Cablegate: Uscirf Meets Hcmc Gvn: City Council Chair Madame Thao

DE RUEHHM #1192/01 3381046
P 041046Z DEC 07





E.O. 12958: N/A

HO CHI MIN 00001192 001.2 OF 002

1. (SBU) During the US Commission on International Religious
Freedom (CIRF) delegation's meeting with HCMC People's Council
Chairwoman Pham Phuong Thao on October 25, Commissioners cited
outstanding issues that marred the GVN's record of progress on
religious freedom, including limitations with the GVN's legal
framework on religion, harassment and surveillance of religious
groups and the failure of the GVN to return church properties.
Chairwoman Thao pointed out the positive, citing examples of GVN
initiatives that support Vietnam's largest population of
religious followers. She also said that HCMC's government was
striving to balance rapid economic growth with its citizen's
social welfare and quality of life needs--including the freedom
to practice their faith. Thao also welcomed a broader dialogue
with religious groups, encouraged them to report specific
problems via the Council's public hotline, and invited CIRF to
send a list of groups with specific concerns directly to her
office. End summary.

The USCIRF Position
2. (SBU) While the USCIRF delegation acknowledged positive
developments since the GVN adopted a policy of religious
freedom, they also told Madame Thao, that restrictions on
religious groups--some of which they attribute to the legal
framework on religion-- overshadow the progress made thus far.
The Commissioners said that religious freedom must be expanded
by returning confiscated church property, removing restrictions
on religious groups' involvement in vocational, educational,
medical, and other charitable activities and addressing
harassment of religious leaders and practitioners.

HCMC's Leadership Role
3. (U) Chairwoman Thao said HCMC's government took a very
dynamic and creative approach to fostering economic development,
which has made the city a leader in terms of Vietnam's
integration into the global economy and international community.
As the largest city in the country with highest growth rate
(averaging ten-plus percent over the past decade with an
expected rate of 12% for this year), Thao acknowledged the
challenge of maintaining social stability and improving living
conditions for HCMC's residents while promoting further growth.
Thao said expanding the city's infrastructure, restructuring the
economy around technology rather than more labor intensive
industries, and streamlining government procedures through
public administration reform were all major challenges the HCMC
government grapples with daily.

4. (U) Thao affirmed that effective implementation of the legal
framework on religion is an important part of HCMC's ongoing
development, as Ho Chi Minh City has the largest number of
religious followers in Vietnam, with roughly one-third of the
city's 8.5 million residents practicing a religion. The
Chairwoman described a thriving religious community consisting
of approximately 2,000 congregations and 1,500 places of
worship. She added that permission was granted for 68 new
religious sites to be constructed in the past year alone.
Madame Thao said HCMC authorities do everything in their power
to guarantee and safeguard the freedom of religion and gave
examples of government support for religious festivals during
Christmastime and the various Buddhist festivals held throughout
the year. Thao also said the GVN provides support for opening
religious training institutes, gives incentives and "favorable
treatment" to religious institutions looking for land (citing
the example of a 20 hectare plot recently set aside for the
building of a Buddhist temple), and facilitates the upgrade of
existing places of worship. Thao also noted the importance of
the more than 200 faith-based educational and training
institutions playing an active role in charitable activities.

Chairwoman Thao's Vow
5. (SBU) Commissioner Gaer raised concerns that the legal
framework on religion was being used by the Vietnamese
government to control religious groups, citing instances where
GVN authorities have delayed or denied registration of new
religious groups as well as reports of surveillance by local
officials after churches provided the names of their followers.
(Note: While providing names of followers is not required by
law, several house church leaders have said GVN authorities
request lists of practitioners as part of the registration
process. End note.) Gaer asked whether the GVN had given any
consideration to establishing a hotline for religious groups to
report problems with the authorities.

6. (SBU) Chairwoman Thao said the Vietnamese government is doing
its utmost to implement the ordinance but acknowledged some

HO CHI MIN 00001192 002.2 OF 002

shortcomings in execution will always occur, as matters often
unfold much differently in reality than in theory. Thao said
the GVN has organized training seminars for civil servants to
teach them about the religious ordinance in order to facilitate
its implementation. Thao said HCMC is limited in its ability to
directly influence what goes on in other provinces and can only
seek to persuade officials by sharing its own positive
experiences. That said, Thao believes the dialogue between the
government and the public on numerous issues--including
religion--has grown over the past few years. In HCMC, citizens
can communicate with city officials via telephone hotline,
email, or post, as well as at town hall meetings held several
times a year.

7. (SBU) Thao said while there was no separate religious issues
hotline, groups could report issues via the public hotline and
reports of religious abuses would be given priority. Thao
offered to sit down and discuss specific concerns with any
religious groups facing problems and invited the USCIRF to send
a list of groups reporting problems to her office so that she
could look into their cases directly (Note:Consul General
Fairfax gave Madame Thao USCIRF's letter and list on November
30. End note). Thao also expressed surprise over Commissioner
Gaer's comment regarding GVN surveillance and said that
organizations and individuals should not be surveilled if they
are undertaking "normal religious activities." She also said
that no one in HCMC should be asking for lists of the members of

The UBCV Question
8. (SBU) Commissioner Bansal asked Councilwoman Thao whether
government would consider opening a dialogue with other Buddhist
groups like the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and
allow them to organize independently and operate legally in Ho
Chi Minh City. Chairwoman Thao said the UBCV was one of nine
Buddhist denominations integrated into the Vietnamese Buddhist
Sangha in 1981 and therefore no longer an independent legal
entity in Vietnam. Thao said UBCV members are free to practice
their religion and participate in charitable activities, but not
under the banner of the UBCV. Chairwoman Thao gave examples of
two other officially recognized religions with Buddhist
underpinnings--the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai. Thao said HCMC's
500 Hoa Hao leaders and followers have their own temple and the
city is currently considering a request from Hoa Hao
headquarters in An Giang province to open a representative
office in Ho Chi Minh City. Thao said the Cao Dai currently
have eleven different congregations located around the city, and
ordained the largest number of church leaders ever over the past
year. In addition, city authorities provided assistance for
training clergy and registered two new Cao Dai denominations
this year.

Church Property: Borrowed vs. Given
9. (SBU) Addressing CIRF's questions about church property taken
by the government shortly after 1975, Chairwoman Thao made a
distinction between "borrowed" properties and "given"
properties. Thao said properties that had been formally "given"
to the government will not be returned, but assured the
Commission the land was being used for purposes consistent with
the intentions of the religious organizations who gave the
government the land. Thao said former church property that had
been "borrowed" by the government is now being returned.

10. (SBU) COMMENT: While towing the GVN company line on issues
like the UBCV and GVN church property, Thao was frank in
acknowledging uneven implementation of the legal framework
throughout Vietnam and open to reviewing specific instances of
unfair treatment experienced by churches in Ho Chi Minh City.
CIRF noted Thao's responsiveness and offer to review specific
cases of religious freedom violations and expressed their
intention to follow-up on this offer. Post will work with the
CIRF and church leaders to assist in compiling a list of cases
of for a follow up letter to Chairwoman Thao. End comment.

11. (U) This cable was coordinated with Embassy Hanoi.

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