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Cablegate: Tra Vinh Protestants and Officials Exchange Views On

DE RUEHHM #1054/01 3391145
P 041145Z DEC 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) HCMC 1016 REF B) HCMC 0154 REF C) HCMC 0651

HO CHI MIN 00001054 001.2 OF 003

1. (SBU) Summary: During a November 18 visit to Tra Vinh,
PolOffs raised a number of issues reported by both recognized
and unrecognized Protestant congregations over the past year
with provincial officials. These incidents of religious freedom
violations represent a small number of the worst types of
discrimination some religious groups still face in Vietnam,
despite generally improving conditions for most denominations.
While provincial officials readily listened to reports from
PolOffs and representatives from the Southern Evangelical Church
of Vietnam (SECV) and did not deny the occurrences, they also
complained to PolOffs that Protestant groups are "unstable" and
thus difficult to administer, often setting back the
registration process by changing their affiliations multiple
times. Tra Vinh Protestants said authorities are deliberately
delaying registering their congregations and complained about
harassment and beatings at the hands of local police and
Buddhist residents who are intolerant of different religious
practices. Tra Vinh Protestants also said many have been
pressured to renounce their faith and wondered why no
disciplinary action has been taken. The incidents point out the
need for continued rule of law reform so that all types of
minority groups in Vietnam not only have the right to worship
freely, but have those rights protected by local authorities in
communities where intolerance and discrimination exist. End

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Protestant Problems in Predominantly Buddhist Province
--------------------------------------------- ---------
2. (SBU) Protestants are experiencing difficult times in the
Delta province of Tra Vinh, where Theravada Buddhism is the
predominant faith. Within the past year, five Protestant groups
-- two nationally recognized and three unrecognized -- have
reported problems with local authorities. The issues ranged
from officials not accepting registration documents, disrupting
services and calling pastors in for police questioning to
harassment and physical attacks by local Buddhist residents
which were witnessed by police and officials. The churches
accused local authorities of allowing the attacks on Protestants
and supporting discriminatory attitudes against new religious
groups. (Note: Approximately 30 percent of Tra Vinh's
population of 1.1 million residents is Khmer. All but a few
thousand Khmer follow Theravada Buddhism and life in the Khmer
community revolves around the Theravada Buddhist pagodas. End
Note). In some cases, severe harassment has led some
Protestants to move away from problem districts and several have
approached ConGen's Humanitarian Resettlement Section regarding
the possibility of resettling in the U.S.

3. (SBU) In a November 18 meeting between PolOffs and members of
the Tra Vinh Provincial People's Committee, Committee for
Religious Affairs (CRA) and Ethnic Minority Committee, PolOffs
raised the incidents reported by the SECV, Vietnam
Inter-Christian Fellowship (VCIF), the Full Gospel Church, the
Life Gospel Church and the United Khmer Christian Church in the
Duyen Hai, Tra Cu and Tieu Can districts of Tra Vinh.

Tra Vinh Authorities Speak
4. (SBU) In response, Tra Vinh officials admitted to PolOffs
that some local officials did not correctly implement
regulations and laws on religion. However, the violations did
not warrant punishment, they claimed. They complained that
Protestants are "not stable," and constantly change their
denominations. Entire congregations change from one affiliation
to another and if these groups had "true faith," they would be
registered, officials said.

5. (SBU) Provincial authorities asserted that Protestant
missionaries go to the poorest communities and give away money
to attract followers, then Protestants from other groups come
and give more money to join their group. On the registration
process, groups often file for registration but then change
their affiliation before the registration process on the
original application is completed, the officials declared. If
Protestant groups were "long-term and stable," they would be
registered, authorities stated. (Comment: While it is tempting
to dismiss charges of "convert buying" out of hand, provincial
authorities are not the only ones making such charges.
Well-respected Protestant leaders from other parts of Vietnam
have previously lodged identical complaints against other
denominations. End Comment.)

6. (SBU) As for a series of alleged incidents of religious
intolerance reported by the Full Gospel Church where local
authorities have allegedly disrupted house church services,
threatened congregants with fines if they did not renounce their
faith and failed to protect several followers from two beatings

HO CHI MIN 00001054 002.2 OF 003

inflicted by local residents in January and May, provincial
officials implied that the church leaders were unstable because
they had changed affiliations from Southern Evangelical Church
of Vietnam (SECV) to the Pentecostal to the Full Gospel Church.
Officials said another pastor from the also-unrecognized Life
Gospel Church organized literacy classes which should not have
included religious material, so police questioned him in 2007,
then publicly denounced him for violating the law in July. Life
Gospel Church members contended, however, that the pastor was
denounced for practicing his religious beliefs, not violating

7. (SBU) In a separate incident, a pastor of the United Khmer
Christian Church in Tra Cu District reported she and 15
congregants received death threats from locals who gathered
around her house in September, 2008. The pastor said the group
began throwing stones at her house and turning away followers
who arrived for services, while local police officials looked
on. In October, the reported harassment grew so severe that the
pastor and her family fled to HCMC.

8. (SBU) Provincial authorities claimed that the congregation's
pastor used to be with the SECV, then switched to the VCIF,
which ordained her, then filed registration documents. The
pastor then changed to the United Khmer Christian Church,
causing the VCIF to cut ties with her. (Note: The United Khmer
Christian Church affiliated with Central Highlands Pastor Nguyen
Cong Chinh's Vietnamese People's Evangelical Fellowship(VPEF),
an umbrella organization claiming to represent more than 60
Protestant denominations and all 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam
(Ref C). The pastor's affiliation with VPEF may also be a
reason authorities are particularly suspicious of her
activities. End note.) Aside from her denominational changes,
officials said the pastor used a loudspeaker to preach causing
neighbors to petition village authorities to put a stop to the
nuisance. Local authorities then warned her to stop disturbing
her neighbors. Later, police intervened after "an incident"
took place at the pastor's home, the authorities added.

SECV Confronts Tra Vinh Officials
9. (SBU) In a separate meeting with the head SECV pastor in Tra
Vinh, over 15 deacons and followers, the Tra Vinh External
Relations Director and the Vice Director of the Tra Vinh
Internal Affairs Department, the pastor and others candidly
complained about the state of affairs in Tra Vinh. (Note: The
pastor is a member of the majority Kinh, but roughly two thirds
of SECV members in Tra Vinh belong to the Khmer minority. End
note). The pastor contrasted Tra Vinh to neighboring Vinh Long
province where the SECV is apparently experiencing no
difficulties registering congregations or operating according to
government requirements.

10. (SBU) In one instance, after the SECV had filed for
registration of a local congregation, its leader had passed
away. The congregation notified the local CRA that his son had
replaced him as the new leader. The pastor noted that the
congregation covered three communes and had to file the
registration application twice. The pastor claimed the
authorities turned down the first application after a long
"processing" time on the premise that the congregation's meeting
place was not legal. The pastor said he awaits a reply to the
second application. Authorities mentioned this situation to
PolOffs during the meeting described above, highlighting the
change in leadership as the reason the application was taking a
long time to process.

11. (SBU) The authorities at the provincial and commune level
"keep passing the ball to each other," the pastor lamented. The
Tra Vinh CRA says it is the commune authorities' responsibility
to issue the registration certificate while the commune
authorities tell the pastor that they need a written approval
from higher authorities, the pastor added.

12. (SBU) Several of the assembled SECV followers complained
about harassment and even beatings at the hands of local police
and thugs, who were predominantly Khmer Buddhists. When
followers gather for prayer, "government people" are waiting at
the entrance to put their names on a list, one parishioner said.
Later, those on the list are called in and pressured to
renounce their faith, he added. The pastor himself complained
that local authorities orchestrated attacks against him and his
followers two times in 2007. Even his status as a member the
Fatherland Front did not help, he said.

13. (SBU) In one incident (reftels), after "rescuing" SECV
believers from a blockade of local Buddhists, the police took
them to the local station and put them in separate rooms for

HO CHI MIN 00001054 003.2 OF 003

questioning, the SECV pastor continued. After the two hour
session at the police station, over 200 Buddhists "at the chief
monk's command" beat them in front of local officials, the
pastor asserted. (Note: At the conclusion of the meeting, the
SECV pastor provided PolOffs Vietnamese language letters from
police summoning parishioners for questioning and x-rays of
people allegedly beaten. End Note). The pastor and the
assembled SECV followers expressed frustration that the local
Chairman of the People's Committee was later praised for his
"good performance."

14. (SBU) The provincial authorities in the meeting did not try
to silence or take issue with the incidents raised by the SECV.
In response to the complaints, the Tra Vinh Internal Affairs
Vice Director, who is also the head of the Tra Vinh CRA, said
the CRA will report to provincial leaders and organize a meeting
so that representatives of the different religious groups can
sit together and seek ways "to promote harmonious relations."
In an aside to poloff, he added that "personality conflicts"
were also driving these incidents. The Internal Affairs Vice
Director also stressed to the group that the problems with the
SECV are not indicative of the larger religious freedom
situation in Tra Vinh. This prompted one parishioner to say
that his family "is living in fear" because local thugs have
gone unpunished.

Comment: Religious Diversity Requires Rule of Law
--------------------------------------------- ----
15. (SBU) Although the Khmer community in Tra Vinh is strong
locally, in the country as a whole the Khmer are a double
minority, vastly outnumbered by the Kinh majority and by those
who follow Mahayana Buddhism. Complaints received from Khmer
Protestants indicate pressure comes from their Khmer and Kinh
Buddhist neighbors as well as from local officials who are
extremely suspicious of Protestantism. The fact that several
Khmer Protestant leaders are former Theravada Buddhist leaders
who converted to Protestantism while in refugee camps in
Thailand in the early 1990's only darkens the cloud they are
under. Under these unusual circumstances, it is plausible that
local officials might have incited mobs or taken a passive
stance when thugs beat up Protestant converts. In the past, the
congregations have been reluctant to have Post raise their cases
with the national CRA, preferring to handle their issues
internally, but their leaders are increasingly frustrated with
the GVN's inaction.

16. (SBU) It is important to note that while these incidents are
isolated and represent the worst-case scenarios in terms of
religious freedom's lack of progress in some areas of Vietnam,
they also point to a much larger issue--the GVN's inability to
protect the rights of minorities, whether they are religious,
ethnic or otherwise "different" from the majority. Whether the
CRA is sympathetic to the issues of these groups or not, they do
not have the resources or authority to actually protect minority
religious groups from discrimination and harassment by private
citizens. That responsibility lies with local officials and
police. The authorities' failure to do so in Tra Vinh again
points to the serious need for rule of law reform at all levels
of government in Vietnam.

14. (SBU) This cable was co-written with Embassy Hanoi.

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