Cablegate: Codel Brownback: Focus On Religion

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: Hanoi 059

1. (U) Summary: In a series of official meetings in Hanoi on
January 8, Senator Samuel Brownback expressed concerns about
continuing, and perhaps increasingly severe, measures to
restrict religious freedom in Vietnam. He urged the
Government of Vietnam to act quickly to end these
restrictions, saying that until the issue is resolved,
Congress will continue to find ways to express its
disapproval of the situation for religious practitioners in
Vietnam. Brownback also urged the GVN to lift its
suspension of US beef imports as soon as possible. GVN
officials claimed that religious freedom exists in Vietnam,
and that misperceptions abroad are caused by incorrect
information. The GVN somewhat surprisingly granted Senator
Brownback's request to visit Father Nguyen Van Ly, an
imprisoned Catholic priest (reftel). End Summary

Message on Religious Freedom

2. (U) In his various meetings with the GVN, Senator
Brownback explained that his major purpose in coming to
Vietnam was to study religious freedom in the country. He
said there is a growing perception in Congress that, while
the situation for religious believers had been improving,
after the signing of the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade
Agreement in December 2001 there has been a crackdown on
religious freedom. Senator Brownback emphasized that this
is an important issue in Congress, and if the Vietnamese do
not address it, then Congress will find ways to make its
displeasure known. The Senator assured GVN officials that
"this does not have to be an impediment to our relations"
and advised GVN officials that "you will determine how fast
our relations grow" by how quickly this issue is dealt with
successfully. Senator Brownback noted that he planned to
hold Congressional hearings on religious freedom in Vietnam
in the near future.


3. (U) Vice Foreign Minister Le Cong Phung noted the
positive trend of U.S. - Vietnam relations, but also
expressed concern about a number of issues including trade
disputes about catfish and shrimp, and moves in Congress to
link non-humanitarian aid to progress on human rights
issues, condemn Vietnam's treatment of the Unified Buddhist
Church of Vietnam, and urge that Vietnam be named a Country
of Particular Concern for violations of religious freedom.
He further emphasized that Vietnam is always willing to
engage the United States in dialogues. VFM Phung stated
that Brownback had received misleading or incorrect
information from sources in America. Brownback pointed out
that allegations of mistreatment came from a number of
sources, lending weight to the claims. Senator Brownback
presented VFM Phung with a list of prisoners of concern, and
the VFM promised to provide information about the cases.


4. (U) Vice Minister of Public Security Le Van Huong
separately cited improving relations between the U.S. and
Vietnam, and said the MPS particularly welcomes continued
exchanges of information with the USG on a number of
security and law enforcement issues. Speaking about
religious freedom, however, he also said that much of the
information the USG has received is incorrect. Huong
specifically mentioned Vo Van Ai of the International
Buddhist Information Bureau, Kok Ksor of the Montagnard
Foundation, and Ngo Thi Hien of the Committee for Religious
Freedom in Vietnam as sources of distorted or false
information. These individuals oppose the GVN, Huong
alleged, and were manipulating the issue of religious
freedom as a way to attack it. He said that, in truth, the
GVN upholds a policy of freedom of religion, and that this
was reflected in the rapid growth of Protestant groups in
recent years. Addressing specific cases, Huong said that Vo
Van Ai had "instigated" the problems of Thich Huyen Quang
and Thich Quang Do of the UBCV. Ai had sent the two a
recording of a ceremony held in a Buddhist monastery in
Australia in which participants criticized the GVN and flew
the old South Vietnamese flag. In addition, Huong said the
two monks had also sent documents to Ai to be used in this
ceremony. Talking about imprisoned Father Nguyen Van Ly,
Huong said that Ly was convicted for having incited
villagers against civil authorities, and that this had
nothing to do with his religious beliefs. In response to
requests from Senator Brownback, Huong agreed to arrange a
visit to Father Ly for later that afternoon (reftel).


5. (U) At a lunch with the American Chamber of Commerce,
Senator Brownback made brief comments about the importance
of religious freedom issues in Congress and the perception
among many that there had been a worsening of human rights
and religious freedoms in Vietnam after the entry-into-force
of the BTA. Several luncheon attendees described
improvements in religious freedom in Vietnam or commented
that allegations made outside Vietnam of severe repression
in the country were exaggerated. One NGO representative
pointed out that a large number of U.S. faith-based
charities are now conducting humanitarian or development
projects in Vietnam, and all of these groups believed that
measures debated in Congress linking non-humanitarian aid to
improvements in the human rights or religious freedom
situation were counterproductive.

Top leaders

6. (U) In a meeting, Communist Party of Vietnam Secretariat
member and Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan emphasized the
current growth of number of churches and religious adherents
as proof that the Government was not oppressing religion in
Vietnam. He said that some violators of Vietnam's civil
laws were falsely claiming religious oppression, however,
and that this was perhaps misleading USG observers. Senator
Brownback emphasized the number of different sources from
which he had received allegations of abuse, and said that
this lent credence to the charges. Separately, CPV
Politburo member and National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Van
An described himself as a Buddhist and his wife Catholic,
which he said is a sign people were free to believe in
Vietnam. An quoted the US Constitution, said that the
equality of men enshrined in that document could be equated
with the equality of nations, and urged the United States to
pay "due respect to the ideas of different peoples." An
pointed to Vietnam's history and claimed that the French had
used religion to oppress the people and that religion had
been a tool of dissent during Vietnam's past insurrections.
During those times, said An, "churches had become
battlefields, and priests soldiers."

7. (U) In both meetings, Senator Brownback also addressed
the current Vietnamese restrictions on the import of US beef
due to BSE. He urged the GVN to pay attention to the strong
measures the U.S. was taking to guarantee the safety of its
beef, and urged the GVN to lift the restrictions as soon as
possible. Khoan acknowledged USG efforts, and said that the
GVN was acting for health reasons only.

8. (U) Senator Brownback did not have an opportunity to
review this cable before departure.

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