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Cablegate: Local Views of Gvn Decree On Religion

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) HCMC 238 B) HANOI 580 C) HANOI 392 D) HCMC 191 and

1. (SBU) Summary: Following the issuance of the Implementation
Decree for the Ordinance on Religion and Belief (reftels), we
discussed its implications for the officially recognized Southern
Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) and the members of the
unrecognized Protestant house church movement. Leaders of the
house church movement were skeptical; they believed that the
Decree was issued only to mitigate U.S. pressure and did not
sufficiently ease tight GVN control over religion. That said,
they acknowledged that if Hanoi ensures uniform and fair
implementation, the Decree would represent a significant step
forward. Representatives of the SECV welcomed the Decree in so
much as it appeared to facilitate registration of hundreds of its
house churches in the Central Highlands, but were extremely
disappointed that the Decree did not have any provisions for the
return of expropriated church property. We encouraged the
leaders of both groups to intensify their dialogue with
responsible local and GVN officials and to develop plans for
adjusting to the GVN's new framework on religion. End Summary.

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Reaction from the House Church Movement

2. (SBU) Pastors Pham Dinh Nhan, Nguyen Ngoc Hien and Doan Trung
Tin (all strictly protect), senior leaders of the house church
movement, told us that they were disappointed that the
Implementation Decree, issued on March 1, was not as forward-
leaning as the Prime Minister's Instruction on Protestantism,
which was issued on February 4. They said that officials within
the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and the central-level
Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA) recently had explained that
the Decree was a compromise document that reflected the tougher
approach toward Protestantism among authorities in the Northwest
and Central Highlands. An MPS officer reportedly told them that
provincial leaders of the Northwest and Central Highlands had
voted as a bloc against the October 2004 draft of the Decree.
This MPS official indicated that many of the provincial leaders in
those two regions remain opposed to the final Decree's more
"liberal" provisions.

3. (SBU) The pastors said they were convinced that Hanoi had
issued the Decree and the PM's Instruction to deflect U.S.
pressure with the CPC deadline looming. They were skeptical that
the GVN would implement the new religious framework fairly without
continued USG pressure. After examining the Decree's provisions
in detail, however, the three house church leaders became more
positive. They acknowledged that the Decree does appear to allow
for rapid registration of house churches. The pastors said it was
positive that the Decree does not explicitly preclude any person
who has a prior criminal record of becoming the leader of a
religious organization and applying for registration. However,
while they initially welcomed the opportunity to register umbrella
organizations - such as Pastor Nhan's Vietnam Evangelical
Fellowship - further analysis made the pastors skeptical of the
vague language used in the Decree.

4. (SBU) Most problematic for the pastors were provisions in the
decree governing the transition from a registered to recognized
church. They were concerned that house churches would not be able
to document many years of "stable operation in Vietnam," as
required under the Decree to reduce the wait between registration
and recognition. Unless local authorities are generous in their
interpretation, they fear churches will be forced to wait 20 years
to petition for recognition, the maximum stipulated under the
Decree. Taken together with provisions limiting the ability of
registered churches to appoint clergy, this could be a de facto
restriction on the growth of the house church movement. Pastors
Nhan and Tin worried that tight GVN oversight over their
international activities may limit their outside contact. Pastor
Hien noted, however, that the SECV already operates with GVN
oversight of its foreign activities without undue burden. They
also were disappointed that the Decree did not reference the PM's
Instruction on Protestantism, as they felt the Instruction was a
far more positive and forward-leaning document.

5. (SBU) Pastor Tin told us that he had met recently with MPS
officials in Hanoi to discuss the Decree and his ongoing contact
with USG officials. The MPS officer reportedly had reassured him
that the GVN understands that local jurisdictions need to be
issued detailed instructions on how to implement the decree.
These instructions, as well as the new paperwork required for
registration and recognition, are to be disseminated by the end of
the month, the MPS official reportedly said.

A Tougher Public Line

6. (SBU) In a March 13 interview with Radio Free Asia, Pastor Nhan
took a more negative view of the Decree, complaining that the new
legal framework imposes tighter control on Vietnam's house
churches and interferes far too much in the internal affairs of
Vietnam's religious communities. He asserted that the Decree
would impose a 20-year wait for house churches seeking full GVN
recognition and did not mention that the Decree held open the
possibility that for many Protestant organizations the wait could
be reduced substantially. We contacted Nhan about his interview
on March 14. He explained that as a senior leader of the Vietnam
Evangelical Fellowship, he felt obligated to reflect all the views
of the various house churches within his umbrella organization.


7. (SBU) The SECV General Secretary Le Van Thien (strictly
protect) generally welcomed the Decree as a step forward. He was
particularly pleased with provisions that appear to allow it to
legalize all its churches in the Central Highlands at once,
instead of one-by-one as in the past. By eliminating numerical
restrictions on the number of worshipers a congregation must have,
the Decree will facilitate the SECV's ability to form new

8. (SBU) The SECV leaders told us that they were perturbed that
the final version of the Decree had dropped language present in
the October draft that would create a legal mechanism for churches
to reclaim expropriated property. Nonetheless, the SECV plans to
move forward with a request to the GVN to return 217 properties
that were taken in the years immediately after reunification. The
SECV leaders also complained that the Decree provided no guidance
on how to regulate the donation of property to the Church.

9. (SBU) The SECV leaders bemoaned that Article 16 of the decree
maintains the GVN's tight control over the ordination and
appointment of ministers (and priests). Both the SECV and house
church leaders complained that Article 27 of the Decree appears to
require that all religious teaching outside of registered
facilities must be pre-approved by local authorities. The leaders
feared that this could become a sore point between the Protestant
community and Vietnamese officials as religious teaching is common
at Protestant gatherings such as weddings and birthday parties
which are celebrated at an individual's house or at a restaurant
or public hall.

10. (SBU) The SECV leaders believe that the Decree's management of
international relations is also too cumbersome, particularly the
requirement that it clear any international travel or foreign
participation in domestic SECV functions at least 30 days in
advance. Such a long lead-time often is impossible to manage.

11. (SBU) Comment: Despite their deep distrust of the GVN,
Vietnam's house church leaders say they are ready to test the
provisions of Vietnam's new legal framework on religion. They are
hopeful that the Decree will lead to normalization of their
churches' status. In our discussions, we stressed that the USG
will continue to strive to advance religious freedom in Vietnam.
However, we urged our church contacts to study the new Decree
carefully and to begin to develop a comprehensive strategy for
registration and recognition. We urged them to intensify their
contacts with MPS and CRA officials, which they themselves
acknowledge are becoming more regular and productive. Finally, we
suggested that the Decree, the PM's Instruction and the Ordinance
taken together constitute a new legal framework for religion.
Therefore, hiring expertise within Vietnam's legal community and
with retired, but still influential, former CRA members, may help
them chart the best course forward. End Comment.


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