Cablegate: New Religious Affairs Chief's Views On Tasks

Published: Fri 30 May 2003 08:35 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: NA
SUBJECT: New Religious Affairs Chief's Views on Tasks
Ref A: HANOI 0175
Ref B: STATE 123409
Ref C: HANOI 0868 and previous
Ref D: HANOI 0842
Ref E: HANOI 0135
1. (SBU) Summary: New Chairman of the GVN Committee on
Religious Affairs (CRA) Ngo Yen Thi told Ambassador on May
28 that CPV Central Committee Resolution Seven on religion
is the most important issue currently for the CRA. His
overall goal as head of the CRA, in light of the Resolution,
is to narrow the gap between believers and non-believers
that had stemmed from historical conflicts. He explained
that Resolution Seven is designed to grant and protect
rights for religious activities, define relations with
religious groups, and create unity between religious
believers and non-believers. Chairman Thi blamed forced
conversions on the failure of local cadres to understand
national policy, and said that one purpose of Resolution
Seven is to correct such failures of understanding and
publicly to confirm religion as a spiritual need of
citizens. Chairman Thi and Ambassador also discussed United
Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) leaders Thich Huyen Quang
and Thich Quang Do, Protestants in the Central and Northwest
Highlands, and the two GVN-recognized Protestant church
organizations. Chairman Thi came across as a well-informed,
open, and willing interlocutor. End Summary.
2. (U) Chairman Thi held his "first meeting with
foreigners as CRA chairman" with Ambassador and DCM in
response to Embassy's request to meet with the CRA to
discuss religious freedom issues raised in ref b. (Note:
Former CRA Chairman Vinh retired in early May, but it was
unclear until May 27 whether Vinh or Thi would receive
Ambassador. End note.) Ambassador asked Chairman Thi to
outline his ideas for his new job, especially in light of
CPV Central Committee Resolution Seven (ref a). He also
asked Chairman Thi to explain what changes were underway
with respect to Thich Huyen Quang and the UBCV.
CPV Resolution Seven
3. (U) Resolution Seven is currently the most important
issue for the CRA, according to Chairman Thi. He said that,
according to some (unnamed) "Western observers," the
Resolution will pave the way for freer religious activities,
while other Westerners say that it will limit and bind
activities more closely than in the past. He confirmed that
the Resolution reaffirms longstanding CPV/GVN policy of
respecting and guaranteeing religious freedom. However, he
admitted that there were problems implementing the policy
and that "not everyone" understands it. While recognized
religions operate within the law, some individuals belonging
to those faiths and other religions not recognized by the
GVN have "violated the law." Therefore, the CPV designed
Resolution Seven step by step to "grant rights to carry out
activities within the law;" to create "normal" relations
between religions and the government, between different
religions, and between religions and other social
organizations. It is also designed publicly to confirm that
religion is a spiritual need of citizens and to give credit
for the contributions towards national construction of
religions in close relationships with the GVN. Finally, he
said it reaffirms the GVN's respect for religions and
guarantees the right of religious belief and "normal"
religious activities.
4. (U) The GVN is organizing many classes to ensure that
local officials have a uniform understanding of Resolution
Seven and national policy, Chairman Thi asserted. It is
necessary that those who decide religious issues have a firm
understanding of religious matters. He expressed hope that
through efforts such as educating local officials, the GVN
could create an environment fostering normal religious
activities. This would, he predicted, help overcome
Vietnam's image problem overseas.
Leadership and Religion
5. (U) In response to Ambassador's question about the
absence of religious believers from the ranks of the CPV,
Chairman Thi asserted that there are religious believers --
including Cao Dai, Catholic, and Protestant as well as
Buddhist -- in the CPV. Furthermore, they are permitted to
carry out their Party and their religious duties without
conflict and could hold positions at the commune and
district levels. He admitted that it is "easier" for
Buddhists in the CPV, although he clarified that many of
them are not "students" of the religion, but relatively
casual "followers." He emphasized that Vietnam's many wars
had opened rifts between various religious believers and
other parts of the population, but that authorities are
working on closing those rifts. He added that old
viewpoints on religion would change and that
misunderstandings of religion would be reduced greatly.
6. (U) Referring primarily to religious leaders rather
than followers, Chairman Thi pointed out that the National
Assembly contains religious "believers," but suggested that
it would be difficult for religious persons to balance their
religious and professional obligations and thus serve in
higher positions in the GVN. He refused to speculate on
whether persons of religion would be able to rise to senior
leadership positions in the future.
Thich Huyen Quang's Situation
7. (U) Chairman Thi attributed part of the improvement in
Thich Huyen Quang's status to the consequences of Resolution
Seven, but also credited a change in the UBCV Patriarch's
thinking. He claimed that the UBCV Patriarch had formed two
favorable impressions of the GVN while visiting Hanoi (ref
c). One was that the GVN has been working hard to build the
nation and improved the lives of the people. The second was
that after visiting several Hanoi pagodas and talking to
local monks, Thich Huyen Quang had observed that religious
activities were "normal" in the North. Subsequently, Thich
Huyen Quang reportedly expressed these points during his
meeting with the Prime Minister (ref d), which Chairman Thi
said he had attended.
8. (U) Chairman Thi noted that Thich Huyen Quang had been
administratively detained in Quang Ngai for "a long time" as
a result of actions taken by Ho Chi Minh City authorities.
(Note: He did not explain why Ho Chi Minh City authorities
were able to have the UBCV leader detained in another
province. End note.) However, that detention had expired
in 1997, according to Thi. Ambassador pointed out that
Thich Huyen Quang has complained that he has never received
a written explanation of why he was confined, what the
duration of his detention was, or that it had ended. Thi
expressed surprise at this, saying that the section that had
initiated the detention had decided to end it in 1997, but
that Thich Huyen Quang had been too much of a stickler and
not accepted the decision.
9. (U) Ambassador asked about Thich Huyen Quang's current
legal status. Chairman Thi noted that the UBCV leader had
returned to Quang Ngai after his visit to Ho Chi Minh City,
but was also spending time in Binh Dinh province where his
original monastery is located. He claimed that the UBCV
Patriarch wants to devote most of his time to running this
monastery and that Binh Dinh authorities would "create
favorable conditions" for this.
10. (U) Chairman Thi said that he was sure that Thich
Quang Do's administrative detention would be ending soon,
thanks to the GVN's clemency policy. He confirmed that
Thich Huyen Quang had asked the Prime Minister about Thich
Quang Do.
Highlands Protestants
11. (U) Ambassador reminded Chairman Thi that Americans
and Europeans pay considerable attention to the problems of
Protestants in the Central and Northwest Highlands and that
he personally has made trips to those regions and met with
local officials and believers. He acknowledged that there
is a history of separatist activities associated with some
Protestants. Provincial leaders had told the Ambassador
that local officials sometimes do not separatists from the
peaceful majority of Protestant believers. Ambassador noted
the negative attitude and lack of knowledge of local
officials such as the Kon Tum Deputy Chief of Religious
Affairs who had denied that the SECV was legal, and the
provincial leader who had asserted to Ambassador that
minorities who became Protestants were "traitors" to their
people. Moreover, while not all reports of church closings
and forced renunciations were believable, they are
sufficiently numerous to indicate that such things must be
happening, Ambassador told Chairman Thi. While there were
generally reasonable explanations for and expectations of
resolving other religious freedom problems, Ambassador told
Chairman Thi that there was no excuse for those suffered by
Protestants in the Highlands. He asked about the status of
efforts by the SECV and ECVN to enroll highlands
congregations in their ranks.
12. (U) Chairman Thi claimed that such actions by local
authorities were not in accord with national policy. He
said that he had visited the Central Highlands and found the
issue "very difficult." Forced conversions happen because
local cadres "do not understand" national policy. He
reiterated that Resolution Seven is partially intended to
correct this problem. He added that the GVN is considering
special programs to benefit Protestants. Part of the
complication, he asserted, is that the Dega Protestants have
a clear political agenda -- inherent in the term Dega, "de"
referring to the Ede people and "ga" meaning "state" in the
local language. Ambassador replied that the Dega are a
minority and that the U.S. has repeatedly and publicly
affirmed that it does not support groups seeking to divide
13. (SBU) Another complication, according to Chairman Thi,
is that the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV)
accepted local congregations in the Central Highlands
without "consulting" with the local authorities. Therefore,
local authorities have not known which congregations are
SECV and which are not. (Note: Mission sources have
reported that the SECV submitted incomplete lists of its
historical Central Highlands congregations when it
registered with the GVN in 2001. Some allege that the SECV
was pressured to do so. End note.) He claimed that this is
what the Kon Tum official must have been referring to when
he said that the SECV was not legal. Ambassador replied
that regardless of this confusion, it is time to regularize
the status of these congregations.
14. (SBU) Chairman Thi went on to say that some local
authorities had told him that "every" Protestant was Dega.
He said that the CRA was trying to overcome this and had
requested local authorities to work closely with the SECV to
determine which congregations belonged to the recognized
church. Chairman Thi advocated "expedited communications"
between the SECV and local authorities. House churches made
up of "pure religious followers" could be re-established in
affiliation with the SECV. However, there would be no
recognition of Dega groups, he warned. He promised that the
GVN would gradually create "normal conditions" for
Protestant believers, but time was needed to close gaps
caused by past misunderstandings. He termed these efforts
the GVN's "peaceful evolution" campaign.
The ECVN and Northwest Highlands churches
15. (U) Chairman Thi described the ECVN's leadership as
moribund and disunited. Thus, enrollment of congregations
in the Northwest Highlands could not be taken as
representative of the will of the ECVN. He claimed that the
GVN was taking steps to encourage and strengthen the ECVN's
executive board and to organize the long-delayed ECVN
convention. If the ECVN "followed instructions," Chairman
Thi said that the convention could be held before the end of
Laws on Religion
16. (SBU) Ambassador asked Chairman Thi if the GVN was
considering the USG suggestion to investigate and openly
punish officials who had violated the religious rights of
citizens. Chairman Thi responded that the suggestion is
under consideration, but that it is difficult to implement.
There is no separate code on religion and while there are
other legal provisions that might apply, they are not
complete. He mentioned that the new ordinance on religion
is still under consideration by the National Assembly
Standing Committee. He added that the GVN is now
considering a separate code to define penalties for
individuals who have violated GVN religion policy, including
cadres who had committed wrongdoing. (Note: Several months
ago CRA officials indicated that such penalties would be
included in the religion ordinance. End note.)
17. (SBU) Ambassador expressed concern that this code
could outlaw proselytizing. Chairman Thi replied that
proselytizing by recognized groups was permitted, but that
it was illegal for unrecognized groups to do so. Ambassador
noted that had this law been in effect at the time, it would
have outlawed the creation of the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai.
Chairman Thi clarified that such groups could register and
then be permitted to proselytize. The point, he explained,
was to prevent the establishment of religions that advocated
undesirable behavior.
Biographical Note
18. (SBU) Ngo Yen Thi has been with the Committee on
Religious Affairs for about two years, and was principal
Deputy Chairman for over a year before becoming Chairman
(although not known to Embassy). He said that he had worked
his way up through local and provincial level posts before
coming to Hanoi. He is from central Vietnam and immediately
prior to joining the CRA was Thua Thien Hue province CPV
Chairman and the provincial People's Council (provincial
assembly) Chairman. He was a member of the CPV Central
Committee from 1996 to 2001 and of the National Assembly
from 1997 to 2002. He was born in 1945. A staffer in the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs International Organizations
Department described him as being "quite capable."
19. (SBU) Chairman Thi is an open and well-informed
interlocutor who responded to most issues directly and
forthrightly. His answers about the Central Highlands are
welcome -- he essentially acknowledged that forced
renunciations and house church closings have occurred and
claimed that the GVN is attempting to correct the situation.
Chairman Thi's explanation of Resolution Seven reinforces
our conclusion that the CPV and GVN intend to attempt to
regulate religion more closely while "normalizing" or
legitimizing its role in society. His stated intention to
close the gaps between religious believers and others sounds
benevolent, but also raises the possibility of strict action
against unregistered groups.
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