Cablegate: Problems in Hcmc Expat Protestant Church

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

1. (SBU) Summary: The New Life Fellowship Church (NLF), a
Protestant church in HCMC that has served primarily the expatriate
community, has run afoul of Vietnamese authorities, apparently due
in part to the church's recent outreach to Vietnamese citizens.
Working with the church's leader and local authorities, ConGen
HCMC encouraged both sides to launch a dialogue that would result
in the church's ability to continue its services. The church
decided to launch a public campaign on the web, with letters to
the Vietnamese Prime Minister and to President Bush regarding its
difficulties. This may make resolution more difficult and result
in further confrontation with Vietnamese authorities. End

2. (SBU) On August 29, HCMC learned that services of the NLF had
been forcibly cancelled at a Ho Chi Minh City hotel the previous
day. PolOff met with the church's pastor, Eric E. Dooley who said
the church has 500 to 700 expatriate members and has been
operating unofficially in HCMC since 1997. Dooley reported that
HCMC District 5 police had told the Windsor Plaza Hotel to stop
allowing the NLF to meet at the hotel. While Dooley was at the
hotel turning away worshippers from the cancelled service,
Vietnamese immigration police delivered a summons to his home. He
was questioned for three hours regarding his stay in Vietnam under
a business license, but officials took no further action. (Note:
Dooley's visa lists his occupation as pastor and is due to expire
in January 2006. End note.)

3. (SBU) The initial incident appears to have resulted from the
confluence of a number of factors since the beginning of the year:

-- The NLF Church moved its services from downtown District 1,
where most foreigners live and work to District 5 (which includes
the old Cholon area).

-- The church started advertising in Vietnam News, though VNN two
weeks ago stopped taking the ads.

-- The church began Vietnamese-language services.

4. (SBU) Dooley recognized that his church was operating outside
of Vietnamese law, and that ministering to Vietnamese citizens in
Vietnamese would have been considered more provocative than
working with expatriates. He told us that he was willing to stop
that service if necessary and to examine other ways of
regularizing his mission here. We encouraged him to continue to
maintain a dialogue with the HCMC Committee on Religious Affairs

5. (SBU) On August 30, Consul General met with the HCMC External
Relations Office (ERO) to bring this issue to its attention and
encourage resolution as an expatriate resident and
investor/business climate type issue. ERO promised to see what
could be done. PolOff followed up with Tran Ngoc Bao, Vice
Chairman of the HCMC CRA. We emphasized the impact that suspension
of expatriate services would have on HCMC's image and the business
climate here. Bao made clear that there were a number of expat
congregations operating with no problems (citing Korean groups in
particular.) He said that CRA was working with HCMC authorities,
including police, in an effort to find an amicable resolution to
the problem. We encouraged them to continue in that vein.

6. (SBU) Later that day we spoke further with Bao who regretted
what happened with the NLF Church in District 5. He said, in what
we took as a face-saving offer, that the problem lay with the
hotel management rather than the police. Bao recommended that
Pastor Dooley approach the Windsor Plaza Hotel again to see if it
was amenable to allow services to resume. If not, he said, the
church might return to its previous locale in a hotel in District
1. Bao added that, if Dooley continued to have problems with the
police, he should contact the CRA. Over the longer term, Dooley
needs to work with the CRA to find a permanent home for the NLF.
Bao suggested that the NLF might affiliate itself with the
Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV), the officially
recognized Protestant organization. Bao agreed to contact Dooley
to begin a dialogue. Following that discussion, Dooley agreed to
contact the District 5 hotel, to work with the CRA and to keep us
updated on the status of his church.

7. (SBU) On September 6 and 7, we followed up with Pastor Dooley
who reported that members of the NLF met in 7 different private
homes to worship on September 4. According to Dooley, the church
planned to expand worship to 11 private homes on Sunday, September
11. Dooley said that the NLF had "no desire to go creeping back
into District 1" and would like to resume services at the Windsor
Plaza Hotel in District 5. Pastor Dooley also did not plan to
pursue holding services under the aegis of the SECV, though he did
note that a meeting with the SECV is "in the works."

8. (SBU) It does not appear that Dooley has been in touch with the
CRA since August 29. However, he has initiated a press campaign,
contacting Time, AP and Reuters, and has written to Prime Minister
Phan Van Khai and President Bush. Dooley informed us that his
Vietnamese parishioners had either returned to their former
churches to avoid trouble or were worshipping privately in homes.

9. (SBU) Comment: The NLF Church has been operating for years in
HCMC without difficulty. Its decision to initiate and publicize
outreach to Vietnamese citizens as an unofficial and unregistered
church is the likely cause of its current problems. The HCMC
Committee on Religious Affairs appeared eager to facilitate the
resumption of services for expats but has not engineered a
compromise with the NLF.

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