Cablegate: Three Hcmc House Churches Seek Legalization, But

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 1082; B) HCMC 847 and previous; C) Hanoi 2763

1. (SBU) Summary: Leaders of three house church
organizations headquartered in HCMC -- Baptist, Mennonite
and Seventh Day Adventist -- have applied to legalize their
operations in HCMC, the first such applications under
Vietnam's legal framework on religion. Although they have
the legal right to register their entire national
organizations with the central-level Committee for Religious
Affairs (CRA), they have been "guided" to apply first for
their HCMC operations only. These house church leaders have
decided not to challenge the CRA on this point of law; they
do not want to rock the boat when conditions for their
churches are improving throughout southern Vietnam. In our
discussions with the HCMC CRA, we pressed for clear and
faithful implementation of the legal framework writ large
and for a proactive and constructive approach in these three
groundbreaking cases. (Ref A discusses the status of the
Danang-based United World Mission Church, which also is
seeking to legalize its status under Vietnam's new legal
framework on religion.) End Summary.

Vietnam Southern Baptist Convention

2. (SBU) In mid-October, PolOff met with Pastor Le Quoc
Chanh, the President of the Vietnam Southern Baptist
Convention (VSBC), one of at least seven Baptist
organizations operating in southern and central Vietnam.
According to Chanh, the church has approximately 2,200
adherents, including 500 in HCMC. Active in Vietnam for
over thirty years, the church has two ordained pastors and
60 lay preachers. He stressed that "this is a real [head]
count and not an inflated number like those given by other
organizations." HCMC congregations gather daily. In other
provinces, worshippers meet at least once a week.
Currently, the VSBC operates one church building in HCMC,
with capacity for over 200. However, this church will be
demolished in 2006 as the city widens the road to the
airport. The VSBC plans to build a new church in
partnership with a Korean Protestant church, and hopes that
government compensation, along with fundraising, will cover
the building costs of the new structure. The VSBC also has
an additional 60 gathering points throughout the country.

3. (SBU) The VSBC appears to have good lines of
communication with Government and Party. Chanh told us
that, even before the Ordinance on Religion and Faith came
into effect in November 2004, officials of the Central-level
Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA) approached officials
of the VSBC and suggested that they submit a history of
their organization and activities prior to 1975 in
preparation for the group's eventual recognition. Chanh
noted that, after he submitted the requested paperwork, it
became easier for VSBC to meet and organize and police
harassment stopped almost completely. Following the
promulgation of the Implementing Guidelines to the Ordinance
in March 2005, the HCMC CRA encouraged the VSBC and two
other HCMC-based groups (Mennonites and Seventh Day
Adventists) to register according to the new legal framework
on religion. The VSBC submitted its application along with
supplemental documents in August 2005. (The Implementing
Guidelines mandate a 45-day time frame for consideration of
a registration application, 60 days if the church has a
presence in more than one province. There is a 60-day
window for applications for recognition for single-province
churches, 90 days for multi-province operations. Recognized
churches are given additional rights under the GVN's two-
tier system. Please see HCMC 288 and HCMC 238 for
additional details on Vietnam's legal framework on

4. (SBU) In a November 2 phone conversation with us, Chanh
said that he had just confirmed with the CRA that the VSBC's
application was complete. The CRA gave no indication when a
decision would be forthcoming. Chanh has no intention of
pressing the matter, as the process is not a top priority
for the church. He fretted that bureaucratic sluggishness
and obstruction could pose a problem for the VSBC once it
was legalized. He cited the example of two unrecognized
Baptist denominations that were seeking to establish a
children's program. One did not seek official permission
and was able to complete their project. The other group
"went through the proper channels and had a lot of problems
with paperwork." On the other hand, Chang said that, upon
recognition, the VSBC will petition to regain church
property in HCMC, Nha Trang, Dalat, Cam Ranh, Quy Nhon and
Danang that GVN had confiscated in 1975.

Mennonite Church

5. (SBU) Also in mid-October, we met with Pastor Nguyen
Quang Trung, President of the Mennonite Church in Vietnam,
to review progress in legalizing his church's operations.
(Ref B reports on prior meetings with Pastor Trung.) Trung
said that his house church organization, which has over
8,000 worshippers and 120 pastors and preachers, "does not
have problems, as the CRA knows everything that we do."
Although the church is not yet registered, it is able to
conduct "normal activities," such as holding organizational
meetings of pastors from different provinces on a quarterly
basis. Parishioners are able to gather for Sunday worship,
even in the Central Highlands provinces of Kontum, Gia Lai
and Dak Lak. Local governments also allow the church to
gather to celebrate other holidays with advance
notification. Since 1979, the Mennonite church has sent
letters to the GVN asking for return of four confiscated
properties; Trung is hopeful that he may gain some traction
on the issue once his church is legalized.

6. (SBU) Trung's Mennonite church has been working with the
HCMC CRA since April on legal registration for its HCMC
operations. Most of the paperwork is complete -- there are
at least nine extensive forms that the applying church had
to submit -- but the HCMC CRA was seeking clarification of
the status of Pastor Trung's house as a place of worship for
the Church. In early November, Trung answered this final
CRA query, technically starting the 45-day clock within
which HCMC authorities must rule on his application.

7. (SBU) Like the VSBC, Truong was in no rush to legalize
his church's status. Even though it has no official status
yet, Trung stressed that many local authorities have been
willing to help facilitate land purchase and church
construction as long as the church could afford to buy land
on its own. That said, registration appeared to be
important to the GVN, which was why he was pursuing

8. (SBU) Pastor Trung also spoke to the ongoing split within
the Mennonite Church in Vietnam. The other faction, led by
Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, former General Secretary of
Trung's church, held an organizational meeting earlier this
year while Quang still was in prison. That meeting declared
Quang's wife Acting President of the Church until Quang was
released and could assume the Presidency. According to
Trung, that meeting violated the Mennonite Church's internal
charter. Trung also alleged that other Mennonite pastors
had been tricked into attending, having been invited to a
Bible study. Trung noted that his church enjoyed the
support of the Eastern Mennonite Mission Asia, while the
North America Mennonite Church apparently supported Quang.

Seventh Day Adventists

9. (SBU) In mid-October, PolOff met with Pastor Tran Cong
Tan and other members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church at
their headquarters in HCMC. The Seventh Day Adventist
church was established in Vietnam in 1914. In 1974, the
Vietnam branch had 42 churches and approximately 15,000
followers, the majority of whom are from the ethnic minority
community. The Seventh Day Adventists owned and operated
two hospitals in HCMC. Post-1975, all its property, with
the exception of seven churches, had been expropriated.

10. (SBU) According to Tan, as GVN repression of the church
has eased in recent years, the number of worshippers has
returned to pre-1975 levels. There are three Seventh Day
Adventist churches in HCMC with between 600 and 2,000
members (the members of the board could not agree on the
exact number of worshippers). There are another four
churches and 35 other house church congregations operating
across Vietnam, including the Central Highlands. Overall,
conditions for religious freedom have improved significantly
since the new legal framework on religion was promulgated,
although there are episodic difficulties at the local level,
particularly in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak.
Tan explained that ethnic minority members of the church
were suspected of supporting ethnic minority separatism and
of participating in the "Dega Protestant Church."

11. (SBU) Every year since 1975, the Seventh Day Adventists
had sent a request to Hanoi for recognition, which had gone
unanswered. The situation began to change in mid-2004, when
church leaders first met with HCMC CRA. The church began
its formal registration process in June 2005. According to
Cong, the church completed the application process in
August. Church leaders remained in constant contact with
HCMC CRA. "If all goes well, the church will gain formal
GVN recognition by the end of this year," commented Tan.


12. (SBU) On November 2 we met with Tran Ngoc Bao, HCMC CRA
Vice Chairman in charge of Protestant and Catholic issues to
review progress in registering churches and overall
implementation of the legal framework on religion in HCMC.
Bao emphasized his commitment to work with HCMC's house
church organizations to regularize their status, and pointed
to the significant improvement in religious freedom
conditions for these groups in the city. (Our discussion on
the status of the expatriate New Life Fellowship church will
be reported by septel.)

13. (SBU) According to Bao, of the three house church
organizations applying for legalization of status, only the
Seventh Day Adventists had completed the needed paperwork.
He expressed frustration that despite his urging, the other
two groups were not responding promptly to CRA calls for
additional information, slowing down the process. Bao said
that house churches do not feel any urgency to register now
that their day-to-day activities have been "normalized,"
albeit not fully legalized. Bao complained that other
prominent Protestant house church organizations have thus
far refused to begin the registration process, although
overall dialogue with them has improved.

14. (SBU) Although Bao acknowledged that, under the law
these groups had a right to apply immediately for nationwide
registration, he "requested" that they start the process at
the local level, in the jurisdiction where their
headquarters is located. Nationwide registration would
take place "later," at the discretion of the central-level
CRA, which might also solicit additional information from
the religious organizations.

15. (SBU) A leader from a second, larger Baptist house
church group has told us that its efforts to register
nationally were explicitly rejected by the central-level
CRA. The group was told that each house church would have
to register at the local level. Only when this process was
completed would the central-level CRA consider their
nationwide registration application. The central-level CRA
official also complained to him that the Baptists had "too
many different groups" and needed to merge into one, perhaps
two organizations, before they could be considered for
national recognition. As a result, the organization has
decided not to pursue the process further at this time and
is watching carefully the outcome of the three HCMC groups
that have moved forward.


16. (SBU) The CRA's "encouragement" of the VSBC, Mennonites
and Seventh Day Adventists to register locally may reflect
uncertainty within the GVN and the Party over the
implications of a sudden increase of newly legalized
Protestant organizations throughout Vietnam. At the very
least, the risk-averse Vietnamese bureaucracy is trying to
feel its way through a brand new process. But if the CRA is
playing it safe, so too are the three house church
organizations. They have decided not to challenge the
"guidance" of the CRA to apply locally even though under the
law they had the clear right to apply for registration for
their entire church organization with the central-level CRA.
Their operating environment has improved significantly over
the past year and they will not do anything to jeopardize
progress at this juncture.


© Scoop Media

World Headlines


Climate Change: Record Northern Heat, Fuels Concerns Over US Wildfire Destruction

More than 78,000 acres of forest in the Sierra mountains in California has been lost due to wildfires. Photo: San Francisco Fire Department The northern hemisphere experienced its warmest August ever, the World Meteorological Organization ( WMO ... More>>

UN: Guterres Condemns Killing Of Journalists, Following Beheading Of Mexican Crime Reporter

© UNESCO | International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. Following the gruesome death of a Mexican journalist specializing in crime reporting, who was found beheaded on Wednesday, UN chief António Guterres has issued a statement condemning ... More>>

UN: WHO Warns Against Potential Ebola Spread In DR Congo And Beyond

Ebola is spreading in a western province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), raising fears that the disease could reach neighbouring Republic of Congo and even the capital, Kinshasa, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday. ... More>>

WWF: Living Planet Report Reveals Average Two-Thirds Decline In Wildlife Populations Since 1970

According to WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 released today, global populations* of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have suffered an average two-thirds decline in less than half a century. The decline is due in large part to the very ... More>>