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Cablegate: Hcmc Religion Committee Discusses Detained Mennonite

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

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 HO CHI MINH CITY 000870

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

DEPARTMENT FOR EAP/BCLTV, DRL/IRF

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM SOCI PGOV SCUL PREL KIRF VM HUMANR RELFREE
SUBJECT: HCMC RELIGION COMMITTEE DISCUSSES DETAINED MENNONITE
PASTOR WITH HOUSE CHURCH LEADER

REF: A)HCMC 0232 B)HCMC 0796 C)HCMC 0789 D)03 HCMC 0251 E)03
HCMC 1222

1. (SBU) Summary: On June 23, ranking officials from the HCMC
Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA) met with Vietnam Evangelical
Fellowship (VEF) leader Pham Dinh Nhan (please protect) to
admonish him over his activities on behalf of detained Mennonite
Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang and, more generally, the underground
house church movement. Although the meeting's primary purpose was
to warn the VEF not to protest Pastor Quang's arrest, Pastor Nhan
said he welcomed the opportunity to discuss the house church
movement with CRA officials, after seeking unsuccessfully for
several years to arrange a formal meeting for his organization.
While his meeting with the CRA did not yield new information about
Pastor Quang, Pastor Nhan told ConGenoffs that police have
continued to question Pastor Quang's wife and at least one other
VEF pastor. He believes that the GVN plans to deal with Pastor
Quang harshly. End Summary.

2. (SBU) On the morning of June 23, Protestant Pastor Pham Dinh
Nhan met with Mr. Vo Ngoc Hue (First Deputy) and Mr. Tran Ngoc Bao
(Catholic and Protestant Affairs) of the HCMC Committee for
Religious Affairs, at their request. He met with ConGenoffs later
that same afternoon. According to Pastor Nhan, the CRA officials
told him they had requested the meeting in response to his March
2004 letter to HCMC Communist Party Secretary Nguyen Minh Triet
concerning the arrests of four Mennonite followers of Pastor Quang
(ref A) earlier that month. They also chastised him for his
letter to the VEF membership regarding Pastor Quang's recent
detention (refs B and C). (Pastor Quang is affiliated with the
VEF.) That letter was also posted on the Internet. The CRA
officials warned Pastor Nhan against sending any further letters
on behalf of the VEF, since the organization is not legally
recognized by the GVN. They emphasized that since the VEF had no
legal rights, no one could refer to the entity as an organization,
draft or send correspondence on its behalf, or claim to serve in a
VEF leadership position.

3. (SBU) Pastor Nhan told ConGenoffs he had challenged the CRA
officials by redirecting the conversation toward a discussion of
the history of the house church movement and its current needs and
struggles in Vietnam. While the CRA continued to focus on the
illegal status of the VEF and the unlawful nature of the group's
activities, he tried to use the meeting as a forum to explain the
house church movement and urge the GVN to allow unregistered
churches to operate freely. Pastor Nhan pointed out to the
officials that believers have waited nearly 30 years for progress
in achieving legal recognition and freedom to worship without
government interference. The officials countered that, while
mistakes had been made in prior decades, the past six years have
seen real change and, as such, the GVN should be evaluated based
only on what has transpired in the more recent past. Furthermore,
the officials claimed the GVN did not interfere with worship at
most house churches, but only those that were "very extreme."
They said the GVN had to "stop" those who were "extreme."

4. (SBU) Pastor Nhan said he had been firm in asserting that
problems remained, even for moderates. He pressed the GVN to stop
slandering Pastor Quang in the press when he had not yet been
convicted of anything. He stressed that the GVN should stop
trying to ignore the existence of house churches by refusing to
grant them legal status. It was time to accept that the house
churches were a fact in Vietnam, as in other countries around the
world. The GVN should work to find a way to accommodate house
churches and address their spiritual needs. While the house
churches in big cities like HCMC rarely had problems, Pastor Nhan
had complained that the lack of clear direction from the central
government allowed provincial police in remote or less developed
areas of the country to take matters into their own hands. He
asserted that most house church members wanted to cooperate with
the GVN, but only if they were allowed to practice their religion
as they wished. The CRA responded that the GVN provides for
spiritual needs by allowing individuals and families to worship
privately in their homes, as well as in registered churches. They
pointed to the expected issuance of a new religious decree in
November that would reaffirm those rights. (Pastor Nhan told
ConGenoffs he was concerned the decree would make the situation
worse for house churches by making organized religious activities
even more restricted and controlled. He worried that this could
lead to "more and more serious conflict.")

5. (SBU) According to Pastor Nhan, the CRA members also told him
it was "not good" that "some among your group" are speaking with
officers at the Consulate General in HCMC. The CRA members
claimed this needlessly inflated small matters that should be
handled without foreign government involvement. However, Pastor
Nhan said he was not worried about his own safety. In fact,
despite their warnings, the pastor was pleased to meet with the
CRA members, because the VEF had been requesting a formal meeting
with the CRA for the past several years without success. He
interpreted the CRA's reluctance to meet officially with the VEF
as a reflection of their concern that they would somehow confer
legitimacy on the house church movement. In fact, the CRA members
stressed that the June 23rd meeting should be considered as a
discussion among "private individuals" and had refused Pastor
Nhan's request to include other VEF officials. Still, Pastor Nhan
viewed the session positively, seeing it as a step toward
establishing a dialogue between the Committee and house church
leaders. He was pleased that the CRA officials expressed a
"general willingness" to receive information about house churches
and perhaps meet again in the future, although they did not want
this meeting or the possibility of a future meeting discussed with
others.

6. (SBU) The CRA officials did not provide any information about
Pastor Quang's current condition, whereabouts, or the timeline
under which his case might proceed. The VEF believes that Pastor
Quang is being held in District 2, but police there have not
confirmed this and have refused to accept personal items that
family members have brought for Pastor Quang. Meanwhile, police
continue to "invite" Pastor Quang's wife to the police station,
where they have pressed her to sign a document stating she
witnessed them open sealed evidence bags taken from the June 9
search of Pastor Quang's house. Not knowing if the bags were
opened and then resealed by the police, she has refused to sign
anything. The police have called in at least one other VEF pastor
to express their anger about the letter Pastor Nhan sent to VEF
members announcing the detention of Pastor Quang. In addition,
Pastor Nhan said police are actively searching for Pastor Quang's
assistant, whom they had previously questioned and released.
Pastor Nhan noted that documents taken by the police from Quang's
residence would make it clear that the assistant was fully
involved in Pastor Quang's work. Pastor Nhan told ConGen that a
third individual associated with Pastor Quang and the March events
was detained on June 30th. Separately, Mennonite Church USA sent
Embassy Hanoi a letter that reports unsubstantiated claims of
beatings, destruction of homes and personal effects, and even
possible loss of life. (Note: In the past, Pastor Quang has
indicated he has little contact with his church in the U.S.)

7. (SBU) Pastor Nhan believes recent police and CRA warnings to
various church leaders not to become involved in Pastor Quang's
case are a sign that the GVN is preparing to deal "severely" with
Pastor Quang once he is brought to trial. In this context, Pastor
Nhan said he had heard that CRA officials had spoken with the
Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV -- the registered
Protestant umbrella group in the south) leadership about Pastor
Quang. The CRA officials reportedly conveyed the message that the
SECV should not interfere, since Pastor Quang is of a different
denomination and this is not a church issue. In addition, the
government had warned Pastor Quang about his activities many times
and he had chosen not to listen. Pastor Nhan noted that the GVN's
charges against Pastor Quang "cover everything" except religious
activities, allowing them to portray this as a secular matter.

8. (SBU) When asked what role the USG could play in promoting
religious freedom in Vietnam, Pastor Nhan urged the USG to
encourage increased dialogue between Vietnamese government
officials and house church leaders. He said many GVN officials,
including some on the CRA, appear to have a very limited
understanding of the house church movement, and he would welcome
any opportunity to educate them. He also hoped that USG officials
would continue to seek information about the "real situation" that
house churches face. He stressed, however, that progress on
religious freedom in Vietnam would take time.

9. (SBU) Comment: As Post has reported previously (reftels),
Pastor Quang has a mixed record that complicates any response by
his followers or others to his detention. On the one hand he has
a long history as a house church leader who has faced difficulties
directly related to this role. On the other hand, he has admitted
to ConGen that reports of GVN actions against him have at times
been exaggerated in order to gain international support. He has
also engaged in some questionable activities as part of his
activist campaign against the GVN that may leave him open to
arrest based on non-religious activities, regardless of his
motivation. It appears from Pastor Nhan's remarks that the GVN
may be moving to exploit this vulnerability.
YAMAUCHI

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