Cablegate: Gvn Confirms Central Highlands Decree On Churches

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


1. (U) Summary: The Government Committee on Religious
Affairs (CRA) envisions its December 2003 decree on
relations with the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam
(SECV) as reestablishing a "normal" situation for the
Protestants in the Central Highlands. The CRA sees the
approval of ten new congregations and pastors since its
release as evidence of the decree's rapid impact. A school
for training still-unofficial SECV preachers likely will
open this year. The CRA remains concerned about security
concerns in the area, however, and does not plan to relax
rules requiring government certification of both church
buildings and pastors. End Summary

2. (U) In a March 4 meeting, Nguyen Thanh Xuan, CRA Vice
Chairman and Director of its Department for Protestant
Affairs, described to poloff what he called the "gradual
return to normal operations" for the SECV in the Central
Highlands, and said that the December 4 decree was the
"official document to guide" this process (reftel). He
claimed that the CRA was actively involved in "helping local
officials understand the points" in the decree. Xuan said
that it is "impossible" to determine the exact number of
Protestants in the Central Highlands, but noted that there
were 26 congregations and 33 pastors officially registered
already, as well as 335 SECV preachers. (Note: These
"preachers" are mostly leaders of house churches who have
not been officially trained at a recognized Vietnamese
seminary and do not have, or have not sought, GVN approval
to lead an official congregation. End Note.) Xuan also
pointed out that eight of the 50 students currently studying
in the SECV's seminary in Ho Chi Minh City are from the
Central Highlands, a number he said was determined by the
SECV itself. (Note: The local CRA offices still screen the
seminary nominees from each province, however. End Note)

3. (U) The first point of the December 4 decree encourages
all officially recognized congregations to apply for
construction permits for worshipping places. Xuan suggested
that GVN concerns are largely in regard to building codes.
He added, however, that if a congregation could not afford
to construct a new church, using a private house for worship
is "acceptable" -- so long as local authorities agree.

4. (U) The decree's second point encourages churches
participating in "normal" religious practice -- and not
involved in the Dega separatist movement -- to begin to
register with local authorities even in advance of meeting
all criteria for official recognition. Xuan admitted the
problems in the past when unregistered Protestant groups
could not legalize their situation without having a church
and a pastor, but could not obtain a meeting space or
official pastor without being officially recognized in the
first place. He said this problem now would not be
"overwhelming," but cautioned that all congregations were
still subject to security laws, and required approval from
local authorities. Since the issuance of the decree, ten
new congregations had been recognized, Xuan claimed. Noting
the shortage of officially recognized pastors, he suggested
that the SECV might set up some large congregations with
several "sub-congregations" and church buildings under the
authority of a single pastor. He noted that some pastors
were already traveling to minister to different
congregations within the Central Highlands without

5. (U) The third point of the decree invites the SECV to
begin preparations to open Bible courses for preachers in
the Central Highlands. Xuan said that this was intended to
be something far short of a full seminary program that would
allow preachers currently operating in the highlands to
obtain sufficient training to become pastors and take over
an officially registered congregation. He noted that,
subsequent to the decree, the SECV had submitted a formal
proposal to open such a Bible school, but said that the SECV
had not "fully thought through" the requirements of
buildings, materials, and lecturers needed to open such a
facility. Xuan added that the CRA had concerns about
preachers with less than a secondary school diploma
attending such a course, as they "couldn't benefit" from the
instruction. Nonetheless, Xuan predicted the school would
be opened "in the middle of this year."

6. (U) Xuan did not offer much elaboration on the fourth and
final point of the decree -- that "other activities such as
the reinstatement, ordination, or appointment of pastors . .
. should be carried out normally in accordance with the law"
-- other than to say that the naming of new pastors should
be a "normal" practice. He declared it was up to the SECV
to determine what background and experience were required
for an individual to be named as a preacher, but added that
the certification by the CRA would still be required. Xuan
noted that ten new pastors had been recognized since the
decree was issued. These ten were exceptional cases; all of
them had studied at -- or graduated from -- seminaries in
South Vietnam before 1975, and had been serving as preachers
ever since.

7. (U) Comment: Xuan tempered many of his promises of
improved conditions by qualifications that "normal
practices" would have to be followed, that security was a
concern, and that government oversight would not disappear.
Nonetheless, it appears that the CRA wants to "legalize" the
highlands churches, giving them a more transparent structure
-- and also providing more opportunities for official
oversight. It is now up to the Protestants in the region to
determine whether the embrace of the state-sanctioned church
is preferable to their current unofficial status. Some are
clearly eager to take advantage of the new opportunity; the
number of ten new congregations and pastors registered in
the last three months has been confirmed to the Mission
through other sources. A number of house church leaders
have dismissed the decree, however, saying it is a "hollow
promise" meant to satisfy the international community. This
likely portends continuing divisions between recognized and
unrecognized Protestant communities and between the
Protestants and the GVN.

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