Cablegate: Changes in the Fortunes of One Church Reflect Changes In

DE RUEHHM #1279/01 3620531
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1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The story of the United World Mission Church
(UWMC) is a microcosm the changes that have gripped Vietnam in
the more than 32 years since the end of the war. The church
went underground but survived as the direct persecution and
police scare campaigns of the late 1970's progressed to property
confiscations in the 1980's. While the situation improved once
the 1986 "doi moi" reforms brought liberalization, the best the
church's leader could say about the 1990's is that his church
was unofficially tolerated and harassed less often than in the
1980's. Since the passage of the law on religious freedom in
2004, however, the once glacial pace of change has speeded up
considerably. The UWMC now has full legal status and an elected
Executive Council formally recognized by the GVN. After decades
of training preachers in underground schools or sneaking them
abroad, the UWMC graduated 75 new preachers from its Danang
training center in 2007; 150 more will graduate in 2008. Plans
are afoot for a new church to accommodate 1,500 worshipers at
once and a new national headquarters building. Perhaps most
surprising of all, the same local police station that once meted
out harassment now keeps cordial relations with the UWMC's
central church, going so far this year as to organized a special
Yuletide dinner at which the pastor was invited to give the
benediction. END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) During a December 18 meeting at his home in Danang,
Pastor Toi of the United World Mission Church (UWMC) of Vietnam
provided an illuminating personal perspective on the progress of
religious freedom since 1975. Immediately after reunification,
security agents told everyone that even though the U.S. had
pulled out of Vietnam, they left behind their CIA agents in the
form of Protestant pastors. While all Protestants were suspect,
Pastor Toi says that the UWMC was singled out for particularly
harsh treatment. Many pastors were sent to reeducation camps
and all pastors found themselves totally isolated from their
congregations since people feared retribution from security
police if they were seen talking to a preacher. Pastor Toi,
like many other religious and business figures, "voluntarily"
donated most church property to the GVN. Among the donated
properties were a large hospital located on 20 hectares (50
acres) of land, a school on 2 hectares (5 acres) and smaller
properties. As part of his understanding with the new
government, the UWMC kept its main church in Danang.

3. (SBU) In 1983, roughly three-quarters of the property of the
main UWMC church in Danang was confiscated by provincial
officials and six families were moved into the former church.
The justification given was that the church was not being used.
Pastor Toi points out that while the rationale was true, it was
only true because UWMC members could only meet in secret due to
fear of police reprisals. Public religious worship was illegal.
At roughly the same time his church was divided up, other
leading UWMC pastors were ejected from their parsonages so
Pastor Toi had to partition his own home to make room for
additional families. In his tiny remodeled living space, the
former entry way became the living and dining area while the
former bathroom became the sole bedroom. His home retains this
form to this day.

4. (SBU) After the start of Doi Moi in 1986 and particularly in
the early 1990's the situation improved and UWMC members could
once again meet openly, although still only unofficially. On
more that one occasion, police prevented services from taking
place, sometimes by blocking access and sometimes by summoning
the pastor to a meeting. Several times, police summoned Pastor
Toi to meetings at the same time that major celebrations such as
Christmas services were scheduled to take place. The police
never had anything in particular to discuss; they just wanted to
disrupt services.

5. (SBU) After the passage of the new law on religious freedom
in 2004, the situation began to improve. While it was initially
very difficult to register churches and meeting points, as both
Pastor Toi and local governments became more familiar with
registration procedures, the process quickened. By July of 2007
(when Pastor Toi first met the new CG), many registrations were
being processed in only two weeks (reftel). While many others
took longer, Pastor Toi and the other pastors from UWMC were
clearly learning to work the system and had found that central
and provincial authorities from the Committee on Religious
Affairs (CRA) were willing to play an active, supportive role.

6. (SBU) In September 2007, the UWMC held it's first nation-wide
conference since the end of the war, electing an 11-member
executive council that includes roughly equal numbers of pastors
from three generations: the pre-1975 generation, the generation
of pastors who began their service in the "underground"
congregations of the UWMC from 1975 to 2004, and new pastors who

HO CHI MIN 00001279 002.2 OF 002

graduated from the UWMC's first officially-approved five-month
training program in July 2007. While Pastor Toi was told not to
invite foreign observers to the September general conference,
several showed up anyway. Pastor Toi said that those foreigners
who did come were given a warm reception both by the church and
by local officials and wound up going away deeply impressed by
what they had seen.

7. (SBU) After years of having to run to Hanoi or to the
People's Committee office for all types of permission slips and
official paperwork, Pastor Toi was all set to head to Hanoi once
again to accept his denomination's official national
registration certificate on October 24, 2007. He was therefore
pleasantly surprised to receive a call from the CRA telling him
that he did not need to travel; the CRA would send someone to
bring the certificate to him. When the denomination was given
"legal person" status (allowing it to officially own property
and engage in legally-binding transactions just as a corporation
or NGO can), the CRA once again sent someone down from Hanoi.
While small, these changes reflect a fundamental change in
attitude toward religion.

8. (SBU) Pastor Toi commented that perhaps his experience this
Christmas season best summed up the changes that have occurred
in Vietnam. This year, he once again received a call from the
local police. Unlike the dark years of the 1980's when they
called to harass him or disrupt Christmas services, however,
this year they called to invite him to a special dinner in honor
of the Christmas season -- a dinner hosted by the police at
which Pastor Toi would be invited to say the blessing.

9. (SBU) While Pastor Toi credits the will of God (and not the
GVN) for the changes that have occurred, he is actively pressing
the GVN to make more changes. Church registrations are easier
but there are still problems to be resolved, particularly in
some provinces in the north eastern part of the country. Even
though he never donated the UWMC's central facility to the GVN
and it is therefore officially considered to be "borrowed"
rather than owned by the GVN, he has been told that in order to
reclaim the church property the church itself -- and not the GVN
-- must first directly compensate the six families and one
brewery that now occupy former church land. All six families
have made it clear that their compensation price will be very
high. The brewery has announced plans to relocate and sell its
facility on Danang's red hot real estate market.

10. (SBU) Having trained 75 new pastors last year, the UWMC
plans to train 150 more in 2008 while simultaneously upgrading a
number of "meeting points" into fully recognized churches. Now
that the UWMC has full legal rights, Pastor Toi is planning to
sue for property restitution rather than simply request it. At
the same time, he is filing an application for a 10,000 square
plot of land as compensation for seized properties. He already
has plans drawn up for the new 1,500 seat church, bible school,
dormitories and UWMC headquarters he plans to build there.

© Scoop Media

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