited another 30 percent in order to disrupt
services. The remaining 20 percent of the congregations
functioned more-or-less normally. The SECV board members thought
there were at least 30,000 Protestants of other denominations in
the province, in addition to the 66,000 CMA and 5000 "others"
cited by provincial Chairman Ha. The board members told
Ambassador Hanford that many Christians had been beaten in remote
areas recently. Back in August, board members were visited by a
man from a village 60 kilometers away who was beaten so badly that
he had blood in his urine. A few villagers from neighboring Kon
Tum Province had visited just last week to report that 20 or 30
Christians were beaten in Sa Thay District. Some had bruises and
needed medication.

6. (SBU) Asked about the presence of Dega Protestants in the
province, the Gia Lai SECV board said between 3000-5000 declared
Dega admitted their affiliation openly. They estimated there were
another 14,000-17,000 "undeclared" Dega followers who sympathized
with the movement's goals. When pressed as to whether they were
saying that potentially 20,000 of the 90,000 Protestants in Gia
Lai Province could be Dega followers/sympathizers, this reliable
source said yes. (Note: These Dega numbers are much higher than
the Mission had previously thought, as Dega membership has usually
been described as "small" or "insignificant." The Dega openly
advocate autonomy from the GVN, with some Dega advocating violence
to achieve a separate state. Since this particular SECV board
member is often considered a reliable source for negative
information regarding GVN actions against Protestant believers, we
were surprised to hear him acknowledging such large numbers of
Dega. End Note.)

7. (SBU) In Dak Lak, the SECV Board said 20 out of 400 churches
are presently allowed to operate normally. Claiming they had been
cut off from much of their community by restrictions on travel,
however, they were unable to personally confirm that 300 house
churches had been asked to close since the start of 2001. They
had heard that pastors were warned several times to cease their
illegal services, then ordered more forcefully to desist, or made
to sign documents promising not to conduct services until they
were legal. They had only secondhand knowledge of forced
renunciations, saying they thought it had happened in some places
where Christians were "weak and uneducated." They had only
secondhand information on beatings as well. Presented with a list
of four individuals, they knew nothing specific about the
circumstances, although they knew the individuals and had heard
they were beaten. Presented with a list of pastors believed to be
imprisoned simply because of their normal religious activities,
they said they knew most of them and did not believe them to be
Dega, although the government did.

8. (SBU) Ambassador Hanford also visited three remote rural
villages in the two provinces to try to meet with individuals
alleged to have suffered at the hands of the government for their
religious belief. These stops were arranged by pastors in HCMC
with extensive contacts in the Central Highlands, and included
only individuals who had agreed to meet with the Ambassador. In
all three cases, the traveling party was "escorted" by numerous
police, both uniformed and plainclothes, who sometimes seemed to
materialize out of nowhere and blanket the neighborhood.
Residents were understandably unwilling to talk under those
circumstances, and it was impossible to locate anyone who even
admitted to having heard of any of these individuals.

9. (U) Ambassador Hanford did not have an opportunity to clear
this message before his departure.

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