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Cablegate: Irreverent Reverends Illustrate Religious Freedom's

VZCZCXRO0154
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHNH
DE RUEHHM #0678/01 3521127
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 181127Z DEC 09
FM AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 6169
INFO RUEHHI/AMEMBASSY HANOI PRIORITY 4064
RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE
RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH CITY PRIORITY 6412

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 HO CHI MINH CITY 000678

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, DRL/AWH AND DRL/IRF

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: KIRF PHUM PGOV PREL VM
SUBJECT: IRREVERENT REVERENDS ILLUSTRATE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM'S
PROGRESS

HO CHI MIN 00000678 001.2 OF 002


1. (SBU) Summary: While remaining dedicated to their individual
faiths, some religious leaders in HCMC are becoming increasingly
more daring in their religious sermons, even in front of mixed
congregations of expatriates and locals. Vietnamese and
foreigners are worshiping together both in formal and informal
settings in greater numbers--something that would not have been
tolerated by authorities just a few years ago. The picture is
not entirely rosy, however. Though larger institutions are
pushing the limits in their messages without repercussions,
smaller, unrecognized churches continue to report a watchful eye
on their activities. End summary.

Free Speech From the Pulpit

---------------------------

2. (SBU) During the recent 50th Anniversary of the Grace Baptist
Church in Vietnam, an American reverend from the Southern
Baptist Convention's Executive Committee led the services and
did not shy away from talking about the brutal realities he
experienced as a soldier in the Vietnam War, but toned down his
message by coming back to the theme of walking with Jesus. More
surprisingly, perhaps, he also took a moment to praise local and
national government authorities for their efforts in improving
religious freedom in Vietnam - including the GVN's 2008 national
recognition of the Vietnam Baptist Convention. The reverend's
Southern Baptist zeal was a striking contrast to typically sober
and traditional religious services in Vietnam. With wide eyes,
clapping hands, and even the occasional 'Amen!,' GVN officials
present as observers appeared to enjoy the atypical event as
much as the congregants. The audience itself was representative
of attendees at an increasing number of large religious
celebrations in Vietnam: local Vietnamese worshipers, GVN
officials, and foreign guests both official and religious.
Reverend Huy, the leader of the Grace Baptist Church, reported
no negative fallout from local authorities regarding the
American reverend's spirited sermon and the reverend told
ConGenoff that he intends to repeat his sermon at many other
churches around the country, especially in Hanoi.

3. (SBU) Similarly, at the Seventh Day Adventist's 80th
Anniversary celebration in October, a Vietnamese American pastor
who formerly headed the Adventists and escaped to the U.S.
during the war, used parables from the Bible to illustrate his
theme--all Christians are subject to the authority of their
government, but God is the ultimate authority in heaven and on
earth. Though he repeatedly thanked GVN officials in attendance
for promulgating religious freedom and exhorted the congregation
to work within the GVN's legal framework, he also made it clear
that the laws of man are subordinate to the laws of God and used
several apt examples to illustrate his points, including Daniel
being placed in the lion's den for disobeying man's law but
protected by God for staying true to his faith, Jesus telling
his followers to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, but unto
God what is God's, and Jesus being judged by a government
official - Pontius Pilate. As with the Grace Baptist
celebration, the audience was a mix of local and foreign
adherents and officials, and despite the controversial nature of
the pastor's sermon, Adventist leaders reported no issues with
authorities afterwards.

4. (SBU) Catholic priests, however, seem to enjoy the most
freedom of speech in HCMC. At a recent Catholic mass in Ho Chi
Minh City, priest Father Toan discussed the immorality of
corruption, and while not explicitly condemning government
authorities, certainly implied that Vietnam had much work to do
in this arena. In contrast to the accounts of church leaders
from unregistered house churches, Father Toan reported no
problems discussing such topics. The relative freedom of speech
Catholic leaders enjoy could be a factor of their large size and
influence, and would explain the lack of leeway authorities
accord to smaller, newer Christian groups.

Foreign Ties Flourishing

------------------------

5. (SBU) After 1975, many Protestant missionaries were forced to
leave Vietnam and Vietnamese Protestant groups faced serious
problems with authorities if they attempted to establish

HO CHI MIN 00000678 002.2 OF 002


relationships with foreigners, especially Americans. Grace
Baptist Church, founded in 1959 by American missionaries, has
always maintained a close relationship with their American
brethren. Reverend Huy works closely with his counterparts in
the US and now that the church enjoys national recognition, he
plans to continue integrating the mission of the Vietnam church
with that of the U.S. based church and the rest of the
world-wide leadership structure. The church is in the process
of installing a simultaneous translation system to allow more
foreigners to comfortably attend Vietnamese services. In
addition, Huy is looking for candidates to send to the U.S. for
advanced religious education programs in order to expand his
church's missionary work throughout Vietnam.

6. (SBU) While mixed congregations are becoming more commonplace
for large, sanctioned Christian groups, some smaller ones are
also encouraging cross-cultural worship. Agape Outreach Church
(AOC), an unrecognized Protestant congregation founded in 1991,
still conducts services in a rented room with fold-up chairs,
but is trying to expand and develop as quickly as possible. AOC
leader, Pastor Duong Quang Vinh, hopes to find a permanent
location in Ho Chi Minh City by 2010. Pastor Vinh holds
services in both Vietnamese and English and devotes a large part
of the church's outreach efforts towards attracting more foreign
as well as Vietnamese followers. AOC often has guest speakers
preach in English while Pastor Vinh does his own simultaneous
translation. During the service ConGenOff attended, frequent
visitor and guest Pastor "Sonny" from Singapore gave the primary
sermon. Despite their unrecognized house church status, Pastor
Vinh reports no current problems in carrying out services with
foreigners in attendance.

7. (SBU) Likewise, the local congregation of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, while predominantly Vietnamese,
also has several expat families from the United States, Japan,
Korea and Europe that attend services. The church provides
simultaneous interpretation, and all parishioners (foreign and
local) take turns giving sermons throughout the year on topics
assigned by local leadership. The congregation has reported no
difficulties in its blended approach. The church also has
blended weekly scripture study courses as well as blended weekly
activities for youth at the church.

8. (SBU) Blended foreign and Vietnamese Bible study groups also
appear to be on the rise. At the AOC and Grace Baptist Church,
members were eager to extend ConGenOff an invitation to join
smaller Bible study groups which meet more informally during the
week. Some are geared towards adults and others towards youth,
but all focus on deepening members' understanding of the Bible
as well as promoting cross-cultural exchanges. No problems in
carrying out such meetings have been reported.

Comment

-------

9. (SBU) The outspokenness of some church leaders and the
increasing diversity of their congregations is a sign that the
GVN is getting more comfortable with freedom of religion over
time. GVN officials are now routinely attending celebratory
events held by sanctioned church groups, and while religious
leaders' main messages are still focused on their faith, they
are clearly more comfortable introducing topics that would have
been considered taboo in the past. Despite these advances, some
Vietnamese church leaders are quick to point out that more
progress is needed. While sanctioned churches may feel more at
ease pushing the envelope in their sermons, many smaller and
less established churches still fall under the microscope of the
GVN. Protestant house church leaders told ConGenoff that as
long as they "stick to the gospel," they have no problems.
Another Protestant pastor said that while exchanges between
church leaders and government officials are increasing, "the
conversation is still one-sided." End comment.

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

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