Cablegate: Unregistered Protestant House Church Leaders Report Halting

DE RUEHHM #0650/01 3020933
P R 290933Z OCT 09




E.O. 12958: N/A

HO CHI MIN 00000650 001.2 OF 003

1. (SBU) Summary: Leaders of several unregistered house
churches told ConGenOff recently that religious freedom
continues to improve, but some congregations continue to
experience problems with slow localized registrations and
harassment by local authorities. Some individual pastors have
been subjected to public denunciations and prevented from
traveling overseas. On a positive note, some report an easing
of restrictions in HCMC, and all pastors expressed appreciation
for Mission advocacy in support of religious freedom. End

Spotty Record on Registration


2. (SBU) The Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA) has made
considerable progress in registering congregations of nationally
recognized churches, including over 1,000 registrations in the
NW Highlands and all meetings points in the Central Highlands
for the Evangelical Church of Vietnam South. Protestant groups
that have not yet received national recognition, however, report
low numbers of local registrations for their congregations. For
example, the United Baptist Church successfully has registered
only 13 of their 130 congregations; only 18 of the 148 United
Gospel Outreach Church congregations that been registered in the
last three years; 30 of the 225 congregations of the Vietnam
Baptist Alliance have been registered; and none of the 200
Vietnam Good News Mission congregations that have applied for
registration in the past two years have been accepted.

3. (SBU) Pastor Ho Tan Khoa of the United Presbyterian Church
noted that contrary to GVN law, most of his congregations in Dak
Nong province are asked to submit membership lists when they
have petitioned for registration. ConGenOff said that the
National CRA has made it a goal to register all churches who
have applied by 2010. The CRA acknowledges, however, that
implementation of the legal framework on religion is uneven, and
has promised additional training of local officials to resolve
the problem. These assurances aside, most pastors told
ConGenoff they were skeptical of the CRA's ability to overcome
the lack of coordination among local and provincial officials,
especially in less developed areas.

Televised Denunciation in Central Highlands


4. (SBU) Pastors generally agreed that certain districts in the
Central Highlands provinces of Kontum, Gia Lai and Dak Lak
remain difficult places to operate due to local authorities'
lack of familiarity with the legal framework on religion and
overriding public security concerns about unsanctioned
gatherings of ethnic minorities, including church groups.
Pastor Doan Trung Tin of the Vietnam Good News Mission Church
said one of his pastors in Ea Hleo, Dak Lak, who had been
preaching since 1995, was publicly denounced in front of a group
of 100 people that included local government officials. He was
later put under house arrest for three months, during which time
a fifteen minute news segment showing officials, followers and
leaders of a recognized Protestant church speaking derogatorily
about the pastor's character and credentials was aired on local
television during prime time evening news.

5. (SBU) The Central Highlands is not the only area where
unregistered Protestants reported problems. All pastors agreed
that central coastal provinces are a difficult place to
proselytize. Pastor Khoa said young United Presbyterian
evangelists from Quang Ngai were stopped from meeting with
followers in Danang city, and continued to be subject to
harassment by local authorities once they returned home. And
issues aren't limited to remote, underdeveloped areas either.
In Song Thao district of Dong Nai province, just outside HCMC,
the United Baptist Church reported that after a husband objected
to his wife joining a small meeting point he reported the
activities of the congregation to the police, and subsequently
the police threatened eighteen new converts, urging them to
renounce their faith.

HO CHI MIN 00000650 002.2 OF 003

Some Pastors Prevented from Traveling


6. (SBU) Some pastors reported being stopped at the HCMC airport
and questioned about participating in political activities while
travelling abroad, sometimes for several hours. One Lutheran
pastor said he was asked by airport officials whether he
contacted members of Viet Tan during his recent trip to
Thailand. Pastor Nguyen Ngoc Hien of the Baptist Alliance said
he has been unable to travel since authorities confiscated his
passport five years ago; he continues to be closely monitored by
the police, who ask him why he prays for imprisoned lawyers
Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan. Police ask routinely ask
Hien about his contacts in the U.S. and E.U., and whether he has
been interviewed by foreign media or posted articles online.
(Note: Pastor Hien's has been questioned more actively than most
of the other pastors perhaps because of his support for
Christian human rights activists. Although he is not permitted
to travel overseas, Pastor Hien maintains an active travel
schedule throughout the country and runs a large training
program in HCMC and in Northern provinces. Other pastors say he
is being singled out because of his involvement in a private
commercial dispute of long standing. Pastor Hien believes it is
because he spoke critically about the GVN's religious freedom
record during a meeting with former Secretary Rice. End note.

Mission Advocacy Making A Difference


7 (SBU) The pastors acknowledged progress in some areas,
especially in HCMC. Pastor Khoa said his congregations can now
print religious materials without problems and hold major
religious festivities with participants numbering in the
thousands. Shortly before meeting with ConGenOff, Pastor Khoa
said he applied for a permit to hold a Christmas celebration at
the 7th Military Zone stadium in HCMC on December 12 and the
Deputy Director of the HCMC CRA promised to consider his
application and facilitate the event.

8. (SBU) The pastors also expressed their appreciation for
Mission officers raising their cases with appropriate
authorities, citing specifics instances where Mission advocacy
eased pressures on their congregations. Pastor Pham Toan Ai
thanked ConGenOff for interceding with Dong Nai authorities on
behalf of the United Baptist church, noting it "helped remove
obstacles" for local congregations having difficulties
registering there. Pastor Ai also said after Embassy PolOff
raised the case of a man suspected of murdering his mother after
she joined a United Baptist church in northern Ha Giang
province, authorities later arrested the suspect. Local
authorities, however, blamed the local pastor of the victim's
church for not reporting the case to provincial authorities

Troubling CPV Guidance


9. (SBU) The Central and Northwest Highlands have been difficult
areas for many churches, both registered and unregistered, to
operate for many years. The coupling of separatist movements
linked with Protestantism and authorities' lingering resentment
and suspicion of ethnic minority groups that assisted the U.S.
military during the war have created historical tensions in many
communities. One additional new factor may help explain why the
Central and Northwest Highlands remain so difficult,
particularly for smaller Protestant religious groups. According
to official guidance from the Central Committee of the CPV that
was recently--and inadvertently--posted on a provincial
newspaper's website and later picked up by all the major
blogs(to be reported septel), there has been an "unusual"
expansion of Protestant religions in mountains regions and
"hostile forces" are founding "strange religions" among ethnic
minorities "to drive a wedge between peoples, creating the
potential for social and political instability among minority
peoples." It is not difficult to see how local officials would
view this official CPV guidance as encouraging them to thwart
the development of Protestant religions in the Central and
Northwest Highlands.

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10. (SBU) While many Protestant house churches are moving
towards national registration and recognition, their
unrecognized brethren continue to report problems. These
smaller groups are relative newcomers to Vietnam's religious
landscape and are still in the process of establishing trust
with local, provincial and national-level authorities, who
question their evangelical activities and ties to overseas
church organizations, as well as their potential political
leanings. The official guidance known as Decree 34, which was
passed in April 2009 and published on the Internet in October,
appears to provide an additional explanation for the added
scrutiny experienced by newer (to Vietnam) and smaller
Protestant religions. It is important to note that all of the
major religious groups in Vietnam reported similar issues before
the GVN began to implement the legal framework on religion in
2004, and many still struggle to build effective working
relationships with officials in localities resistant to change.
Religious freedom remains a work in progress in Vietnam, but
steady and continuous advocacy with GVN officials at every level
is helping to move things forward.

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

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