Cablegate: Religious Affairs Committee Praises Religion

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





REF: A) HANOI 2313; B) HANOI 2838

E.O. 12958: N/A

This cable was coordinated with ConGen Ho Chi Minh City

1. (SBU) Summary: The Vietnamese press recently published
an interview with the GVN official responsible for religious
affairs in which he highlighted Hanoi's accomplishments in
the area of religious freedom since it enacted a new law on
religion last year. The article, which was intended to
rebut critics of Vietnam's record on religious freedom,
failed to address the critical problem of local policy
implementation, although it did emphasize the positive role
religious organizations can play in social welfare and
development. An official responsible for Protestant affairs
was more realistic and offered a frank, but not altogether
encouraging, assessment of the GVN's efforts to implement
the new legal framework for religion. A northern Protestant
leader, while agreeing that there has been some progress,
highlighted the GVN's continued refusal to resolve property
issues and to register sub-congregations. End Summary.

Chairman Thi's Interview

2. (SBU) On November 4, the Vietnam News Agency (VNA)
published an interview with Ngo Yen Thi, Chairman of the
GVN's Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), reviewing the
past year's implementation of the Ordinance on Belief and
Religions. (Note: The ordinance went into effect on November
15, 2004, but its Implementing Decree was not released until
March 1, 2005. End note.) Thi asserts in the interview
that, since the adoption of the Ordinance, "the religious
life in Vietnam has obviously changed." Listing a number of
examples of religious events that occurred during the past
year, Thi also seeks to both rebut international criticism
from those who "have for long held unfair views about the
religious situation in Vietnam, writing letters to
authorities at various levels or airing information on the
Internet" and marginalize those who "have tried to undermine
the great national unity and to cause political instability
and social disorder."

3. (SBU) The VNA article specifically highlights the
following items as proof of the improvement in Vietnamese
religious life: 1) the existence of numerous sanctioned
activities by recognized religious organizations that are
allowed to choose their own leaders as approved by the
State; 2) the GVN's decision to permit the Catholic Church
to establish several new dioceses and to create "favorable
conditions" for Protestants to establish new congregations;
3) the "smoothness" with which individuals are allowed to
join religious professions when registered with local
authorities; 4) the renovation and/or construction of many
places of worship; 5) the decision to permit seminaries to
train priests on an annual, rather than biennial, basis; and
6) the granting of land-use rights to many religious
organizations, including a theological seminary for the
Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) in Ho Chi Minh
City, the Vietnam Buddhism Institute in Hanoi and several
chapters of the Protestant Church in the Central Highlands."
Chairman Thi is also quoted as saying that, "by the end of
September this year, Protestants in the Central Highlands
and the southern province of Binh Phuoc had 50 congregations
legally recognized and 282 places of worship legally
registered." Thi further claims that the GVN permitted
religious organizations to print and publish 4,314,000
copies of their own prayer books, bulletins and reviews
through the State publishing house, and also to expand their
international outreach efforts.

4. (SBU) In addition to this often-heard litany of GVN
accomplishments in religious freedom, the article is
noteworthy for emphasizing the contribution of religious
organizations to the "Great National Unity" by their
involvement in socio-economic development in the areas of
education, medicine, disaster relief, and in social welfare
for the elderly, orphans, lepers and people living with

CRA Protestant Affairs Perspective

5. (SBU) On November 4, Nguyen Van Thong, the central
Committee on Religious Affairs' Director for Protestant
Affairs, gave Poloff his own assessment of the current
status of the Ordinance on Religion as it pertains to his
area of responsibility. Thong opened by noting that the GVN
and the United States take different approaches to religion
in Vietnam. Without apparent irony, he added that he
recognizes how "U.S. extremists use Protestantism to advance
U.S. strategic goals" because he read the bible while a POW
in a U.S. Army prison camp during the war. There are now
fifty-eight officially recognized Protestant organizations
in Vietnam, he noted, adding that of these, the Evangelical
Church of Vietnam North (ECVN) and the SECV represent
roughly 80 percent of Vietnamese Protestants, or about
500,000 believers. While Thong lauded both the ECVN and
SECV for "serving both God and the State," Vietnam's other
fifty-six Protestant organizations have "not been as
helpful" to the GVN. In particular, Ho Chi Minh City's New
Life Fellowship (NLF) congregation under Pastor Eric Dooley
and the Mennonite congregation under Pastor Quang had both
willfully broken Vietnamese law rather than "preach the word
of the bible." Creating a new Protestant sect, as the NLF
did, is a crime under Vietnamese law; however, the
Mennonites went even further and actively distributed
political materials to the public, a major crime. Other
groups have been equally problematic for the GVN, Thong said
(NFI). (Note: ConGen HCMC will provide an update septel on
the New Life Fellowship. End Note.)

6. (SBU) According to Thong, the CRA is planning to assemble
the leaders of the fifty-six "intransigent" Protestant
groups in Ho Chi Minh City in the near future in order to
explain the context of the Ordinance on Religion, e.g., that
groups operating under its auspices must: 1) follow their
State-sanctioned charters, 2) obey the law and 3)
"understand their commitments to the State" when expanding
contacts with groups outside Vietnam. If Protestant
organizations operate within these tenets, they should have
the right to assemble and worship as they please when
officially registered and/or recognized, he said.

7. (SBU) When challenged about the difficulties faced by
local Protestant congregations seeking to officially
register and be recognized, Thong averred that the GVN has a
consistent policy to allow groups to register at the
grassroots level in order to achieve eventual recognition.
In effect, the GVN policy is first to register small groups
and then recognize new sects when large enough and
structured enough to have their own national charter. Thong
asserted that next year the GVN plans to use this process to
recognize a number of Protestant sects that existed in the
south before 1975 and which have since been seeking
recognition, including the Baptists, the Seventh Day
Adventists, the Christian and Missionary Alliance and
others. However, registering Protestant groups is extremely
difficult because of the "bewildering divisions" amongst
sects, noting that the Baptists alone have eight separate
organizations in Vietnam. Thong stated with some
exasperation that "it is nearly impossible to satisfy all
members of such groups," which thus makes it very hard to
institute a national charter to legalize a specific
organization. The grassroots approach is an informal CRA
policy that attempts to circumvent this problem in the short
term, without provoking the normal GVN solution to
complicated problems, which is to create an even more
stifling bureaucracy.

8. (SBU) Thong also admitted that some local officials are
"allergic" to implementing GVN policy on Protestantism for
historical reasons. In fact, a number of local leaders do
not adhere to regulations, he acknowledged. Despite this
and the other problems listed above, Thong asserted that the
GVN is determined to enforce the Ordinance on Religion and
there has been some progress in implementation, delays
notwithstanding. Since the Ordinance was promulgated, for
example, the CRA has helped publish millions of religious
documents, including enough bibles for all believers to own
their own Vietnamese copies. Also, there has been
significant progress in property rights issues, such as the
case involving the ECVN Hanoi congregation's church. While
the GVN has not issued a land-use certificate for the church
property to the congregation because Vietnamese law forbids
individual churches to control their properties, the GVN has
made clear, under its "new policy of openness," that it is
willing to resolve the problem by issuing a certificate
directly to the ECVN, once all land disputes with squatters
within the property are resolved.

Practitioner's Perspective

9. (SBU) On November 7, Reverend Au Quang Vinh, Chief Pastor
of the ECVN's Hanoi congregation, gave his own perspective
on progress in religious freedom for northern Protestants
since the promulgation of the Ordinance on Religion. Some
of the points made by Thi and Thong are correct concerning
significant progress in the specific areas of publication of
religious materials, transfer and appointment of pastors and
reconstruction of places of worship, he acknowledged. These
are all much improved areas and, speaking generally, there
have been some advances in religious freedom. However,
there remain significant problems for ECVN Protestants that
the GVN has so far failed to address despite the new legal
framework on religion, he averred.

10. (SBU) The biggest problem facing the ECVN is the
persistent lack of trained ministers and the GVN's refusal
to allow the ECVN to construct new training facilities, Vinh
continued. Although the ECVN hopes to build a new training
center on the Hanoi church property mentioned by Thong
above, the GVN refuses to issue a land-use certificate to
the Hanoi congregation to make this possible. When asked if
the GVN actually offered to issue this certificate to the
ECVN vice the congregation itself, Vinh explained that
technically, under the ECVN's charter, all church properties
must be owned by the central organization, but this makes it
impossible to actually renovate any properties because the
local authorities require individual congregations to
present land-use certificates to qualify for permission to
renovate their churches. Caught in a catch-22, the ECVN has
thus continued to insist that the GVN issue certificates
directly to individual congregations like the Hanoi
congregation. To complicate matters further, Vinh said that
the GVN has consistently raised the canard of squatters in
ECVN properties, but has deliberately delayed legal
resolution of such disputes. In the case of the Hanoi
church, for example, the squatter in question is the son of
an ECVN pastor who died five years ago. The son refuses to
move out of his residence despite an initial court decision
against him, and the case has been on appeal for years with
no apparent hurry on the part of the authorities to resolve
it. Thus Vinh concludes that the GVN's "offer" to give the
land-use certificate to the ECVN directly once the case is
resolved is doubly disingenuous.

11. (SBU) Pastor Vinh noted that registration of sub-
congregations also remains a significant problem, as only
one sixth of ECVN's sub-congregations have successfully
registered since they first began applying under the new
rules. In many cases, these applications are long past the
official deadline for adjudication, but have received no
official response. In other cases, particularly in the
Northwest Highlands, officials have given "ridiculous"
responses. For example, in Khun Ha commune in Lai Chau
Province, a Hmong congregation's June application to the
People's Committee received a response from the Provincial
Party Committee which stated that all Protestant
congregations operating in the province are illegal and that
there is no grounds for anyone to say that the GVN has
established conditions for the legalization of these groups.
The letter concluded that any reports of a purported GVN
legalization policy are incorrect, but the point is moot as
no Hmong people are Protestant anyway. (Note: The letter
made deliberate use of the term "Vang Chu" rather than
"Protestant," which is a deliberate reference to an outlawed
Hmong militant sect based in Laos. See Ref A. End Note).
In addition to these kinds of problems, Vinh also noted that
many ethnic minorities are still actively encouraged to
renounce their faith by officials who threaten to refuse
land-use certificates and microfinancing to individual

12. (SBU) Pastor Vinh identified the recovery of church
properties in provinces with Protestant traditions and the
registration of new sub-congregations in areas without a
Protestant history as the most critical focus for the ECVN's
efforts to improve its relations with the GVN under the new
Ordinance on Religion. Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Thai Binh
provinces all used to have large churches that served as a
base for sub-congregations in neighboring areas. These
churches would resume such a role if the ECVN could recover
the properties. Vinh also explained that new congregations
in areas less prone to discrimination against Protestants
(unlike Lai Chau) might play a similar supportive role for
Protestants in harsher neighboring areas if they are allowed
to register and build churches. But this is also
problematic. For example, following a recent visit by the
Ambassador (Ref B), local officials told the Quang Ninh
Province congregation that they can now register with the
local CRA, but only as an "independent" congregation.
Although this is an improvement on previous official
refusals to accept their registration application, this
independent status would prevent the congregation from ever
actually building a church, which Vinh explained is the
whole point of registration in the first place.

13. (SBU) Summing up, Pastor Vinh stated that progress on
religious freedom for Northern Protestants has been slow,
despite some advances. He noted that the ECVN as a whole
feels that the SECV and southern Protestants have generally
received far better treatment from the GVN, and he expressed
the hope that the Embassy will continue to encourage the GVN
to treat the ECVN Protestants more equitably.


14. (SBU) Chairman Thi is correct that Vietnam has made some
advances in religious freedom since last year's promulgation
of the Ordinance on Religion, particularly in southern and
central Vietnam. His explicit recognition of the positive
role that religious institutions can play in Vietnam's
social welfare and development is also welcome. However,
his interview glosses over the critical problem the GVN
faces with implementation of its religious policies at the
local level.

15. (SBU) The comments of Thi's subordinate on the
"intransigence" of house church organizations and their
"bewildering number" demonstrates that suspicion and
ignorance of religion runs deep among GVN officials, even at
the central level. In fact, at the provincial and local
level, while there clearly are plenty of obstructionists,
there also are quite a number of officials who take a far
more helpful and open view of Protestantism than Protestant
Affairs Director Thong.

16. (SBU) While Thong argues that "informally" encouraging
house church organizations to register at the local level
would avoid "bureaucratic complications," this approach runs
counter to the letter and intent of the legal framework on
religion. That legal framework clearly stipulates that any
organization that operates in more than one province has the
right to apply for registration directly to the central-
level CRA and to receive a reply within 60 days. Similarly,
Thong's approach of arguing that there can only be one GVN-
recognized organization representing a particular
denomination (i.e., Baptist or Mennonite) also appears to
run contrary to the legal framework on religion. Under the
law, any religious organization can apply for registration
and recognition, so long as it meets certain legally-defined

17. (SBU) Thong already may be implementing this more
restrictive approach to registration and recognition. One
Baptist house church leader -- one of the most moderate in
HCMC -- recently complained to ConGen HCMC that he was told
by Thong that he could not apply for national registration
until every one of his churches was registered at the
provincial level. Thong also was pressing this leader to
engineer a merger of the four major Baptist groups in
southern and central Vietnam so that the CRA would not be
burdened with administering multiple groups. Thong
apparently was insistent, despite our contact's noting that
there were serious personality and operational differences
between the Baptist house church organizations.

18. (SBU) That said, Thong's statements demonstrate that he
knows he is under pressure to implement the Ordinance on
Religion. In addition to improving operating conditions for
house churches, the GVN is keenly aware that it must
register and recognize churches if it is to seen as abiding
by its May 2005 exchange of letters with the United States
on religious freedom issues. Pastor Vinh's pessimistic
assessment reflects the disappointment felt by Protestant
leaders in northern Vietnam at the GVN's inability or
unwillingness to implement the new legal framework on
religion faster and more evenly, particularly in comparison
to their SECV colleagues in southern and central Vietnam.
Nevertheless, even Vinh still agrees that the GVN has made
at least some progress in religious freedom since the
promulgation of the Ordinance on Religion, if not nearly as
much as Chairman Thi may claim. End Comment.


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