Cablegate: A Long Time Coming: Protestant Seminary Opens in Hcmc

Published: Tue 11 Mar 2003 11:40 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
Department for EAP/BCLTV, DRL
E. O. 12958: N/A
1. (U) In keeping with longstanding GVN promises to allow the
opening of a new Protestant seminary, the leaders of the Southern
Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) recently inaugurated their
new Institute of Bible and Theology before a crowd numbering close
to 1000 at their main HCMC church. (Classes will be held there
temporarily until they receive approval for a separate campus.)
The four-hour opening ceremony followed the basic outlines of a
religious service, complete with hymns, prayers and sermons. The
only government official to speak was a representative of the
Religious Affairs Committee, who read the decision authorizing the
seminary. Significantly, there was no other mention of the
government during the remainder of the ceremony. None of the
speakers even acknowledged the government officials who attended
the ceremony during their remarks, normally common practice in
2. (U) The gathering was presided over by Acting SECV President
Duong Thanh, a former Vice President who assumed office after the
death of Reverend Pham Xuan Thieu in June 2002. Among the many
other speakers was an elderly, frail, and nearly blind former Vice
Director of the pre-1975 Protestant seminary in Nha Trang, who
delivered a fiery 20-minute sermon in a booming voice. Those in
attendance included a sprinkling of GVN and local officials, the
SECV hierarchy, administrators from the seminary, and the first 50
seminarians, many of whom had yet to be formally accepted by the
GVN for admission. Pastors, religious workers, and lay believers
(some from distant provinces) made up the remainder of the crowd,
which flowed out the main doors and down the stairs to the street.
A handful of American religious workers outfitted with headphones
for simultaneous interpretation were seated in the first few rows,
next to a congratulatory flower wreath from the Fatherland Front.
3. (SBU) Poloff recognized a number of non-SECV-affiliated
pastors in the crowd, including some who have been generally
critical of the recognized church for "selling out" to the
government. Most openly greeted Poloff in the aisles before and
after the ceremony. They said they regarded the seminary opening
as a positive step, and one that should be publicly endorsed.
Most had faith in the strength of the academic program as a
grooming ground for future religious leaders, but doubted the
program could be kept free of GVN control. (Post note: Classes
began on February 17. As of March 10, 38 of the promised 50
students were enrolled, with only ten having received the required
permission from their local authorities. End note.) While Pastor
Thanh drew some praise for maintaining his patience and integrity
in a difficult job, the SECV itself seemed to be viewed in a much
more critical light by the unaffiliated house pastors.
4. (SBU) During the lunch for 300-plus pastors/religious workers
after the ceremony, several pastors with whom ConGenoffs spoke --
including those from the Central Highlands and adjacent coastal
provinces -- seemed unconvinced this was a milestone in the
overall context of religious freedom in Vietnam. They described
the general situation as somewhat improved over past years, but
still highly problematic in certain locations. Yet none could
offer any firsthand accounts of harassment or oppression over the
recent Christmas season. They acknowledged they had been able to
celebrate the holidays with their own congregations without
government interference, even if they had heard second or
thirdhand of problems in some of the more sensitive areas. Some
pastors said they had been required to obtain permission from
their local authorities to attend this opening ceremony. Others
said they had decided to come even though they had never received
permission. (Post note: This inconsistency tracks with our
general experience that enforcement of many -- if not most --
government regulations varies from province to province, even
district to district, in the South. End note.)
5. (U) In the course catalogue for the new seminary, the English
translation notes that the old Nha Trang Bible and Theological
Institute was closed in December 1976 for political reasons. The
original Vietnamese says that classes were simply interrupted,
without giving a reason why. There is also a requirement that all
seminarians study "Citizen Education." The course description in
English notes that "understanding of religious policy will help
students know how to lead local congregations well."
6. (SBU) Comment: The long-awaited opening of a recognized
Protestant seminary is a significant step in the development of
the Protestant church in southern Vietnam. That the inaugural
ceremony was carried out in such a public manner, with widespread
press coverage, is not surprising -- the GVN was happy to take
credit for a good news story on religious freedom. (GVN officials
sat through this four-hour ceremony, even though they were openly
stiffed.) The fact that "illegal" house pastors made their
presence unabashedly known, were genuinely complimentary about the
seminary, and warmly greeted ConGenoffs, is indicative of the
complexities and inconsistencies surrounding their criticism of
GVN religious policies. These house pastors agree that the
opening of a Protestant seminary is a small but positive step down
the long road toward SECV legitimacy in the eyes of "all
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