Cablegate: Religious Freedom Thru the Lens of a Dak Lak Village

Published: Wed 30 Jul 2003 08:37 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (U) This is a joint Hanoi/HCMC reporting cable.
2. (SBU) Summary: On July 25, during an otherwise tightly
controlled visit to the Central Highlands (septels), the
Ambassador, Emboffs, and ConGenoffs made an unscripted visit
to a mostly Protestant ethnic minority M'nong village along
the road from Buon Ma Thuot to Dalat. A local resident told
of some continuing government efforts to limit Protestant
worship, including the destruction of some churches and
prohibitions on worship as a community. At the same time,
the resident specifically dismissed allegations of forced
renunciations, "invitations" to meet with police, and
arrests, and we were able to visit one apparently active
unofficial house church. End summary.
3. (SBU) Following official meetings with Dak Lak
provincial authorities, Ambassador and delegation traveled
by car along National Highway 27, where nearly 29,000 ethnic
minority M'nong Protestants reportedly face restrictions on
their ability to worship, according to HCMC-based Protestant
contacts. While the police escort preferred to remain
parked along the side of the main road, the Ambassador and
delegation ventured for an hour down a muddy path into Buon
Biap Xa Yang Tao village, Lak District, Dak Lak Province.
4. (SBU) Almost immediately after entering the village,
the Ambassador encountered an ethnic M'nong Protestant and
former USAID employee, who, with only some initial
trepidation, agreed to escort the Ambassador on a tour of
the village.
5. (SBU) The village contains approximately 1000 residents
in about 100 households, often consisting of three
generations under the same roof. While appearing generally
poor and often dressed in worn western clothing, villagers
had few real complaints about their material lives,
according to our guide. Most children were now able to
attend grades 1-5 in the neighborhood school, although very
few made it to the provincial capital to attend high school.
6. (SBU) According to this source, police destroyed the
local village "church" late last year and forbade the
predominantly Christian villagers to worship any more. The
police had told them the church was "illegal" and would not
allow them to build a replacement. (He said that he had
heard of other churches destroyed elsewhere, but made clear
he had not seen this for himself. He indicated that police
directed most of their attention to houses/churches that
openly displayed a cross on the outside, or had a sign
proclaiming the location of a church.) Worship had become
"more difficult" over the past year, but people nonetheless
continued to gather in small groups in their homes, he
claimed. They were not allowed to worship in the community
"rong" house or school, however.
7. (SBU) While police had sometimes tried to make local
Christians sign documents renouncing their faith, nobody
ever complied, according to our source. (Sources in HCMC
had earlier confirmed that there had been fewer
"invitations" from local police and fewer attempts at forced
renunciations of late.) He said that he had heard of
ceremonies where villagers were required to drink pig's
blood to show they had renounced Christianity, but that this
had not happened not in this village. Asked about
restrictions on travel, he noted that most people were too
poor even to contemplate leaving the village.
8. (SBU) Our contact attributed government mistrust of
ethnic minority Christians in the Central Highlands to GVN
officials' confusion over the term "Dega," which means
simply "people of the mountains." He opined that the GVN
regarded his own ethnic minority group as U.S. spies.
Describing events related to the ethnic unrest of 2001, he
claimed that 10 to 20 villagers had been arrested and not
heard from since. Their families knew where they were held,
but were not allowed to visit them, he added. No one from
this village had escaped to Cambodia, and no one had come to
the village encouraging them to do so, he noted. No foreign
religious workers had ever come to the village, either.
Even after facing repression, he said, "no one" in this
village supported an autonomous state. While there were no
military units in the village on a daily basis, there was a
steady police presence to keep an eye on them, he said.
9. (SBU) Our guide escorted Ambassador and delegation into
an ordinary wooden home, which was unmarked from the outside
but was clearly being used as a place of worship on the
inside, with rows of wooden pews, an altar with a cross, one
Bible (in Ede, a language related to M'nong), and hymnals.
He claimed that every village had a "secret" place like this
for worship. Formal services are held one Sunday a month,
when a pastor comes from a neighboring village, but
villagers worship in this house church or in their homes at
other times. Lamenting insufficient supplies of ethnic
minority language Bibles, he asked for the Ambassador's
assistance in obtaining additional Bibles from the U.S.
Outside another nearby house, a board displayed two lines of
biblical scripture written in an ethnic minority language.
10. (SBU) Comment: While one village cannot be seen as
truly representative of the complex picture of religious
life in the Central Highlands, it was striking how
Protestant religious life continues to flourish, despite
apparent official efforts to crack down on "illegal
activities." Authorities must be aware of the ongoing
services, travels by pastors, existence of ethnic language
Bibles, etc., but yet appear willing to turn a blind eye in
this village as long as the residents do not attempt to step
beyond certain bounds to "flaunt" their unregistered
religious activities. Similarly, at least in this village,
there appear to have been few if any consequences to
individuals for declining to renounce their faith. Even the
relatively tolerant official treatment of this village is
somewhat offset, however, by our guide's account of house
church destruction, arrests, and pervasive suspicion.
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