Cablegate: Uscirf in Hcmc: Protestant House Church Leaders

DE RUEHHM #1233/01 3480350
P 140350Z DEC 07





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: HCMC 1021

HO CHI MIN 00001233 001.2 OF 003

1. (SBU) The USCIRF delegation kicked off their visit to Ho Chi
Minh City on October 24 with a house church roundtable of
Protestant leaders from the Assembly of God, United Baptist
Church, United Gospel Outreach Church and Baptist Alliance
Church congregations in Vietnam. The pastors were unified in
their view that while there have been positive changes with
respect to religious freedom in Vietnam since the new legal
framework was implemented in 2004, problems persist. Issues
raised by the pastors primarily focused on their dealings with
local-level officials in the provinces, including demands for
lists of church members and harassment from authorities. Many
expressed frustration over the delays and complications with the
registration process. While the pastors forcefully recounted
their troubles to the USCIRF delegation, their presentations
also made it clear that they have all developed an ongoing
dialogue with various branches of the GVN and pastors expressed
no qualms about raising their concerns to the highest levels
when warranted. The pastors also believed the GVN's change of
policy has not yet translated into a change in attitude, and
agreed with the USCIRF's position that certain religious
activities are construed as "political" by the GVN. End summary.

Problems in the Provinces
2. (SBU) Commissioners Cromartie, Bansal, Eid, Gaer, and Argue
and staffers Scott Flipse and David Dettoni attended the house
church roundtable with Protestant leaders Pastor Duong Thanh Lam
from the Assembly of God (AOG), Pastor Pham Toan Ai from the
United Baptist Church, Pastor Daniel Pham Dinh Nhan from the
United Gospel Outreach Church (UGOC), and Pastor Henry Nguyen
Ngoc Hien from the Baptist Alliance Church. All of the pastors
represent denominations that have yet to be officially
recognized by the GVN. While all agreed that conditions for
their congregations have improved since the implementation of
the legal framework on religion in 2004, they also noted ongoing
problems in the provinces and frustrations with the registration
process. The pastors' reactions to the religious regulations
ranged from resignation to indignation as they discussed the
common problems they shared, which included:

--lack of local-level officials' knowledge of the legal
framework on religion, resulting in inaction or delays on church

--local officials demanding lists of followers for each
congregation (not required by law) and then using the lists to
interrogate followers at their homes;

--harassment of leaders and followers in the Northwest, the
Delta, and the Central Highlands, with harassment ranging from
confiscating Bibles to beatings, detentions and public
denouncement sessions; (The pastors said it is not usually
uniformed police, but "hired thugs" who are intimidating their

--denial of GVN benefits (poverty reduction, veteran's and
disabled persons benefits) to practitioners in an effort to
dissuade them from following the church.

What Every Protestant Should Know
3. (SBU) Since 2004, the pastors believe attempts by the GVN to
stop the spread of Protestantism have become less overt, but
were still evident. The pastors showed the USCIRF delegation a
small purple pamphlet called "Things Every Protestant Needs to
Know," which they said was being circulated among their
followers, especially in the Central Highlands. The pamphlet is
full of anti-Protestant invective that accuses churches of
propagating anti-scientific ideas, inveigling followers into
giving up their wages, and calls pastors "CIA spies" and "tools
of the US." When the USCIRF asked the pastors whom they thought
was responsible for the pamphlet, the pastors replied that only
the government or the police would be able to publish and
disseminate materials on such a large scale. (Comment: The
pastors are almost certainly correct; the GVN maintains tight
control in this area and unauthorized pamphleteering is treated
as a serious offense.)

4. (SBU) Pastor Henry, who often dominated the discussion at the
roundtable, said he had also secretly obtained a GVN training
manual that codifies the GVN's approach to Protestantism. He
said the manual divides followers into three categories:
long-term believers who have studied theology and church
doctrine, baptized laypeople who have not studied religious
theory, and new members who are not yet baptized. Pastor Henry
believes the GVN is concentrating its efforts on trying to

HO CHI MIN 00001233 002.2 OF 003

dissuade new, non-baptized followers from continuing with their
faith using the intimidation tactics and the discriminatory
treatment noted above.

Recognition With Conditions
5. (SBU) Most pastors reported registering congregations has
been slow and uneven in terms of the application of the legal
framework. Congregations in Ho Chi Minh City and provincial
capitals seemed to have the best experiences and fastest
processing times, with a few notable exceptions. Pastor Lam
from the AOG said that the congregation's leadership had been
approached by the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA) in
October as part of the GVN's effort to finalize national
registration procedures for several churches that had been
operating in Vietnam before 1975, including Baptist, Mennonite
and Presbyterian groups (reftel). The CRA told AOG they could
qualify for national registration, but only if they changed
their organizational structure and their charter. Lam said
changing the AOG's organization and charter were non-starters,
as both are an inherent part of their history and faith, now
practiced by approximately 57 million people in over 200
countries. Lam also told the CRA that the AOG's structure was
an internal church matter, and did not violate the GVN's laws or
regulations. Lam said due to the AOG's unwillingness to make
changes, discussions with the CRA were now at a standstill.

6. (SBU) While most pastors agreed their congregations were now
meeting freely whether they were registered or not, several said
recent registrations had specified the times and days groups
were allowed to meet. Pastor Daniel from UGOC also said two
denominations in HCMC had received registrations valid only for
one year. (Note: This is the first time post has received
reports of registrations "expiring" after a specified period of
time.) When asked by Commissioner Bansal whether registration
was a worthwhile endeavor, most pastors said that although the
process was slow and flawed, it was still a process that allowed
them to engage constructively with the GVN and work towards
eventual national recognition.

Registration Scorecard
7. (SBU) From the numbers reported by the pastors, it was
evident that their congregations are growing in Vietnam, but
registration processing was slow-moving.

Assembly of God--350 meeting points, 25,000 followers, only 30
successfully registered

Vietnam Baptist Convention--161 meeting points, only 18
successfully registered pre-WTO, none registered after, 6
registrations denied

United Gospel Outreach Church--200 congregations, 16,000
followers, 127 registrations filed, only 16 successfully
registered (all in the South).

United Baptist Church--90 meeting points, 60 registrations
filed, 4 successfully registered

Change in Policy, Not in Attitude
8. (SBU) As the meeting drew to a close, the pastors expressed
their thanks for the USCIRF's and USG's support, noting their
belief that international pressure and advocacy were forcing the
GVN to adopt a policy of religious freedom as part of their
overall global integration strategy. The pastors were also
skeptical that the GVN's change in policy has translated into a
real change in attitudes. All the pastors agreed that while
their GVN interlocutors are putting a more positive face on
relations these days, officials were still employing a variety
of tactics to dissuade followers from practicing Protestantism.
The difference now is that intimidation and harassment are more
likely to be carried out by plainclothes security personnel
rather than uniformed police. When Commissioner Gaer asked if
the pastors thought GVN perceived their activities as
"religious" but their communications with American organizations
like USCIRF and USG as "political," the pastors nodded agreement
in unison.

9. (SBU) The pastors at the roundtable gave honest and open
accounts of their experiences, and answered the CIRF
delegation's questions in the same manner they answer the
Consulate's. Many of the pastors have likened their
relationship with the GVN to a "parent giving out sweets one
candy at a time." While there is more freedom, it has its

HO CHI MIN 00001233 003.2 OF 003

limits. Pastor Henry's passport was confiscated by authorities
after several "unauthorized" trips to Cambodia, and he believes
his outspoken criticism of the GVN's policy as well as his
unwillingness to divulge names of his followers is part of the
reason his group seems to be faring worse than others. Indeed,
he said his congregations experienced more freedoms before the
GVN joined the WTO. Other pastors have developed a much more
comfortable dialogue with their GVN interlocutors, though that
has not prevented their congregations from facing problems from
time to time. As post has reported previously, while the GVN's
religious freedom policy is broad, implementation remains narrow.

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

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