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Cablegate: Protestant Beating: Embassy Investigates Report From Thanh

DE RUEHHI #1666/01 1871036
P 061036Z JUL 06





E.O. 12958: N/A


HANOI 00001666 001.2 OF 002

Summary and Comment

1. (SBU) On June 29 Poloff met with provincial, district and
district police officials in Thanh Hoa Province to look into the
alleged June 18 beating of un-registered Protestants by police in
Thieu Vien Commune (reftel). Although some provincial officials
attempted to pass off the beatings as the result of a fight between
local citizens, our conversation with the police made it appear that
at least security officials are concerned about the case, perhaps
because of pressure from Hanoi. The provincial authorities invited
the Embassy to return in a one or two months' time to hear the final
police report on the incident. End Summary and Comment.

Provincial Officials Offer Explanation

2. (SBU) On June 29 Poloff traveled to Thanh Hoa Province to look
into the local government's reaction to the report of beatings of
Full Gospel Protestants in the province's Thieu Hoa District
(reftel). Poloff met with Le Viet Bon, Deputy Chief of Staff for
the provincial People's Committee (PPC), together with Bui Hai Vinh,
Director of the province's Department of Religion and Ethnic
Minority Affairs. On the subject of the June 18 incident, the
officials noted that Nguyen Trung Ton, who presented evidence to
Poloff that he had been beaten by police, claims to be an
"unaffiliated" Protestant pastor and has been trying to convert or
at least attract followers, although "he has never even attended a
class on religion, much less received a degree." The Full Gospel
Protestants under his tutelage "sometimes supposedly have prayer
groups during lunchtime," but really "they are trying to make
money," the officials flippantly suggested.

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3. (SBU) Reminded by Poloff of the seriousness of the matter and the
international attention it has received, one of the officials said,
"it's a pity the incident took place." "We took a very clear
approach: as soon as we learned of the incident, we asked the
district officials to conduct an official investigation and to
determine the appropriate punishment for the individuals involved,"
they continued. The provincial authorities resolved not to try to
cover up anyone's guilt, and those found responsible will be
punished according to the law, the director said.

4. (SBU) Referring to photographic evidence of the beatings posted
on the internet and given to Poloff by Ton, Bon asserted that "these
are pictures only and, given the available technology, things can be
misleading, so we need to conduct an official investigation." Local
authorities have confirmed that they asked four citizens to go to
the police headquarters in Thieu Vien Commune, as reported to Poloff
by Ton. While they were there, some individuals lost control, and
physical fighting occurred, but "this is not unusual." This
incident was just a fight between individual citizens and should not
be seen as institutional repression on religious activities, the
officials asserted.

Thieu Hoa District

5. (SBU) Separately, Thieu Hoa District's Director of Religious
Affairs noted that there are only two legal religions in the
district: Catholicism and Buddhism. There are 1,500 Catholics in
two sub-parishes, and 450 Buddhist with five temples. Although
there are no official Protestant organizations in the district, the
official acknowledged that "just recently, five individuals in Thieu
Vien Commune claimed to be Protestant believers." The district's
Protestants met several times without authorization, and district
officials instructed them to cease. This group has never submitted
a registration application, the official said. (Note: According to
information from Ton, the group unsuccessfully attempted to register
after being confronted by local officials. End Note.) The Director
also said that the June 18 incident resulted from a fight between
common citizens. "It is important that you do not turn this
incident into a big thing ... the incident is not a sign of official
repression of religion...fighting is something normal, which happens
everyday in villages," he concluded.

6. (SBU) After this meeting, Poloff met with Lieutenant Colonel Le
Nguc Duc, Chief of Police in Thieu Hoa District. Poloff passed
reftel details and photographs to Duc and asked that he use them in
his investigation of the June 18 incident. With some gravity, Duc
said he "would use the information as further guidance for the
police investigation and report." This investigation is still
pending, nobody has been punished yet and no final conclusions or
reports have been issued, he said. Nevertheless the initial
investigation has confirmed that a fight broke out at the police
station between Ton and his colleagues and "common citizens."

HANOI 00001666 002.2 OF 002

Nonetheless, the police chief acknowledged that "there have been
conflicting stories and documents relating what actually
happened...that's why we have not issued our final conclusions yet."

Future Plans

7. (SBU) The Embassy team was unable to visit Thieu Vien Commune or
the house church as originally planned. However, provincial
officials agreed that Poloff should return to visit both locations
and to hear the police chief's final report in late July or August.


8. (SBU) Although we are pleased that Thanh Hoa accepted our visit
on only two days' notice, we are concerned that provincial level
officials at first did not understand the seriousness of this issue.
Hopefully that has changed. We note, however, the seriousness with
which the district police chief treated the subject, possibly thanks
to pressure from Hanoi to show results. On the positive side, the
visit allowed an unusually frank exchange with local officials about
a subject that is normally impossible for us to discuss.

Background: Thanh Hoa's Religious Demographics
--------------------------------------------- --

9. (SBU) According to information provided by local officials, three
religious organizations function legally in Than Hoa: the Catholic
Church, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam North (ECVN) and the
Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha (VBS). The Thanh Hoa Catholic Diocese
currently boasts 46 parishes, 305 sub-parishes, 56 priests, 1
bishop, 113 nuns, 36 seminarians, 35,000 Catholics followers and a
monastery. There are over a hundred VBS temples in the province and
20,000 formally registered Buddhists, although many more Thanh Hoa
residents are practicing Buddhists. The VBS has established eight
executive boards to govern Buddhist followers at the district level
in the province. Five of these were established in the last year.
Finally, there is one legal ECVN congregation, which was permitted
to resume regular worship in late 2005 (see para 11).

10. (SBU) The officials noted that believers of all faiths have been
permitted to study and learn about their religion in training
classes conducted at their places of worship. Officials have also
tried to facilitate religious festivals and ceremonies as required,
and "all requests for activities have been processed promptly in a
smooth and legal manner." The province has allowed new clergy to
begin work in Thanh Hoa. In 2005-2006, ten Catholic priests were
ordained in the province, and a further ten were ordained in Hanoi
for service in Thanh Hoa. Fifteen VBS monks graduated from their
training and many of them have been admitted for further study to
Buddhist schools in Hanoi. The province is now examining a proposal
to add 16 parishes to the diocese and has agreed to the construction
of 15 new VBS temples. Since 1990, Thanh Hoa has also granted
20,000 square meters of land for use by the Catholic Church, the
officials said.

11. (SBU) The officials noted that Protestants first appeared in the
province as early as 1925. A single pastor took care of the Thanh
Hoa ECVN congregation until 1986. (Note: This makes Thanh Hoa one
of the 15 long-recognized ECVN congregations allowed by the GVN
after 1964. End Note). After the pastor's death, Protestant
numbers dwindled because "nobody took care of the church." In late
2005, the local authorities granted permission for the church to
resume operations. In the six months since, "everything has been
proceeding smoothly" as far as provincial authorities are concerned.
The ECVN's new pastor has already successfully established an
administration, executive board and has applied for land to
construct a new church, the officials said.

12. (SBU) The provincial Department on Religion and Ethnicities has
asked individual districts, communes and villages to provide better
statistics about Protestant followers so that Thanh Hoa will
eventually be able to conduct a pilot project to register all
Protestants. That said, according to the officials, "what is
disappointing for us is that some individuals, claiming to be
pastors, have conducted activities for Protestants without our
knowledge or approval."


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