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Cablegate: Bulldozed Mennonite Church

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 HANOI 002886

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

STATE FOR EAP/BCLTV AND DRL/IRF

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM KIRF VM HUMANR RELFREE
SUBJECT: Bulldozed Mennonite Church

Reftel: A) HCMC 232; B) HCMC 789

This is a joint Hanoi - Ho Chi Minh City reporting cable.

1. (SBU) Summary and Comment: Multiple contacts in the
official and non-recognized Protestant communities confirmed
that local authorities tore down an "unofficial" Mennonite
church in Kontum Province September 24, as reported October
22 by Human Rights Watch. However, it appears that the
action may have been the result of a land dispute or
the deliberately confrontational tactics of the Kontum
Mennonite pastor at the center of the dispute and not
because of a GVN policy of religious oppression. Our
sources say there was no police violence directed at church
members during the September 24 incident. End Summary and
Comment.

2. (U) Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported October 22 that,
"on the morning of September 24, more than 200 officials,
including paramilitary police from Unit 113, descended on
the chapel and home of Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh in Kontum
province. Pastor Chinh is superintendent of the Mennonite
churches in the Central Highlands. The attack marked the
second time the chapel was destroyed this year. On January
16, authorities bulldozed the same chapel, which doubles as
Pastor Chinh's residence.... In the September 24 attack,
government officials confiscated Chinh's property and farm
animals, set fire to the house and chapel and then used two
bulldozers to flatten the remains. Chinh was out on a
pastoral visit at the time, but his wife and children were
arrested by officials and detained at Vinh Quang district
headquarters from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm that day. Mrs. Chinh,
who is seven months pregnant, reported being hit in the
stomach and stepped on while in custody. Chinh reportedly
went into hiding after returning to the scene briefly after
the destruction was complete."

3. (U) The GVN responded swiftly to the HRW report. In a
statement to journalists on October 22, Foreign Ministry
Spokesman Le Dung called the report "slanderous, fabricated
and distorted," and said the claims that the pastor's wife
had been beaten were "absolute fabrications with bad
intent." While confirming the destruction of the building,
Dung attributed it to failure to follow land laws, saying
that that the pastor had "built a house without permission"
on "land that has been sold illegally." The commune's
actions came only after repeated requests for the pastor to
demolish the house, Dung added.

4. (SBU) Two reliable religious contacts in HCMC and in Gia
Lai Province -- which borders Kon Tum Province -- echoed GVN
claims, saying that the structure was an "illegal church
built on illegal land." The issue is complex. As related
to us, Pastor Chinh registered the church under the name
Nguyen Thanh Long. Although born in Kontum Province, he was
apparently stripped of his residency during the 1980s after
an incident in which, while serving in the military, he
attempted to defend some ethnic minorities involved in
religious practice. As a result, he is unregistered
anywhere in Vietnam. Chinh/Long nonetheless bought the land
and applied for a construction permit, but then proceeded to
build the structure without a permit.

5. (SBU) Our contacts told us that the local government had
previously pulled down the church in January 2004. They did
not know the reason that led local authorities to act in
January 2004, but said the pastor's decision to rebuild the
church a few months later had angered local authorities.
Our contacts said there was no violence directed against the
Mennonite pastor or his family during the incident, as the
HRW report alleged. They told us the pastor's wife was in
police custody for four hours while the structure -- a tin
and grass hut -- was demolished. A leading pastor in the
Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF), an umbrella group for
the house church movement, told us that a VEF-member
denomination has a house church about seven kilometers away
from the Mennonite one, but it has not encountered
harassment from local authorities. The Mennonite church
reportedly had between 50 and 70 members. Catholic Church
clergy in Kontum were not aware of the incident when
ConGenOff contacted them. (Note: We spoke with the
representative of the American Mennonite organization in
Hanoi, who said they have no links to the Vietnamese
Mennonite church. They share only the name and have not
even met, our source added. End Note.)
6. (SBU) Comment: Confrontations between house church
leaders and local authorities more often than not occur in
remote, rural areas and are difficult to corroborate. In
the past, however, assertions by some members of Vietnam's
Mennonite community have proven to be exaggerations or
outright fabrications. The VEF leader told us that Pastor
Chinh was "a disciple" of Mennonite activist Pastor Nguyen
Hong Quang. Pastor Quang was detained in HCMC in June after
repeatedly provoking confrontations with city authorities,
including striking a police officer who was investigating a
house church gathering and sending his followers to attempt
to physically detain plainclothes policemen observing his
residence (reftels). Furthermore, Pastor Quang had shown a
willingness to distort the truth, for example, depicting an
incident involving the police and his motorcycle as
"attempted assassination" and claiming -- entirely falsely -
- to have been "viciously beaten" and shocked by cattle
prods during a brief detention in March.
7. (SBU) Comment, cont'd: Quang freely admitted these
distortions to former HCMC Poloff, saying that they were
acceptable as they drew foreign attention to the plight of
Protestants in Vietnam. It may very well be that Pastor
Chinh has adopted this strategy. The fact that another
unrecognized house church in close proximity to the
Mennonite one appears to have been largely left alone and
that our active and assertive house church contacts observed
that the Mennonite church was "illegally built on illegal
land" lead us to believe that Pastor Chinh has fallen afoul
of Vietnam's complex and arbitrary land ownership laws. His
"double identity" and apparently confrontational dealings
with commune officials seem the more likely explanations for
the authorities' heavy-handed actions rather than any claim
of religious oppression. End Comment.

MARINE

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