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Cablegate: Cirfdel Surveys Religious Freedom in Vietnam: Catholics

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

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 HO CHI MINH CITY 000076

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

DEPARTMENT FOR EAP/BCLTV, DRL/IRF, H

E. O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM SOCI PREL PGOV OTRA KIRF VM RELFREE HUMANR
SUBJECT: CIRFDEL SURVEYS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN VIETNAM: CATHOLICS
AND UBCV BUDDHISTS IN HUE


Summary
-------
1. (U) Dr. Scott Flipse, senior policy analyst at the U.S.
Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) traveled
through Hanoi, Hue, the Central Highlands, and Ho Chi Minh City on
an official fact-finding mission from January 7-16. He was joined
by Mr. George Phillips, from the office of Rep. Chris Smith (R-
NJ), and Ms. Hannah Royal, from the office of Senator Sam
Brownback (R-KS), who traveled in their personal capacities under
the sponsorship of a U.S.-based NGO, the Committee for Religious
Freedom in Vietnam, which was represented on this trip by
Vietnamese-American Catholic priest Tam Tran. Septels report on
their meetings in Hanoi, the Central Highlands and HCMC.

2. (SBU) While in Hue on January 10, the CIRFDEL held official
discussions with the Chairman of the Provincial People's Committee
and the Archbishop of the Hue Archdiocese. The delegation
declined a number of other official appointments suggested by the
People's Committee in favor of arranging their own meeting with
the highest-ranking Buddhist monk of the local branch of the
outlawed UBCV. They were less successful in attempts to meet
secretly with a local dissident Catholic priest at his home, where

SIPDIS
they were turned away close to midnight by a large security
detail. The meetings produced mixed messages on the situation for
the large Catholic and Buddhist communities in the province (there
are very few Protestants in Hue). While their private meetings
confirmed the very real problems faced by the underground Buddhist
church and a small number of Catholic dissidents, the official
meetings sounded a much more positive note on the overall freedom
to practice religion in Thue Thien-Hue.

People's Committee Cites Overall Improvements, but Slams
Dissenters
--------------------------------------------- ---------------------
-
3. (SBU) In their meeting with Chairman Nguyen Van Me of the Thua
Thien-Hue Provincial People's Committee, the CIRFDEL outlined the
potential for the human rights/religious freedom situation in
Vietnam to slow down an otherwise growing bilateral relationship
with the U.S. Citing the weight of the evidence from a large
number of similar complaints as proof that the situation was
deteriorating, they affirmed they were seeking nothing more than
for Vietnam to adhere to the standards it had already acceded to
in various international agreements and lift the restrictions on
religious practice and organization. Raising the continued
harassment of local monks from the banned Unified Buddhist Church
of Vietnam (UBCV), they questioned what threat a small group of
elderly monks could pose to Vietnam's national security. Noting
that central government officials in Hanoi blamed local officials
for any unintended violations of Vietnam's constitutional
protections of religious freedom, they asked Chairman Me for his
views on the situation in Hue.

4. (SBU) Chairman Me hoped that the United States would see the
human rights/religious freedom issue in Vietnam through a wider
and more culturally sensitive lens, and stressed that American
values, unlike American products, could not be exported wholesale
without regard to the cultural values of the receiving state. He
also focused heavily on the importance of preserving national
unity and social stability, accusing a small group associated with
the former southern regime of using religion to regain power.
Drawing frequently on the legacy of the war and the misdeeds of
his former adversaries, the Chairman stressed that the GVN had
chosen not to punish their old foes in the interest of national
reconciliation, the latest example of which was the visa just
issued to former Republic of Vietnam Prime Minister and later Vice
President Nguyen Cao Ky to celebrate Tet with family and friends
in his homeland for the first time in almost 30 years. The
Chairman said he was well aware of the regular Internet traffic
reporting on alleged violations of human rights/religious freedom
from both inside and outside the country, but pointed to greater
economic freedom and the GVN's focus on improving living
conditions overall as proof of the government's good intentions.

5. (SBU) Falling back on statistics to demonstrate what he
described as an ever improving religious freedom situation, he
said there were currently 500 Buddhist monks and nearly as many
pagodas in Hue, a number of which had been recently constructed or
renovated to serve the province's 440,000 Buddhists (nearly 50
percent of the population). The Hue Institute of Buddhism,
established just five years ago, had trained over 500 monks and
scholars, some of whom had been sent overseas for post-graduate
study. The Buddhists were able to publish religious materials and
organize charitable activities, such as kindergartens for orphans
and health care facilities for the poor. The Chairman described
similar developments for the province's 55,000 Catholics. Nearly
all of Hue's 115 churches -- staffed by 110 priests and hundreds
of lay workers -- had been rebuilt since the war, and the Hue
seminary was set shortly to receive 40 new students for its sixth
incoming class. Like the Buddhists, the Catholics were able to
operate orphanages and health centers for the disabled and poor.

6. (SBU) Returning to the war legacy and national reconciliation,
Chairman Me stated repeatedly that the GVN did not want to arrest
religious leaders, but was forced to do so when they flagrantly
violated Vietnam's laws. Even then, he said, they arrested only
the "soldiers," and only after giving them numerous chances to
cease their political activities. He noted that the UBCV's own
leadership had chosen to integrate with the Vietnam Buddhist
Sangha (VBS) -- an organization that now represented 99 percent of
the country's Buddhists -- in 1981. Dismissing the notion of the
UBCV as a separate entity, he questioned why the GVN should allow
a few dissident monks to break away and form an independent church
when they represented only troublemakers waving the flag of the
former regime from overseas. Softening his stance just a bit, he
observed that the UBCV would not have had any problems if they had
just operated quietly, without openly declaring their hostility
and opposition to the government. Citing the example of Le Quang
Liem -- a former Hoa Hao militia leader during the war and now a
vocal critic of the government recognized Hoa Hao religious
organization -- he claimed that supporters of the old regime had
simply replaced their military uniforms with clerical robes to
continue the fight against the current government under the guise
of religion.

7. (SBU) Chairman Me made it quite clear that individuals who used
the cloak of religion to fight against the government would not be
tolerated. He noted that dissident Catholic priest Thaddeus
Nguyen Van Ly was in prison because he had ignored repeated
warnings to cease his political activities, not for practicing his
faith. He criticized the delegation for attempting to visit
Father Ly's associate, Father Phan Van Loi, the previous evening,
and asked why they would want to meet with an underling if they
had already met with Father Ly in Hanoi. Asked directly if he
could give his approval for the delegation to meet with him later
in the day, he claimed not to even know where Father Loi lived,
(despite the fact that close to 20 security officials were posted
outside his home the previous evening when the delegation stopped
by unannounced). He did, however, seem to know enough about the
case to raise doubts as to whether Father Loi had ever been
ordained as a priest (he was apparently ordained in secret in a
northern diocese and did not have the Church's permission to serve
as a priest in Hue). Noting that Father Loi represented no one
but himself, he directed the delegation to the materials the
dissident priest had himself placed on the Internet for insight
into why his movements might currently be restricted.

8. (SBU) Chairman Me quickly dismissed the question of confiscated
Catholic properties in the province as one of eminent domain,
although he admitted that some land had been redistributed
immediately after the war. Regarding the Shrine of Our Lady of
Perpetual Help, claimed by the Redemptorist Order, he said the
former Archbishop of Hue had donated the property to the
government. He attributed more recent allegations of government
intrusion on the grounds of the Thien An Benedictine Monastery and
the Ke Sung Church to the routine development of necessary
infrastructure projects (although he made sure to point out that
the grounds around Thien An had been confiscated originally due to
their use by former South Vietnamese President Diem as a base for
anti-communist activities). Other Catholic properties had been
turned into much needed schools and health care facilities.

Hue Archbishop Guarded but Mostly Positive
------------------------------------------
9. (SBU) Sounding a relatively more positive tone, Hue Archbishop
Nguyen Nhu The characterized the fundamental issue as conflicting
definitions of religious freedom. While the government viewed
freedom to worship as the overriding goal, the Catholic Church saw
it as encompassing much more. He hoped the views of the two sides
would merge over time. He already believed that things were
getting better every year, and hoped that the international
community would advocate for his church in a sensitive way that
respected the Asian mentality. Anything more direct would be
counterproductive to the goals of the Church. While they still
needed government approval to ordain priests, those approvals were
getting easier to obtain, and he had personally ordained 53
priests in his 10 years at the Archdiocese. The seminary,
meanwhile, was able to draw seminarians from the Archdiocese of
Hue, Danang, and Kontum.

10. (SBU) Describing the Father Ly case as complicated, he said
that he had often counseled the priest on his behavior and even
worked out an agreement to move him to a new parish without any
prodding from the government. Unfortunately, Father Ly had
continued his activities at the new parish, despite the
Archbishop's frequent warnings that priests should not be involved
in politics. The Archbishop noted that he had sent a delegation
of clergy and lay workers to visit Father Ly after his arrest and
that he had found God in prison. He knew that Father Loi had at
one time been under government restrictions after Father Ly's
arrest in April 2001, but thought the recent presence of security
agents outside his home the previous night might have been related
to the fact that police knew the delegation was in town. He
stated plainly that Father Loi had no canonical relationship with
the Hue Archdiocese and had never sought his permission to join.
(Note: According to the CIRFDEL's unofficial interpreter, local
officials had once told Father Loi that he could become part of
the Hue Archdiocese if he renounced Father Ly. The interpreter
also described Father Loi as one of four Catholic priests to call
for the complete overthrow of the GVN. End note.)

11. (SBU) The Archbishop said they hadn't asked for the return of
any confiscated properties because government limitations on
charitable works left them with little use for the old hospitals
and schools. He claimed not to know the status of the Thien An
property, but said the monks were in dialogue with the government
on the issue. He didn't think the monks wanted all of the
original 107 hectares back -- just enough for a buffer zone to
maintain a spiritual environment. He was even less sure of the
status of the Redemptorist property, although he thought the
government had already built a clinic on the site. He had heard
of a physical altercation involving the police and several church
workers trying to stop road construction outside the Ke Sung
Church, but didn't think it was very serious. Looking at the case
from a legal standpoint, he said the Church was fine with building
a new road if it was open to the general public and didn't affect
the spiritual environment. Nevertheless, the Church had also
prepared a proposal for an alternative road to be funded by the
Archdiocese. As for the Marian Shrine at La Vang -- a property
located outside the provincial border in neighboring Quang Tri
Province, but within his Archdiocese -- the Archbishop said that
while there had been complete freedom for pilgrims over the last
five to six years, the local district People's Committee still
refused to recognize the Church's ownership, despite recognition
at the provincial level. Overall, he thought relations were
better with Thua Thien-Hue than with Quang Tri.

UBCV Monks Resist GVN Control
-----------------------------
12. (SBU) The CIRFDEL made an unannounced stop at Tu Hieu Pagoda
to visit with Thich Thien Hanh, leader of the influential Hue
branch of the UBCV. As with the attempted visit to Father Loi,
the local authorities seemed to know the delegation was planning
to visit, and two individuals loitering outside the premises
entered the monk's chamber bearing wrapped Tet gifts just ahead of
the delegation. Those apparent security agents, and another two
or three who arrived as the meeting began, eavesdropped visibly
from just inside the door for the first 20 minutes, until Thich
Hien Hanh rose from his chair and ushered them out the door.
Although he whispered quite a bit, Thich Hien Hanh did not seem
uncomfortable speaking in the presence of security officials. He
told the group he was feeling well after his hunger strike in late
October, but was not allowed to leave the pagoda without
permission. He had been able to send a monk to visit Thich Huyen
Quang in Quy Nhon five days earlier and confirmed that the UBCV
Patriarch's health was good and he was getting adequate medical
attention. Unfortunately, there was a large police presence at
his pagoda, and he appeared to be living under the threat that he
would be moved to a pagoda near Nha Trang if he did anything to
attract attention. For that reason, Thich Thien Hanh asked that
USG officials refrain from attempting to visit the Patriarch for
the time being. The Hue Buddhist leader also acknowledged that he
was in telephone contact with UBCV Deputy Thich Quang Do,
currently under unofficial pagoda detention in HCMC, and that he
was also in reasonably good health.

13. (SBU) Thich Thien Hanh blamed the problems of the UBCV on the
fact that the communists simply didn't like religion and wanted to
eliminate groups it could not control, but vowed that the UBCV
would never submit to GVN influence. He attributed the GVN's
seemingly schizophrenic treatment of the UBCV, from the spring
2003 releases of the UBCV's top leadership to the autumn 2003
crackdown, to a split within the GVN and the Party over how to
deal with the religious issue. Under the current restrictions, it
was difficult to groom young leaders and communicate the basic
message to UBCV followers, especially when believers could be
punished simply for visiting monks like him. Fortunately, he was
able to maintain contact with the outside world, including to the
International Buddhist Information Bureau in Paris, through
Internet hookups hidden inside the pagoda. He hoped foreign
governments would use official development assistance to pressure
the GVN and the Communist Party -- the real beneficiaries of such
aid -- to change their policies, despite the economic impact on
the general populace. The poor, he said, would suffer anyway.

14. (U) The delegation did not have an opportunity to clear this
cable before leaving Post.
YAMAUCHI

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