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Cablegate: Ambassador Hanford Meets Ethnic Affairs Minister

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INFO RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH 1820
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UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HANOI 002380

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TAGS: PHUM KIRF PREL PGOV VM
SUBJECT: AMBASSADOR HANFORD MEETS ETHNIC AFFAIRS MINISTER

Ref: A) Hanoi 1666

1. (SBU) Summary: IRF Ambassador John Hanford met Minister/Chairman
K'sor Phuoc of the GVN's Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs August
17 to discuss GVN efforts to facilitate the practice of religion
among ethnic minority groups, particularly those in Vietnam's north.
Ambassador Hanford urged the GVN to take steps over the next six
weeks that would advance our bilateral religious freedom agenda.
These steps could include registering Protestant congregations in
Vietnam's ethnic minority-dominated north and approving training for
pastors. The Evangelical Church of Vietnam-North would be a good
partner for the GVN in taking these steps. Minister Phuoc stated in
familiar terms the challenges facing the GVN in dealing with
Protestantism in the north; underlined his government's commitment
to religious freedom; and, outlined what actions the GVN plans to
take to facilitate religious practice, including registering
congregations, encouraging elections of pastors-in-charge and
providing land for places of worship. Ambassador Hanford and
Minister Phuoc also briefly discussed recent beatings of Protestants
in Thanh Hoa Province, and Phuoc had little to say beyond the
official version of events. End Summary.

Ambassador Hanford's Presentation
---------------------------------

2. (SBU) United States Ambassador-at-Large for International
Religious Freedom John Hanford, accompanied by Ambassador Marine,
met August 17 with GVN Committee on Religious Affairs
Minister/Chairman K'sor Phuoc. Accepting Minister Phuoc's
invitation to open the discussion, Ambassador Hanford noted that
their previous meeting in Washington in July was a good opportunity
to discuss the growth of Protestantism among ethnic minorities and
the tensions that this is generating in some places. The USG
appreciates the Minister's efforts to facilitate progress for ethnic
minority groups, particularly in their religious activities.

3. (SBU) Ambassador Hanford explained that the purpose of this visit
to Vietnam is to discuss possible areas for progress in the area of
religious freedom in the weeks ahead. This matter is more pertinent
than ever considering the Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR)
discussions taking place in Congress, the need to make a decision on
Vietnam's Country of Particular Concern (CPC) status and the
President's planned November visit to Vietnam. Vietnam's positive
actions to date have been notable, and this is a point that
Ambassador Hanford has sought to make in meetings with Members of
Congress and others.

4. (SBU) Ambassador Hanford expressed his hope that both sides could
think creatively about ways in which the GVN could accelerate
advances in religious freedom, perhaps by moving up the timetables
of actions that are already in train. By taking a number of
positive steps in the weeks ahead, Vietnam would be showing its
considerable commitment to responding to our concerns. Similarly, a
GVN roadmap, or general guidelines, of what it intends to do over
the next year in the area of religious freedom would send a positive
signal about Vietnam's willingness to keep up our forward momentum,
Ambassador Hanford said.

5. (SBU) The USG's particular ara of concern remains the slow pace
of registratins in northern Vietnam, including the Northwest
ighlands, Ambassador Hanford continued. In spite o Hanoi's
positive efforts, it appears that localofficials still have not
gotten the message. Fo example, we still hear of instances of
local officials pressing individuals to renounce their Protestant
faith, although we are aware that this is not GVN policy. We
realize that it is impossible to solve these problems nationwide,
simultaneously and in a quick manner. But, it seems that some steps
could be taken in the near future to show that progress is being
made in the north.

6. (SBU) As we are aware, under the Ordinance on Religion and Belief
and the Prime Minister's Instruction on Protestantism, congregations
that follow correct procedures and fill out the proper paperwork
will be allowed to register, Ambassador Hanford said. According to
the Evangelical Church of Vietnam-North (ECVN), some 700
congregations have submitted applications to register in various
places throughout the north. However, to the ECVN's knowledge, none
of these applications has been approved. In fact, a large number of
these applications have been returned unopened, or, in other cases,
the people associated with the applications have received severe
treatment from local officials, including harassment and beatings.

7. (SBU) The issue of registrations, at least for a symbolic number
of congregations, should be easy to resolve in a short period of
time, Ambassador Hanford continued. The USG is aware that the GVN
has made a good-faith effort to arrange training sessions in the
north for local officials on the legal framework on religion and the
need to respect religious beliefs. Similar efforts in this area and
others over the next six weeks, and a sense from the GVN of where it

HANOI 00002380 002 OF 003


intends to go over the next year, would be welcome signals that
Vietnam remains committed to working together to advance religious
freedom, Ambassador Hanford said.

Phuoc: Protestantism in North a Complex Matter
--------------------------------------------- -

8. (SBU) Minister Phuoc outlined in familiar terms the GVN's
commitment to freedom of religion and belief for all of Vietnam's
citizens. In Vietnam today, there are more or less ten different
religions operating, including those such as Cao Dai and Hoa Hao
that are products of Vietnam. Of course, there are many foreign
religions as well, such as Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam and
Protestantism. Most of these religions are "operating normally" in
Vietnam, and, in the case of Protestantism, there are many branches.
For example, Protestantism in the Central Highlands is dominated by
the Mennonites, while in the north the most prevalent branches are
the Vietnam Christian Fellowship, the 7th Day Adventists, the
Baptists and the Grace Baptist Church. Protestant adherents are
present in 16 provinces, 88 districts and 459 communes in the north.
Many Protestant adherents were converted by "Voice of America
broadcasts in the ethnic Hmong and Dzao languages." (Note:
Ambassadors Hanford and Marine later corrected Phuoc, noting that
private religious groups operate these radio broadcasts. End Note.)
Because so many branches exist in one locality, there tends to be
some overlap in Protestant religious groups' registration
applications.

9. (SBU) Furthermore, certain segments of the population still have
a nomadic lifestyle and move between provinces or over the border
between Vietnam and Laos, Phuoc continued. Among them, many follow
"Vang Chu," which is a clear influence of Laotian Hmong people, and
they hope for the restoration of the ancient "Hmong Empire" under
the flag of Vang Hao, who lives in the United States. There are
often clashes within one family or a single community between those
who have different religions. Prior to Protestantism's arrival in
the Northwest Highlands in 1985, local people were polytheistic and
followed traditional customs. With the French colonists came
Catholicism. It is thus possible that within one family, three
generations can follow three different religious beliefs:
polytheism or traditional ancestor worship, Catholicism and
Protestantism. This situation can lead to clashes, Phuoc repeated.

10. (SBU) Even some Protestant leaders do not fully understand their
own religion, not to mention Vietnam's legal framework on religion,
Phuoc said. For example, some Protestants mistakenly believe that
they are not allowed to drink alcohol, or do not have to serve in
the army or pay taxes. They argue that because everything was
created by God, they can practice their beliefs anywhere or do
anything they want. In some extreme cases, a Protestant leader will
even gather his followers together to commit mass suicide. All of
these things explain why local authorities often have a hard time
dealing with Protestantism and certain groups' applications to
register, Phuoc noted.

What a Congregation Must Do
---------------------------

11. (SBU) The GVN's policy is to give guidance to provincial
authorities on facilitating normal Protestant activities, the
Minister continued. Under this guidance, all religious groups must
register in order to practice their faith. In the case of
Protestantism, these groups are asked to identify what branch they
belong to, but many cannot. "They just know that they are
Protestant," Phuoc said. Upon registration, the local Vietnam
Fatherland Front representative and commune leadership should assist
the congregation in electing a pastor-in-charge. Phuoc pledged to
work closely with the ECVN to introduce the pastor-in-charge to the
provincial authorities. The congregation must also organize a local
congress and invite Protestant leaders (Note: presumably from Hanoi
or elsewhere) to hold training sessions on true Protestant
teachings. Where necessary, the authorities will also consider
providing land to set up places of worship.

12. (SBU) One possibly difficult area is in the selection of the
congregation's leadership, because there could be disputes among
followers about who should become pastor-in-charge, Phuoc observed.
In fact, in some cases, the ECVN has asked government authorities to
resolve disputes when it became clear that people were abusing
Protestantism to gain personal benefits. In any event, even if a
congregation is not yet recognized or registered, it will still be
allowed to gather to worship, Phuoc said.

13. (SBU) Repeating the steps a congregation must take to normalize
its operations, Phuoc said that, once a congregation is registered,
it must hold a congress to select its leadership and then it will be
recognized by the State. At that point, the congregation's leader
will have the legal status to work with local authorities to address
his followers' needs. In some cases, this will entail facilitating


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