Cablegate: Vietnam Plans to Register a Few Protestants, Religious

DE RUEHHI #1466/01 1660914
R 150914Z JUN 06





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) HANOI 1112; B) HCMC 588; C) HANOI 1113

HANOI 00001466 001.2 OF 004

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. Although the GVN Religious Affairs authorities are
non-committal about future Embassy visits to monitor religious
freedom developments in the North, they have begun a pilot project
for registering eight ethnic minority Protestant congregations in
three provinces. In addition, they are educating local officials in
fourteen provinces about the new framework on religion and the
provinces are drafting plans to implement the regulations,
especially in the area of house church registration. An EU team
confirmed some of this information after a recent visit to
Protestant villages in the Northwest, but reported that local
officials continue to misunderstand some of their responsibilities.
Hanoi Protestants also confirmed the GVN plans, but raised concerns
that they are not able to train or assist local leaders in the
registration process. They are nevertheless optimistic that the GVN
will eventually register Protestant congregations across the North
now that Vietnam is joining the WTO. A visit from Ambassador at
Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford would help
reinforce our efforts to encourage the GVN to allow other churches
to train their own clergy and to assist congregations to rapidly
organize, register and serve the needs of believers. End Summary.

Visits and religious-freedom reports may be postponed...
--------------------------------------------- -------

2. (SBU) On June 12, Poloff and Pol Assistants met with Dang Tai
Tinh, Director of External Relations for the GVN's Committee on
Religious Affairs (CRA). Poloff thanked Tinh for the CRA's recent
successful efforts to convince the northern border provinces of Lao
Cai and Ha Giang to receive a fact-finding trip from the Embassy
team focusing on religious freedom and reiterated a request for
similar assistance to visit Dien Bien Province as well as several
other problem provinces in the highlands. Poloff also asked whether
CRA will provide post with a previously promised
province-by-province breakdown of GVN efforts to implement the new
framework on religion.

4. (SBU) Tinh was non-committal about Dien Bien's recent refusal to
accept an Embassy visit this June, noting that "many provinces face
logistical problems organizing these visits." However, Dien Bien
will likely suggest a more realistic schedule for the end of June or
early July. (Note: We requested a visit to an Evangelical Church of
Vietnam (ECVN) house church in Muong Nghe, the district infamous for
beatings of Protestants, in our original suggested program. It is
likely that fear of allowing such a visit was the real source of the
Provincial People's Committee (PPC) "concern over logistics." End
Note.) Tinh also stated that it will be some time before the CRA
provides a province-by-province breakdown as requested. The GVN is
only now in the process of implementing the ordinance at the local
level and results will take time to collect and vet with higher
authorities before final collation. the meantime: some training for cadres...
--------------------------------------------- --

5. (SBU) Tinh reiterated standard points that the GVN has been
working to improve local infrastructure and welfare in remote areas
of the country, and noted that "while the central government cares
for the economic and spiritual needs of the people, it also has to
ensure the overall social stability of the country." To this end,
the GVN has conducted training sessions to educate provincial and
district officials from across the North about the new religious
regulations so that they will "implement these policies in an
orderly fashion." Over 300 local officials have attended these
training classes in Hanoi and Hue. The CRA plans to hold a similar
course in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) soon. In addition, the CRA
trained over 600 provincial propaganda cadres to disseminate
information on religion to the common people, he said.

...and for the clergy...

6. (SBU) Tinh further stated that the CRA has held training seminars
for religious leaders. In April, 247 clergy participants from
various religious groups attended a seminar in Hanoi. In May, 266
leaders attended a session in Hue and another 300 attended one in
HCMC (REF B). The CRA is planning to organize more conferences and
seminars for local officials and religious leaders in the coming
months. Poloff asked whether public security officers have also
participated in programs for local officials and religious leaders.
Tinh replied that police and security officials from the provinces
will receive special training from the Ministry of Public Security
(MPS). (Note: We have requested a meeting with the International
Cooperation Department at MPS for a briefing on the MPS training;
however we have yet to receive an appointment. End Note.)

...and a pilot project for Protestant registration.

HANOI 00001466 002.2 OF 004

--------------------------------------------- -------

7. (SBU) Tinh asked Tran Minh Hung, the Deputy Director for
Protestant Affairs to elaborate on the CRA's efforts to implement
the registration of Protestant house-churches in the North. Hung
stated that there are more than 100,000 Protestants live in the
fourteen provinces in the region. Over ninety percent are ethnic
H'mong, and almost all of the remainder are ethnic Dzao. On March
30-31, the CRA organized a conference with officials from all
fourteen PPCs to explain the registration process. Each PPC is now
charged with formulating an implementation plan. Between May and
June, each province will also conduct seminars at the district and
commune level to discuss these plans. Tinh clarified that the
Embassy team will not be able to participate or observe any of these

8. (SBU) Hung stated that in addition to these general training
sessions, the CRA has identified Lai Chau, Lao Cai and Ha Giang as
pilot provinces for house-church registration. Lai Chau and Ha
Giang have both agreed to register two ECVN congregations and Lao
Cai has committed to registering another four. Under the program,
all eight will be officially registered by the end of July. After
the completion of these pilot registrations, the CRA will "analyze
results and may generalize the implementation if successful." In
addition to the CRA's program, Thai Nguyen and Bac Can provinces are
implementing their own pilot registrations, with four congregations
likely to be registered in Thai Nguyen and several more in Bac Can,
Hung said. Poloff noted that there are over 1,000 ECVN house church
congregations in the fourteen Northern provinces, and asked when we
can expect more than just these preliminary eight to twelve
registrations. Tinh replied that the CRA does not have enough
resources to focus on more than three provinces at a time.

The EU confirms some of this in Lao Cai...

9. (SBU) On June 13, Poloff was briefed by French and EC poloffs on
the EU-troika's recent trip to Lao Cai, Lai Chau, and Dien Bien.
(Note: The EU modeled their visit on Poloff's recent visit to Lao
Cai and Ha Giang - REFS A and C - and it was closely coordinated
with ECVN. End Note.) EC poloff stated that the Lao Cai PPC assured
the EU team that the province is "making efforts to implement the
new framework on religion", which include training for officials at
the provincial, district and commune levels. In Bac Ha district,
the District People's Committee (DPC) asserted that registration of
Protestant groups under their jurisdiction remains difficult because
it leads to conflict between traditional H'mong adherents and the
new congregants. This is especially problematic because ancestor
worship traditionally depends on land tenures in the region. "If
tensions arise in the community we have to act," they said.

10. (SBU) In Ta Cu Ty commune in Bac Ha the EU team met with local
officials who stated that the Protestant congregations in this
majority H'Mong Christian area have not been allowed to register
officially because they do not meet two requirements: 1) the groups
did not form themselves properly, and 2) their leaders are
illiterate and untrained. They also contradicted recent allegations
from the ECVN that several villagers from the commune were recently
detained. After an hour's hike to the village of Xin Chai, the EU
asked the village headman to introduce them to the allegedly
detained villagers. "After a long pause punctuated by an MPS
officer speaking rapidly in H'mong," the man claimed that the
individuals were in the village but "their houses were twenty
kilometers distant." The EU assesses that the province was not
prepared for their request to meet with Protestants in this village
and they were not allowed to do so based on this and other thin

... and in Lai Chau, but not in Dien Bien.

11. (SBU) In Lai Chau, the PPC acknowledged to the EU delegation
(and for the first time to anyone) that the province is home to
10,000 Protestants. They also acknowledged a small Catholic
community, but claimed that there is no tradition of Catholicism in
the province prior to 1954. To date, 69 Protestant house church
congregations have applied for registration. The PPC is ready to
register congregations but will only approve applications from
groups that "contribute to social well-being," have a leader and
have received formal approval from the central government. The
Director of the Provincial Committee on Religion and Ethnic
Minorities also told the EU that the provincial plan for
registration requires each congregation to 1) consolidate their
organization; 2) find a leader well versed in the doctrine of
Protestant Christianity; and, 3) consolidate their application
documentation. If a house church has achieved all three steps, it
will then be permitted to contact ECVN in Hanoi to complete the
process of establishing membership in the church. The French poloff

HANOI 00001466 003.2 OF 004

asked how any congregation in this remote, poorly educated region
could possibly satisfy any of these requirements, particularly
finding a well-trained pastor, without ECVN assistance. The
Director replied: "The provincial CRA will train the pastor about
the religion and the process."

12. (SBU) The EU officers were permitted to visit two Protestant
H'Mong villages in Lai Chau. The first, Cung Mu Phin village in Lam
Nhi Tang Commune of Tam Duong District, was near the highway and
only forty minutes from Lai Chau City. The village is a double
hamlet with one half H'mong and the other Hoa (ethnic Chinese).
Provincial officials allowed the EU to have a private meeting with
the village headman who explained that the majority of H'mong
residents are Protestants, including himself. They gather once a
week in a house but their deacon does not live in the village.
Officials later told the EU that if they returned on Sunday, they
could meet the deacon and observe the congregation's services. The
headman showed the EU two bibles - one published in Kinh (ethnic
Vietnamese) in the United States and the other of indeterminate
origin published in H'mong language. The delegation was allowed to
visit the home where the congregation gathers for worship and
reported seeing a crude lectern, cross and benches. A picture
clipped from a newspaper depicting DPM Vu Khoan meeting with ECVN
leaders in Hanoi appeared to have been hanging the wall for some
time. The headman noted that the congregation had had problems with
police harassment until 2003, but have not had any problems since
then. An elderly Hoa man working in the fields who said he was not
Christian told the delegation that economic conditions in the area
have gotten worse over the years as the GVN has taken more and more
land away from individuals.

13. (SBU) On the following day, the EU delegation visited the H'mong
village of Pao Phang (#1) in Phin Ho Commune of Sin Ho district.
The village was at the top of a mountain which was only accessible
after a four-hour hike up a steep track. The members of the EU
delegation who managed to make it to the village were greeted by the
headman, commune chairman and a police official. The local leaders
reiterated standard rural points to the delegation on economic and
social development, for example "women are now equal and most don't
marry before the age of eighteen or twenty." This was said as the
thirteen year old wife of the police officer killed and cooked a
chicken for the delegation while tending her two toddlers. At the
EU's request, a Protestant who proved to be the brother of the
headman was invited into the meeting to be interviewed. He proved
ill-informed about Christian doctrine and could not even explain the
significance of Christmas. He did, however, note that Protestantism
is "less expensive" than traditional H'mong religious customs which
is why he converted. (Note: Embassy Poloffs have heard this in
other rural villages. The reasoning is that traditional H'mong
religious practices require regular sacrifices of buffalo and other
livestock, which can be a severe burden on impoverished families.
End Note.) The man also explained that he travels on Sundays to
another village for services conducted by a deacon who has traveled
to visit ECVN in Hanoi. After the long trip to Pao Phang, the EU
delegation did not have enough time to make their planned visit with
the PPC in Dien Bien Phu in Dien Bien province on the last day of
their trip.

ECVN adds some details on CRA plans...

14. (SBU) On June 14, Poloff and Pol Assistants met with ECVN
General Secretay Pastor Au Quang Vinh. He reported that ECVN
representatives last met with CRA on June 10. CRA told Vinh and the
others about the eight congregation pilot program and asked ECVN to
assist the GVN in the execution of its implementation plan by doing
three things. First, the ECVN should suspend issuance of official
applications to provincial governments on behalf of local
congregations because the PPCs are "receiving too many
applications." Vinh showed Embassy team a bundle of fifteen
unopened application letters returned by the Ha Giang PPC that the
CRA passed back to the ECVN at the meeting. (Note: Ha Giang claims
that the letters were improperly addressed as there is no provincial
"Committee on Religion and Ethnicity" and so returned them. End
Note.) Second, CRA asked that pending the training of local
officials and cadres in Protestant provinces ECVN should tell all
house church congregations not to gather at places of worship.
Believers should only worship at home for the time being. The
registration process will be halted until after the training courses
are completed. Finally, CRA requested ECVN's assistance in
ascertaining whether applicant congregations are actually affiliated
with ECVN or are more closely associated with other Christian groups
that have proselytized in the area in the past. Vinh noted that
since the Christian Missionary Alliance's efforts to change the
allegiance of a number of house churches in the region several years
ago, ECVN has been very careful to provide official credentials only
to deacons of congregations with which they have a firm

HANOI 00001466 004.4 OF 004

...confirms EU reporting...

15. (SBU) Poloff asked if the CRA told the ECVN that local officials
will train house church pastors "about the religion and the process"
as reported by the EU. Vinh said that ECVN has heard similar
assertions from CRA and other officials. The Church recently raised
strong objections to an article published in "Fatherland Magazine,"
a publication closely associated with the Vietnam Fatherland Front
(the umbrella organization usually responsible for organizing such
training) written by Dang Nghiem Van, a highly respected expert on
provincial ethnic affairs, which perpetuated a number of myths about
H'mong Protestantism. ECVN's most serious concern was that the
article reiterated the common belief amongst local officials that
the words "Vang Chu" are related to a Lao-based militant sect. ECVN
states that Vang Chu is just the H'mong word for God and is used
synonymously with Jesus Christ in Protestant H'mong services.
Protestants, thus, have no relationship with Vang Chu insurgent
groups. If this is the kind of thing the CRA and the provincial
cadres will teach, it will hopelessly confuse local officials and
Protestants, Vinh said.

...and provides an update on ECVN activities and outlook.
--------------------------------------------- -------

16. (SBU) Vinh stated that ECVN has added forty-three ethnic
minority congregations since the beginning of 2006 for a new total
of 1,070 house churches in the North. Two thirds of these have
applied to register but none have received permission to do so yet.
Of the remaining third, some are waiting to gauge local authorities'
response to other applications before submitting their own. More
congregations (around 140) believe that they have no need to
register as they are able to worship as the please without
harassment now. The small remainder has not applied because of
"technical and logistical problems," he said.

17. (SBU) In sum, Vinh stated that conditions for Protestants are
not getting worse in the North, but are not getting better. ECVN is
not aware of any new police harassment or arrests of believers.
Vinh theorized that local officials are "waiting for something to
happen" before they move forward (or backward) on registration. He
also said that it is not yet clear if the CRA's program in the North
will be as strong and as successful as their earlier efforts in the
central highlands. Nevertheless, ECVN is optimistic that sooner of
later the GVN will have to recognize congregations across the North,
especially "now that Vietnam has entered the WTO," Vinh said.


18. (SBU) It is clear that the GVN has developed some kind of
implementation plan to begin registration of Protestant
congregations in the North, but the eight to twelve house churches
that they expect to register by the end of the July is
disappointingly few. It is also worrying that the CRA has asked
ECVN to delay submission of applications for bureaucratic reasons as
well as to keep from assisting congregations in the process
generally, but this may be a good-faith effort to allow the CRA to
facilitate progress while preventing individual provinces from
obstructing the process. Most disconcerting is the EU and ECVN
report that CRA and provincial officials expect that they will have
primary responsibility for training local religious leaders about
their own beliefs. We are hopeful that the ECVN, and the Embassy,
will succeed in convincing the CRA that religious organizations need
to be able to train their own clergy and to assist their own
congregations to rapidly organize, register and serve the needs of
believers. A visit from Ambassador Hanford would help reinforce
this message, and let the GVN know that a minimalist solution alone
is not sufficient. The GVN will have to convince the international
community that its first steps in the Northwest highlands are just
the beginning of a campaign to provide real religious freedom.


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