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Cablegate: Mennonite Pastor Reports On Dissenting Members And

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 000847

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

DEPARTMENT FOR EAP/BCLTV, DRL/IRF

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM KIRF PGOV VM
SUBJECT: MENNONITE PASTOR REPORTS ON DISSENTING MEMBERS AND
GOVERNMENT REGISTRATION PROGRESS

REF: HCMC 762

1. (SBU) Summary: In meetings with PolOffs, Pastor Nguyen Quang
Trung, president of the Vietnam Mennonite Church (VMC),
characterized relations as amiable between his church and
government officials at central and provincial levels. Trung
claims to represent the entirety of the 8,000-strong Mennonite
church in Vietnam, with the exception of the breakaway church of
imprisoned Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang. The two split
after serious acrimony in mid-2004. Trung views as relatively
positive Vietnam's new legal framework on religion and told us the
VMC had applied for registration with the HCMC Committee on
Religious Affairs (CRA) in mid-July. He said he had received
assistance from the HCMC CRA on the registration and expected the
process to go smoothly. He was critical of Pastor Quang for
mixing his own political views into purely religious matters. The
more moderate Trung is generally respected within the local house
church community; successful registration of his 112 churches
would be a significant step forward. End Summary.

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The Mennonites: A Brief History
-------------------------------

2. (SBU) On July 19 and 21, PolOffs met with Pastor Nguyen Quang
Trung, President of the Vietnam Mennonite Church (VMC), to discuss
the impact of Vietnam's new legal framework on religion on his
church. According to Pastor Trung, VMC has 8,000 believers
nationwide who worship in 112 house churches in six dioceses.
They are primarily concentrated in the southern provinces, around
HCMC and in the Mekong Delta. Trung explained that the Mennonite
Central Committee (MCC), the international church's wing for
social work, began refugee relief work in the south in 1954. The
Eastern Mennonite Mission, the division responsible for
congregational development and pastoral training, came to Vietnam
in 1957. Before 1975 the church was very active throughout South
Vietnam, performing charity work and distributing free medicine.
The MCC remained in Vietnam following the fall of Saigon.

Split in the Mennonite Church
-----------------------------

3. (SBU) We held our second meeting with Trung two days after the
partial demolition of Pastor Quang's home and house church
(reftel). Trung said that his relationship with Quang had grown
increasingly strained prior to Quang's arrest in June 2004. Trung
is a pre-1975 VMC leader and was more senior in the VMC hierarchy
than Quang, who joined the church much later. However, Trung said
that when he served as president of the VMC Administrative
Committee and Quang as vice president and general secretary
beginning in June 2003, the two initially shared a cordial
relationship. This did not last long. Trung and other house
church leaders told us of infighting among VMC leaders over how
far and how hard to agitate against GVN control over religion.
Trung and Quang in particular clashed on this question; Trung
preferred a more quiet, gradualist approach, while Quang was more
of a firebrand in the eyes of Trung and his supporters.

4. (SBU) The split in the church occurred when four of Quang's
associates, then VMC representatives, attempted to remove Trung as
President, calling a hastily-organized and sparsely attended
meeting in November 2004 after Quang's imprisonment. The board's
other 10 representatives did not agree with the vote, according to
Trung. The pastor stated he then impressed upon Quang's followers
that religion and secular activities must remain separate. Trung
said he believes Quang and his parishioners started to mix
political and religious issues.

5. (SBU) Trung said he believes the negative votes from Quang's
associates stemmed from Trung's alleged "sympathy" towards the
GVN, a claim rooted in Trung's decision to engage with the GVN on
registration under the new legal framework in spite of Quang's
imprisonment. Trung has tried unsuccessfully to speak with
Quang's wife, Le Thi Phu Dung, since her election to head the
district 2 parish in June 2005, but he said that Dung made it
clear that they had parted ways. Since then, she and Quang's
followers have severed all contact with Pastor Trung and the
Vietnamese Mennonite Church. Trung views her election as a church
leader absurd because of her youth and lack of training. He sees
Dung as a self-proclaimed teacher who lacks credibility in a
larger Mennonite audience.

Impact of the New Legal Framework on Religion
---------------------------------------------

6. (SBU) Since 1997, Pastor Trung had tried annually to apply for
legal recognition from the GVN. He only received a reply in 2004,
when he was told that the central government was "considering" his
request. Despite the GVN's acknowledgement of the 2004
application for recognition, Trung was required in 2005 to submit
all application forms related to registration to the HCMC
Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA). Trung told us he had done
this by mid-July. He did not anticipate any problems in the
process, adding that the HCMC CRA had been helpful. Trung said
that on June 23, immediately prior to his submission of the
registration application, the HCMC CRA met with him, along with
Vietnam Southern Baptist Convention and Seventh Day Adventist
leaders, to review instructions on registering their churches.

7. (SBU) Trung said he submitted applications for all 112 VMC
churches, with the exception of Pastor Quang's HCMC district 2
church. He had offered to work with Quang's church to include it
in the registration process, but Quang's parishioners reportedly
refused to register until their pastor is released from jail.
(NOTE: Quang was sentenced last November to three years in prison
on charges of obstructing justice. END NOTE.) Trung said he had
told Dung, Quang's wife and current leader of the district 2 house
church, that she was putting the followers at risk by not
registering the church as required by the Ordinance on Religion
and Faith. In Trung's opinion, this refusal places "Quang above
the religion."

8. (SBU) Comment: While Trung's claim to represent all but one of
the 112 Mennonite house churches in Vietnam may be overstated, as
Pastor Quang's activism has made him very popular among many house
churches, Trung remains a respected leader, according to key
contacts in the house church community. The rift between Trung
and Quang over how to manage the VMC's relationship with the GVN
mirrors experiences outside the Mennonite Church. We have seen
the same tensions in other house church denominations, although
not to the extent that it generated a formal split in the
leadership. Should Trung successfully register the VMC with the
GVN -- and then be able demonstrate that local officials
subsequently are facilitating his churches' activities -- it would
be a major step forward in convincing many fence-sitting house
churches to move ahead as well. According to the legal framework
on religion, in the case of a religious organization with churches
in multiple provinces, the central-level CRA in Hanoi must rule
within 60 days, or roughly late September or early October, in
this case. Moreover, as a pre-1975 church, if and when
registered, the VMC also would be eligible to apply for full
recognition, which would grant the church additional rights. How
the GVN plans to handle conversion from registration to
recognition remains unclear at this time. End Comment.

CHERN

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