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Cablegate: Ambassador Discusses Protestant Issues in Three Northern

DE RUEHHI #1880/01 2060731
R 250731Z JUL 06





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) HANOI 1877; B) HANOI 1678; C) HANOI 1466; D) HANOI 1113; E)

HANOI 1112

HANOI 00001880 001.2 OF 003

1. (SBU) Summary and Comment: During a July 5-7 provincial outreach
trip, the Ambassador discussed Protestant issues with the leaders of
Thai Nguyen, Bac Giang and Lang Son provinces. Thai Nguyen
officials were open-minded about the issue of registration, but
tightlipped about their future plans. In Bac Giang, the Ambassador
was able to meet with a handful of Baptists belonging to a
controversial congregation in one district, despite a clumsy attempt
by local officials to steer him toward meeting with disgruntled
traditionalist relatives of the Baptists. It is not likely that the
congregation will be registered any time soon and their leader may
be arrested for debt. In Lang Son, by comparison a model province
on religious freedom, the Ambassador visited a well-established,
registered Protestant church in a Dzao community, and also met with
the leader of a H'mong church that is seeking registration. This
trip reinforces our impression that implementation of the GVN's
policy to register Protestants and facilitate worship in the north
varies widely from province to province. In the coming months, we
will press the GVN to force other more recalcitrant northern
provinces to move toward the Lang Son approach. End Summary and

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2. (SBU) On July 5, the Ambassador met with Thai Nguyen Provincial
People's Committee (PPC) Chairman Nguyen Van Kim. Following a
discussion of Catholic issues (Ref A), Kim noted that "a number of
residents" follow Evangelical Church of Vietnam North (ECVN)
Protestantism in Thai Nguyen. (Note: The ECVN reports that there
are 1,500 total Kinh, Dzao and H'mong believers, comprising eighteen
separate congregations, in the province. End Note). The PPC is
currently providing instructions to the Protestants on how to
practice their religion "without causing economic hardship."
Protestantism is a new phenomenon in Thai Nguyen, but the PPC is
aware of the PM's Instruction on Protestantism, and if followers
practice their faith in accordance with the GVN's legal framework on
religion, they "probably will not have any problems to register
their congregations." (Note: The Chairman made no mention of a
provincial pilot project to register Protestants despite the GVN's
Committee on Religious Affair's suggestion that such a program might
be underway in Thai Nguyen - Ref C. Following up after the
Ambassador's discussion, Poloff was told that Thai Nguyen has a plan
to register six ECVN congregations by October or November, but
provincial officials have refused to comment further on this plan
despite repeated requests for more information. End Note.)


3. (SBU) On July 6, the Ambassador met with Bac Giang PPC Chairman
Than Van Muu. In addition to other issues discussed, Muu noted that
the Baptist congregation in Song Mai Commune (Ref B) comprises only
17 individuals, according to a list submitted by Pastor Than Van
Truong. (Note: Truong is a long time advocate of religious freedom
in Vietnam. He was committed by the GVN to a mental institution in
July 2004, after sending letters to provincial officials calling on
them to abandon Communist teachings and follow Christian scripture
instead. He was released on September 17, 2005 after reportedly
signing a document acknowledging a mental illness. Since his
release, Truong has strenuously advocated religious freedom over GVN
objections. End Note). This is in stark contrast to the large
Buddhist (150,000) and Catholic (17,000) populations in the
province. The Ambassador noted that the registration of Protestant
groups like Truong's congregation is very important for our
bilateral relationship. Officials, especially at the local level,
need to allow people to worship as they please, in accordance with
GVN law and policies. The number of Protestants in Bac Giang may be
small, but the law does not say their congregation has to be big to
be legal. Problems like those in Song Mai are hurting the public
image of Vietnam. If provincial and district officials facilitate
the Baptists' ability to worship, the international community will
applaud, but if they hinder that freedom, the international
community will not react well, the Ambassador said.

4. (SBU) Muu admitted that he and his staff do not know much about
Protestantism, but he asserted that the GVN respects the rights of
all Vietnamese to worship as they please. "You also need to trust
our reports of religious freedom...if you receive reports of
incidents from other sources, be suspicious," he added. The
Baptists in Song Mai all come from one clan. Part of the clan
follows traditional (ancestor worship) beliefs. Part of the current
conflict in the commune stems from family friction between the
traditionalists and the Baptists. "In fact, I am from the same clan
as Pastor Truong and some other members of the clan are local

HANOI 00001880 002.2 OF 003

officials as well," Muu said. (Note: Than is the clan name for both
Muu and Truong. End Note). He also asserted that the intra-clan
conflict may be seen by outsiders as a problem between local
officials and believers, but really "there is no local government
effort to prohibit religion in Bac Giang." In conclusion, Muu noted
that the PPC plans to arrest Truong soon over the issue of his debts
(Ref B). The Ambassador noted that we will continue to monitor
Truong's and the Baptists' situation closely, and we hope that any
legal action against Truong follows the same laws, procedures and
standards under which any other Vietnamese would be prosecuted.


5. (SBU) In the afternoon, the Ambassador visited Song Mai Commune
and met with the Chairman of the People's Committee, Mr. Do Van Bao,
and a commune representative of the Vietnam Fatherland Front's
Veterans Association. Bao noted that the PPC had instructed him to
introduce the Ambassador to ten people named by Truong as members of
his church in an official list submitted along with the Baptist's
application to register. The commune arranged for that group to
meet at the cultural center (a one-room building) in Song Mai.
"Truong wanted to meet with you too, but since he is not a legal
resident here it would not be safe for him to meet you," Bao said.
The Ambassador thanked Bao for arranging the meeting, but reiterated
his request to meet Mr. and Mrs. Hoe, the owners of the house in
which the Baptist congregation regularly meets for worship. Bao
claimed that Hoe and his wife were among those invited to the
culture center. (Note: The Hoes told us by phone that they refused
to meet with the Ambassador at the culture center. End Note.)

6. (SBU) Bao introduced six elderly individuals as Baptists, noting
that they were all listed as such on Truong's application. All of
them proved to be Buddhist septuagenarian relatives of Truong, and
most had little understanding of the questions put to them regarding
Protestantism. The one exception was a man (NFI) in his early 40's
who stated that Truong is his cousin. He appeared at the culture
center because the local officials informed him he was on the list
of Baptists Truong submitted with his application. "I was very
surprised that Truong has brought Protestantism here...I and my
family don't agree with him and most people here worship their
ancestors according to tradition" the man said.

7. (SBU) In the face of this meager presentation, the Ambassador
insisted that Bao allow him to visit the Hoe household (which is
located just behind the culture center), and talk to the Baptists
directly. After a brief attempt to prevent the Ambassador to visit
the home on the grounds that local officials could not guarantee his
safety, Bao relented under orders from the PPC religious affairs
representative. Mr. and Mrs. Hoe, Pastor Truong and his wife
greeted the Ambassador at the locked door to their compound. Hoe's
wife also showed the Ambassador the small bedroom and chapel on the
second floor that is used for prayer meetings. Hoe stated that the
group only wants to follow religion under the GVN's framework on
religion. At this point the man claiming to be Truong's cousin
forced his way into the chapel and crudely accosted Hoe's and
Truong's wives in Vietnamese. Truong's wife lost her temper at the
extreme insult and began shoving the cousin. As the Ambassador left
the building, the two wrestled physically and verbally on the stairs
while Bao tried to separate them bodily.


8. (SBU) On July 7, the Ambassador met with Lang Son PPC Chairman
Doan Ba Nhien. Following a discussion of Catholic issues (Ref A),
Nhien noted that "in Lang Son, we are trying to work in line with
Vietnam's Constitution" with regard to Protestants. The ECVN
congregation of Dzao Protestants in Bac Son District was formed in
1938. It existed as separate group until it joined the ECVN as a
single congregation. The Ambassador complimented the PPC on its
enlightened approach to Protestants as well as Catholics and
encouraged Nhien to assist the ethnic H'mong group in Bac Son to
register their congregation as well in the spirit of the PM's
Instruction on Protestantism. (Note: The ECVN reports that the
H'mong group in Bac Son comprises 292 individuals who first
submitted an application to register with district officials in June
2005. The congregation re-submitted their application in January,
2006. End Note.)

9. (SBU) The Ambassador visited the ECVN house church in Suoi Nay
Village of Tan Tri Commune in Bac Son later in the afternoon. The
district is three hours from Lang Son City by car and the village is
accessible via a new, six kilometer (km) road off the main road to
the boundary with Thai Nguyen Province, which is only eight miles
beyond the village turn off. The village is reached by a two km
dirt track that winds through rice paddies and crosses several

HANOI 00001880 003 OF 003

streams with makeshift electrical turbines powered by the water.
The church is a stilt house with a large front room kitted out with
mats, a pulpit, several fans and a large electronic organ. Unlike
the members of other ECVN house churches visited by Embassy staff in
the North (Refs D and E), church members were not wearing ethnic
costumes. The Ambassador met with Pastor Ly Tien Luu, who explained
that the 1,500 followers (308 households) of the Dzao church in Lang
Son are divided into twelve sub-congregations. Each group gathers
in structures in other areas of Bac Son District. Each house holds
about 120 people on Sundays, but more people attend Christmas and
Easter services. There is a management board for each
sub-congregation. With the exception of Pastor Luu who studied with
ECVN in Hanoi, the deacons leading each group have not had any
formal training, Luu Said.

10. (SBU) Luu stated that this congregation is still growing and has
asked local officials for permission to build an actual church in
Suoi Nay. The local government has agreed in principle with this
request, but the group has not yet completed all of the paperwork to
proceed with the building project. The congregation hopes to
eventually build churches for all 12 sub-congregations as well.
Since the promulgation of the GVN's Ordinance on Religion in 2004,
the religious life of the Bac Son congregation has "become normal."
The group even is allowed to worship in Dzao language using Dzao
materials and bibles provided by ECVN, although Luu also preaches in
Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) when local officials are present. The
church has also organized social groups for small children, primary
school students, teenagers, adults and elderly members of the
church, Luu said with quiet pride.

11. (SBU) Luu also introduced the Ambassador to Ly Van Sung, who is
the deacon of the unregistered H'mong congregation in Bac Son. Luu
noted that the H'mong Protestants emigrated to Bac Son in 2000 from
other areas of the north. The local authorities encouraged us to
reach out to this new group to help them establish their new
congregation, Luu said. Sung noted that the H'mong congregation of
34 households has still not received permission to register. Their
house church is 40km from Suoi Nay (about an hour by motorbike).
When the group first arrived from Thai Nguyen, Bac Giang, Bac Kan,
and Cao Bang provinces, Bac Son District officials did not allow
them to practice their religion, but since the PM's Instruction, and
especially in 2006, local officials have gradually allowed the group
to worship, Sung explained.


12. (SBU) This trip reinforces our impression that implementation of
the GVN's policy to register Protestants and facilitate worship in
the north varies widely from province to province. In Thai Nguyen,
the PPC is open-minded but tight-lipped about plans for
registrations. In Bac Giang, local officials seem quite unhappy by
the advent of Truong's Baptists and determined to resist their
development, not to mention their registration, despite our and the
international community's attention. (This may have more to do with
"Pastor" Truong than with the handful of Baptist practitioners in
Song Mai Commune). Lang Son, on the other hand, is a model for what
we would like to see in a provincial government's approach to
religious freedom, though this owes much to the long tradition of
religion in the province. In the coming months, we will press the
GVN to force other more recalcitrant northern provinces to move
toward the Lang Son approach.


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