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Cablegate: Hue Demonstrates Progress On Religious Freedom Issues

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

090123Z Jun 05


INFO LOG-00 NP-00 AID-00 CA-00 CIAE-00 INL-00 DODE-00
DS-00 OIGO-00 UTED-00 H-00 TEDE-00 INR-00 LAB-01
NSAE-00 NIMA-00 EPAU-00 PA-00 GIWI-00 SGAC-00 SP-00
SSO-00 SS-00 EVR-00 FMP-00 EPAE-00 IIP-00 DSCC-00
PRM-00 DRL-00 NFAT-00 SAS-00 SWCI-00 /001W
------------------FD2882 090130Z /38




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) HCMC 586; B) Hanoi 767; C) 04 Hanoi 916 D) 03 HCMC 1010

1. (SBU) Summary: During a recent visit to Hue, Catholic and
Protestant leaders painted a picture of an increasingly tolerant
provincial leadership. Overall, they have made more tangible
progress in urban areas than in the rural hinterland. There is
budding cooperation between religious groups and the province on
HIV/AIDS issues. Some religious leaders are ignorant of, or
reluctant to press the government to implement favorable
provisions of the new legal framework on religion. Voicing a
different view from others in his organization, a senior monk of
the outlawed United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) told us that
he could envision compromise with the Communists, were the GVN to
give the UBCV real independence to manage its internal affairs.
(Ref A reports separately on our meeting in Hue with activist
Father Nguyen Van Ly.) End Summary.

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Local Government Says It Supports Religion

2. (SBU) During the visit of the CG and a ConGen team to Hue May
23 to 25, PolOff met with local government officials and religious
leaders to assess developments in religious freedom in the
province. Duong Viet Hong, Chairman of the Provincial Committee
for Religious Affairs (CRA), emphasized that the province is
committed to implementing Vietnam's new legal framework for
religion. Religion plays an important role in Thua Thien Hue
Province. At least 60 percent of the province's one million
residents are religious, 550,000 of them Buddhist. There are
another 52,000 Catholics in the province; the Archdiocese, which
also covers Quang Tri Province, has 65,000 believers. The two
most difficult issues between the CRA and the Buddhist and
Catholic churches are the return of expropriated property and the
role of religious institutions in education. The CRA's position
is that the bulk of expropriated land should be considered a
"contribution." The CRA also does not encourage Catholic and
Buddhist Churches to open their open own primary and secondary
schools; it they did, they would have to use the standard GVN
curriculum. All religious organizations are free to conduct after-
hours religious instruction for children.

3. (SBU) Protestantism has not made significant inroads in Hue.
The CRA listed two churches affiliated with the GVN-recognized
Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) with roughly 260
followers. The CRA is aware of a few small Protestant house
churches operating in the province. Each one has no more that 40
believers. The CRA Chairman claimed that the province is
encouraging house churches to register under the new law.

4. (SBU) Chairman Hong did not touch on the outlawed United
Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and was visibly uncomfortable
discussing the visit of France-based Buddhist leader Thich Nhat
Hanh to Hue earlier in the year. The province "facilitated and
welcomed the visit," which made a "good impression" on Hue's
faithful. He had no comment on Thich Nhat Hanh's recommendations
to the GVN on the separation of church and state and encouraging
reconciliation between the GVN-recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha
(VBS) and the UBCV (ref B).

Protestant House Churches: Pressure Easing Slightly
--------------------------------------------- ------

5. (SBU) In a modest home in Hue city we met with Pastor Nguyen
Van Phai, who runs a 40-person house church affiliated with the
Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF). Pastor Phai said that there
are four house churches operating in the province, each with
thirty to forty members. While police scrutiny remains heavy, the
police have not stopped or harassed services over the past six
months. The police presence has intimidated some from joining the
church. The police also have requested that the church subdivide
into smaller units when its membership grows beyond 50 persons.
Phai had never met with the CRA and would not initiate contact
with the CRA or the police. The pastor had read the Prime
Minister's February Instruction on Protestantism and the Ordinance
on Religion. He was willing to register his church under the new
legal framework, but was waiting for the HCMC-based leadership of
the VEF to negotiate on his behalf. (Note: Police had stationed
an officer in an adjacent room inside the Pastor's home during the
meeting; the Pastor was also summoned for interviews with local
police prior to and after the meeting.)

The SECV: Getting Better All the Time

6. (SBU) Ma Phuc Hiep, the Pastor in Charge of the SECV in the
province, was glowing in his description of the treatment the SECV
had been receiving in Hue over the past year. As the SECV
congregation in Hue was small, about 600 persons, he splits his
time between Hue and Danang, where he lives. In the past, he had
to obtain permission from Hue authorities each time he wished to
travel to Hue; now he can travel freely as well as distribute
religious materials that he obtains in Danang. The SECV in Thua

Thien Hue is primarily urban-based; only one of its 11 churches is
in a rural area. While local government in rural areas is more
restrictive, even there he has seen improvement. The SECV
maintains excellent relations with the Catholic Archdiocese. As
good as the situation is in Hue, it is better in Danang. For
example, the SECV recently was able to hold a series of well-
publicized evangelical "crusades" to attract new members. This
type of activity was never permitted before, Hiep said.

Catholic Church

7. (SBU) Associate Bishop Le Van Hong, Father Duong Quynh,
Chancellor of the Archdiocese, and Father Le Van Thang, Secretary
of the Archbishop's Office, told us that that the situation today
for the 52,000 Catholic believers in the province was far improved
from a decade ago. The diocese has a "generally open"
relationship with the local government. Hong noted with
satisfaction that a group of priests and nuns have been
collaborating with the local government, a Scandinavian NGO (NAV)
based in Hue and monks of the VBS to deliver hospice and in-
hospital care to the province's AIDS patients. Urban areas in the
diocese are particularly free from acrimony, but the Church does
experience problems in establishing new congregations in more
remote rural areas, particularly in the two districts with a heavy
ethnic minority population. The Church also contends with a
serious shortage of priests. While there are 120 on the books,
for various reasons only 80 are working in the province's 46
parishes. Some priests have to conduct three or four services
every Sunday. The Archdiocese also has been unable to make much
process in securing the return or receiving compensation for
expropriated property.

8. (SBU) Bishop Hong said that the Archdiocese is still examining
how to implement Vietnam's new legal framework on religion. A
number of provisions remain "ambiguous or unclear." He admitted,
however, that he has not yet reviewed the new laws closely to see
how the Archdiocese could best test the new legal provisions.

Buddhists: A Thaw Between the VBS and UBCV?

9. (SBU) The Venerable Gia Quang, Standing Vice-Chairman of the
GVN-recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS), and his two
assistants were not prepared to have a substantive discussion with
us. Quang shrugged off questions about the impact of Thich Nhat
Hanh's visit to Hue, saying only that it had a "very good impact."
He had not read any of Thich Nhat Hanh's reflections on the visit
and said that, as far as the VBS is concerned, it has no problems
at all.

10. (SBU) One of Quang's assistants was much more forthcoming as
we walked and talked during a tour of his pagoda. Buddhism is
very strong in Hue and the authorities keep a very close eye on
the community. Despite efforts to outlaw it, the UBCV has a
strong presence. Since the visit of Thich Nhat Hanh, UBCV and VBS
monks have begun praying together, a development that our monk
viewed as positive and significant.

11. (SBU) Following our official call on the VBS, we met with
Thich Thien Hanh, the senior-most member of the outlawed UBCV in
Hue (strictly protect). (This visit came off after much debate
with our provincial handlers; ref C details how the GVN had
blocked a prior USG visit to Hanh in March 2004.) Hanh told us
that he has been under unofficial pagoda arrest since October
2003, when the UBCV attempted to hold an organizational meeting in
Binh Dinh Province (ref D). He was prevented from leaving the
pagoda to visit UBCV General Secretary Thich Quang Do in HCMC in
2004. However, in April 2005 he was allowed to travel to Binh
Dinh Province to visit the ailing UBCV patriarch Thich Huyen
Quang. However, the 75-year old monk was not allowed to overnight
in Binh Dinh and was forced to return to Hue the same day.

12. (SBU) Hanh said he had a very extensive meeting with Thich
Nhat Hanh, who visited the UBCV monk in his pagoda. He portrayed
Thich Nhat Hanh as naive in expecting that he would be able to
promote independence of the Buddhist Church from the GVN and the
"coexistence of the VBS and UBCV." Hanh said that the UBCV
remains very much alive, albeit under intense pressure in Hue.
Hanh asserted that in recent years he has formed what is in effect
a breakaway group of 200 VBS monks operating in 40 pagodas and
three training schools in Hue and Quang Tri Provinces.
Doctrinally there is no difference between the VBS and UBCV, but
GVN interference in VBS personnel matters has led to unqualified
persons performing religious rituals, an unacceptable outcome.

13. (SBU) Hanh said that personally he would be willing to merge
with the VBS and operate under current Vietnamese law, were that
combined organization completely independent from the GVN. He
acknowledged that this approach deviated from that of UBCV General
Secretary Thich Quang Do. Hanh asked for ConGen's view of the

future of the UBCV. PolOff observed that the GVN views the UBCV

as a threat, in part because of its historical legacy of social
activism in Vietnam. PolOff also observed that those religious
organizations that manage to avoid political issues, such as
Catholic Church and the SECV, recently have found it easier to
deal with the GVN. Hanh said that he agreed and added
parenthetically "I wish you would tell this to Thich Quang Do and
Thich Tue Si (another UBCV leader under pagoda arrest in HCMC).
He explained that their strategy is to agitate for maximal
political change in Vietnam with a hope that the GVN then might
seek compromise and allow an independent UBCV.


14. (SBU) Many of the religious freedom trends in Hue are being
played out across Southern Vietnam. On the plus side, there is
noticeably greater interaction between local provincial officials
and the Catholic Church and the SECV. Pressure on Protestant
house churches is decreasing and some are in the process of
formally registering under Vietnam's new religious law. Also
encouraging is the budding partnership between local government,
the VBS and Catholic Church on HIV/AIDS issues. On the downside,
the GVN's new mantra of greater religious freedom has not yet
penetrated consistently into rural areas, even where there are no
ethnic-minority/majority problems. Provincial-level officials are
not yet getting the word out about new GVN policies effectively
down to the village level. And religious leaders, conditioned by
decades of GVN antagonism, are hesitant to press local officials
to ensure that more favorable provisions of the new legal
framework on religion are applied consistently.

15. (SBU) Thich Thien Hanh was the first UBCV leader to suggest to
ConGen that compromise with the Communist Party was at all
possible. Nonetheless, Hue officials made it perfectly clear that
they continue to view the UBCV as a significant internal threat.
They also keep the VBS on a very tight leash. Our meeting with
Hanh made it clear why. Flanked by three young, stone-faced
acolytes, the 75-year old Hanh was physically frail but possessed
charisma and an aura of authority that his VBS colleagues did not
have. Informally, the VBS monk we met spoke highly of him. One
of our government minders seemed to think so too, bowing
noticeably as Hanh greeted us at the door of his pagoda.



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