Cablegate: Religious Freedom Update - Central Highlands and Danang

DE RUEHHI #1276/01 3230932
O 180932Z NOV 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

SUBJECT: Religious Freedom Update - Central Highlands and Danang

Ref A) 07 HCMC 811

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. Christians in the Central Highlands' Gia Lai
province celebrated 65 years of Protestantism, and over 20,000
faithful thronged to the two-day celebration outside of Pleiku.
Evangelical Church of Vietnam South (SECV) President Truong
highlighted the warming of relations between Protestants and
provincial officials. In neighboring Dak Lak, the People's
Committee Chairman invited the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE)
to provide training in the province while provincial officials have
already trained more than 7,000, provincial, local and church
officials on Vietnam's legal framework on religions. In Danang,
SECV and United World Mission Church (UWMC) officials relayed the
growth of Protestantism in the area and praised local officials for
their openness. With the direct assistance of the government's
Committee for Religious Affairs, UMWC has expanded pastoral
training, which is allowing it to establish many new congregations
and move forward in constructing a new headquarters. Unfortunately,
some problems remain for unrecognized house churches in Danang. The
United Baptist Church has been denied local registration and the
head of the local congregation has experienced harassment due to the
fact that the United Baptist Church has not yet been nationally
recognized. END SUMMARY.

20,000+ Protestants Celebrate in Central Highlands
--------------------------------------------- ----

2. (SBU) In a large-scale show of faith, over 20,000 ethnic minority
Protestants gathered at Pastor Siu Y Kim's Plei Breng Church outside
of Pleiku to celebrate 65 Years of Protestantism in Gia Lai Province
on October 15 and 16. Poloff joined the two-day program, which
brought together believers and government officials from throughout
the province. The Provincial Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA)
Chairman addressed the faithful at the celebration, as did the
entire leadership of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam South (SECV).
Several minority choirs, one with over 450 vocalists, performed
moving renditions of well-known Protestant hymns in their own

3. (SBU) Poloff joined Pastor Kim and SECV President Thai Phuoc
Truong for lunch following the morning's opening session. President
Truong noted the historic nature of the celebration and commented
that he had never before seen so many Protestants in one place. He
said that relations between the SECV and provincial leaders had
warmed considerably and that Pastor Kim had been the source of the
improved situation. President Truong also highlighted Pastor Kim's
rising star status by noting his recent election to the executive
committee of the SECV.

4. (SBU) In a rare occurrence, state-run Vietnam Television's
nightly news program, watched by an estimated 25 million Vietnamese,
spent two and a half minutes reporting on the celebration. The
following day, the same news program spent two minutes covering
IGE's visit to the Central Highlands and its meetings with officials
in Dak Lak and Gia Lai to talk about religious freedom issues.

5. (SBU) Poloff also traveled to an outlying Presbyterian
congregation about 65 kilometers outside of Pleiku in Ia Poong
commune, Chu Prong district. Pastor Cao, lead pastor of the small
congregation, said that the congregation is almost exclusively
comprised of minority believers. Cao has built a small chapel on
his private land to provide a worship center for his 93 followers.
He said that over the past four years attendance at his services has
increased slightly.

6. (SBU) According to the Vice Chairman of the People's Committee,
Gia Lai Province has nearly 300,000 religious adherents. He stated
that there are 91,000 Catholics, 86,000 Buddhists and 78,000
Protestants. He also said that there are 10 main ethnic minority
Protestant pastors, which include four from the Jarai ethnic
minority and six from Bahnar ethnic minority.

7. (SBU) News reports on IGE's Dak Lak visit affirmed that the
province has 1.8 million religious adherents divided between
Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and the Cao Dai sect.
Protestants make up approximately 340,000. Recently, Dak Lak
Province has held 37 training courses, in cooperation with CRA, for
approximately 7,000 provincial, local and religious officials on the
GVN legal framework on religion, according to news reports. Dr.
Chris Seiple, IGE President, also noted that Dak Lak officials
invited IGE to provide further training for provincial and local
officials on Vietnam's religious laws and policies and said he took
this as a very welcome sign.

Danang Sees the Light

8. (SBU) Poloff visited the headquarters of the United World Mission
Church (UWMC) in Danang and met with its President, Rev. Nguyen Toi.

HANOI 00001276 002 OF 003

Pastor Toi relayed the many hardships he and his followers had
experienced since the fall of the South in 1975, but heralded the
progress made in the past several years. He noted that his church
was registered in 2006 and formally recognized in October 2007, even
though a large majority of its congregations are located in the
Central Highlands. He said that currently the UWMC has 202
congregations with 23,000 followers. He said that the only thing
hindering the creation of more congregations is the church's limited
ability to train more lay pastors. (ref A)

9. (SBU) Pastor Toi praised the CRA for approaching him last year
offering to assist in establishing a training program for new
pastors. Since then, over 100 pastors have been trained and 79
others are currently participating in the five-month program. Toi
highlighted that five of the 11 members of the UWMC's national
executive committee had been trained in this program. Toi noted
that pastors in the UWMC are unpaid and that the reason the course
lasts five months is to allow several two-week breaks for the men to
return home to their farms. Upon the completion of the most recent
round of training, UWMC plans to open dozens of new congregations,
Toi said.

10. (SBU) UWMC is also moving forward in planning for a new
headquarters which it hopes will house up to 1,500 people. Toi
noted that the government would not charge the church for the land
and that he was in the process of raising funds, primarily overseas,
for the construction of the new facility that would include a school
and dormitory. Toi said that while his followers were impoverished
he expected each to donate 10,000 VND (approximately $0.60). Toi
said that a Protestant organization in Virginia affiliated with his
church had already constructed 50-60 prayer houses at the cost of
80-90 million VND per church (approximately $4,700 - $5,400).

11. (SBU) Poloff also visited with Pastor Hiep, the head of the SECV
in Danang, at his newly built Hoa My church, a resplendent structure
that seats more than 600 and was constructed with financial
assistance from South Korean Protestants, Hiep said. Hiep's
congregation numbers more than 1,000 and also runs a number of
social service programs to assist the community. Pastor Hiep
praised local Danang officials and Danang City Communist Party
Secretary in particular for being forward leaning on religious
freedom issues and allowing a Christmas program at the city's
largest public auditorium for more than 2,000.

12. (SBU) He also provided Poloff with two proselytizing tracts that
church members distribute to friends. While the law prohibits
direct missionary work, Hiep said that he is able to work within the
law by having congregants offer the tracts to friends and family as
gifts. His goal is to have each member bring a friend into the
church each year. In order to facilitate further missionary work,
the church has constructed a "reading room" which serves as a
small-scale library for the surrounding community that also has a
large amount of religious material available for free.

"Lions are Still Lions"

13. (SBU) Referring to the Biblical story of Daniel and the Lion's
Den, Pastor Hiep observed that God did not transform Daniel but
instead closed the mouth of the lions. That said, lions are still
lions Hiep affirmed. Comparing the lions to the GVN, he stated that
Protestants have been protected by God and are allowed to "pet the
lion" but they must still treat the lion well. Pastor Hiep's
complained that the GVN had yet to return land previously owned by
the SECV and other churches in Vietnam prior to the fall of the
South in 1975.

14. (SBU) Despite praise for local officials in Danang, the United
Baptist Church continues to experience harassment, according to
Pastor Nguyen Chi Huong. Poloff raised the case of the United
Baptists and Pastor Huong with local officials, who responded that
since the United Baptist Church was not recognized nationally it
could not be recognized locally and as such religious services were
not allowed. Poloff pointed out that the legal framework on
religions allows local congregations not yet recognized nationally
to register, and observed that according to the law national
recognition was not possible without prior local recognition.

15. (SBU) Local officials stressed their belief that Huong was not a
"true pastor" because the United Baptist Church does not have
authority to grant him the title. Poloff noted that Pastor Huong
had completed formal pastoral training and that as such he should be
viewed as the leader of his congregation. Local officials
discouraged Poloff from meeting with Pastor Huong directly and later
that day, despite assurances from the previous evening, Huong
cancelled his meeting with Poloff due to a problem with high blood
pressure which resulted in checking himself into the hospital.
(Note: We have since talked with Pastor Huong and he has assured us
that he is well, but that his small congregation continues to

HANOI 00001276 003 OF 003

experience difficulties.)

Comment: Government Showcases Acceptance of Religion
--------------------------------------------- -------

16. (SBU) While the actions of a few local officials continue to
raise concerns, the willingness of national and provincial officials
to allow a large-scale religious event in the heart of the Central
Highlands and to assist in the training of pastors and local
officials shows the steady progress of the GVN on religious freedom
issues. Until the last few years, Protestant leaders and their
congregations in the center of Vietnam were widely viewed with
suspicion for suspected separatist sympathies. The fact that this
time the central government chose to showcase these religious events
on its premier national newscast also evidences further acceptance
of Protestantism in the region.

17. This cable was coordinated with ConGen Ho Chi Minh City.


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