Cablegate: Legal Protestants See Movement On Seminary, New 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

Ref: A) 03 HCMC 235 B) HCMC 573 C) HANOI 1268 D) 03 HCMC 1087

1. (SBU) Several members of the Executive Board of the government-
recognized Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) told the
Ambassador they were moving ahead with plans for construction of a
new seminary campus during a meeting last month at their offices
in HCMC. The Protestant leaders complained that the current space
for Vietnam's only legal Protestant seminary (which opened in
February 2003 on the top two floors of the same building housing
the Saigon Church and the SECV offices - ref A) was insufficient
to meet students' needs. According to board members, the students
receive a free education for the full four years. To qualify for
acceptance, they must have a high school education plus one year
of lay work experience in an SECV church. The seminary is
currently limited by its GVN-approved charter to accepting one
student for every five congregations within each southern
province, for a total of 50 students every two years. Students
must be recommended by at least one local pastor and one
supervisory pastor. While the government screened the first group
of candidates fairly rigorously, the SECV leaders expected next
year's class to be even more carefully scrutinized, now that the
GVN "knows more about the seminary" and has a better sense of
which candidates to reject.

2. (SBU) The SECV hoped to build the new campus on property they
own in HCMC's District 2. This larger facility would allow them
to accept women as well. The current situation, with cramped
facilities above the church, students housed several kilometers
away from their classrooms, and the library in still another
remote location, was not conducive to higher learning. The
pastors told the Ambassador they would fund the construction at
least partially through donations from Christian and Missionary
Alliance (CMA) churches in the U.S. and Korea, with additional
funds from local congregations. (Note: CMA sent the first
Protestant missionaries to Vietnam early in the 20th Century, and
the CMA denomination still dominates Protestantism in the country
today. All of the churches affiliated with the SECV are CMA
churches. Many other CMA churches have chosen not to affiliate
with the SECV in order to avoid any semblance of what they see as
GVN control. In a visit to HCMC in February, the President of the
CMA Church in the U.S. made clear that the CMA prefers its
overseas churches to be self-reliant and does not generally
provide financial support. End note.) With approximately 1.2
million Protestants in the South, one board member said, the SECV
needed to raise just one dollar from each believer. The board
members asked the Ambassador for favorable consideration of visa
applications by seminary students in the future, as some go
overseas for advanced study. In a meeting between the Ambassador
and the seminarians in an upstairs classroom, most of the
questions from the excited students focused on visas as well.

3. (SBU) The board members briefed the Ambassador more generally
on the current state of the SECV, noting that there are over 1000
churches and meeting points throughout the South, 372 of which are
legally registered with the government and officially recognized -
- including 44 in HCMC, 25 in Quang Nam on the central coast, nine
in Danang, 11 in Gia Lai, five in Dak Lak, one in Dak Nong, and
three in Binh Phuoc. They described the current registration
process as very slow, pointing out that it would take a long time
at the present rate to register the 412 house churches in Dak Lak
and Dak Nong, 178 in Gia Lai, 139 in Binh Phuoc, and two in Kon
Tum. The SECV leaders said they had witnessed some progress over
the past three years in their dealings with high-level GVN
officials, but understanding of Protestantism was still minimal
among provincial and lower-level officials. The board members
agreed that Dak Lak was the most difficult province to deal with,
largely because the local officials were "very strong." Asked for
their impressions of the Easter weekend ethnic demonstrations
(refs B and C), they said they had heard many stories (mostly over
the Internet), with casualty figures running from 40 to 400, but
were not at all clear on what had actually happened.

4. (SBU) The SECV leaders told the Ambassador they would be
holding their second general conference next February -- four
years after the first congress in 2001 -- as specified in their
government-approved charter. The most important task of the
general conference participants would be the election of new
leaders. The board members seemed content with the number of
bibles they were allowed to print under the current arrangement
and noted the GVN's willingness to publish ethnic minority
language bibles in the future. They said they had also submitted
a request to publish a Protestant newsletter earlier in the year,
but had yet to hear back from the GVN about permission. Asked for
their opinions on the possible consequences of designating Vietnam
a country of particular concern for religious freedom, the pastors
told the Ambassador that they had been approached to sign a public
letter to the U.S. Congress critical of the GVN, but felt they had
already made their views known to Ambassador-at-Large for
International Religious Freedom John Hanford during his visit here
in October 2003 (ref D).


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