Cablegate: A/S Dewey Presses Ho Chi Minh City Leadership On

Published: Sat 23 Aug 2003 07:41 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
REF: HCMC 0766
1. (SBU) Summary. A/S Dewey raised issues of religious freedom
during several official meetings in Ho Chi Minh City on August 19.
Describing the GVN's record as uneven in the Central Highlands
provinces he had visited, he registered disappointment that even
in HCMC, there were sporadic reports of interference with worship
and confiscation of religious materials. He also expressed dismay
over a recent police raid on an unregistered "illegal" church in
HCMC's District 11 (reftel). Despite that, A/S Dewey said he
would return to the U.S. with a more balanced picture of the
situation in Vietnam because of this visit. Local officials
responded with the standard GVN refrain -- that the GVN encourages
religious freedom, but cannot accept those who would use religion
to disrupt the national unity. Mr. Dewey also mentioned, in
general terms, his proposal to reopen processing in several
categories of the old Orderly Departure Program. End summary.
2. (SBU) Assistant Secretary Dewey visited HCMC on August 19,
after three days in the Central Highlands (to be reported septel).
He raised issues of religious freedom at meetings with the
Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), the External Relations
Office (ERO - local branch of the Foreign Ministry), and the HCMC
People's Committee. He also stopped briefly at the headquarters
and main church of the GVN-recognized Southern Evangelical Church
of Vietnam (SECV), the umbrella organization for all legal
Protestant churches in Vietnam's southern 31 provinces and HCMC.
Describing lack of religious freedom as a factor that causes
people to become refugees, A/S Dewey told his interlocutors that
he was returning to the U.S. with a mixed view of the ability of
people to practice their faith freely in Vietnam. He praised what
he considered to be positive efforts by the provincial
administration in Lam Dong to register new Protestant churches,
but noted the picture was less positive elsewhere. He praised the
GVN decision to recognize the SECV, and pointed to the opening of
the SECV seminary this past February as another positive step.
3. (SBU) During all three official meetings, A/S Dewey raised the
case of an altercation at an unregistered "illegal" house church
in District 11 of HCMC just the day before. He said he found it
difficult to understand how Vietnam could profess to allow freedom
of religion when police acted in "such a brutal fashion." While
he told his Vietnamese interlocutors that he had hoped to go back
to Washington with the sense that the situation in HCMC was
generally positive, he said he was not sure how to explain this
latest incident. He reminded CRA Chairman Nguyen Ngoc San that
the "whole world is watching," and hoped local officials
understood the effect of their actions on international opinion.
He appealed to Chairman San to gain the immediate release of the
two pastors who were reportedly being detained and provide some
explanation of the incident before he departed Vietnam later that
evening. Chairman San regretted that he had not heard anything
about this development, but promised to investigate. He noted
that district officials were sometimes slow to report back to the
city government. Mr. San agreed it would be regrettable if the
story were true, but he thought there might be more to the story.
He returned to this incident unsolicited several times during the
meeting and seemed genuinely concerned. (Note: Mr. San described
himself as a religious person with an understanding of spiritual
needs. He took great pride in telling A/S Dewey that he even had
an altar at home, although he never specified the religion.)
4. (SBU) While Chairman San did contend that some religious
believers violated the law by using freedom of religion to pursue
political agendas, he also admitted that local officials at the
grassroots level sometimes overstepped their bounds because they
did not fully understand GVN policies. He mentioned two civil
servants who had recently been disciplined for violating GVN
policies toward religion, although he did not give any details.
He said he had recently organized eight sessions with Protestant
and Catholic clergy to teach local officials more about religious
practices. Mr. San was somewhat inconsistent, however, when he
tried to describe the Catch-22 situation unregistered churches are
in. These house churches are generally left alone and allowed to
operate "as long as they do not do anything to disrupt national
unity." Yet their "illegal" status also means they can be shut
down or have their property/belongings confiscated at any time,
i.e. their "religious freedom" only lasts as long as they do not
cross some arbitrary, invisible line. Mr. San noted that the CRA
was still awaiting the green light from Hanoi to register
additional Protestant churches not affiliated with the SECV, but
assured Mr. Dewey that those believers would be allowed to carry
on their activities in the meantime. He said the CRA welcomed the
printing of Bibles by the SECV and only restricted importation of
"those books which incite instability."
5. (SBU) Speaking more generally about what he described as the
"harmonious development" of religious practices in HCMC, Mr. San
gave statistics on growing numbers of believers and construction
of new houses of worship. He said there were two million
religious believers of all faiths in the city -- one million
Buddhists, 500,000 Catholics, 30,000 Protestants (worshipping at
41 registered churches), and unspecified numbers of Hoa Hao, Cao
Dai, Muslims, Hindus, and Bahai. Reiterating that the policy of
the GVN was to promote the development of religion in Vietnam, he
added the refrain that Vietnam's long history of war has led it to
value freedom and national unity. Mr. Dewey agreed that it was
acceptable to differentiate between religious believers and those
with a political agenda, but stressed the need to close the gap
between GVN official policy allowing believers to practice their
religion and inconsistent implementation of that policy at the
local level. Making clear the USG strongly supported the
territorial integrity of Vietnam, Mr. Dewey pointed out that
religious diversity was actually part of America's strength.
6. (SBU) Mr. Dewey's other meetings covered nearly the exact same
ground, with all of his interlocutors seeking to demonstrate
progress on religous freedom by citing the growth in numbers of
worshippers. All recited some variation of the same mantra that
religious freedom is respected, but not for those with a political
agenda. ERO Director Le Quoc Hung added another wrinkle, by
contrasting the importance of stability to attracting foreign
investment with the fact that religion(s) was often associated
with foreign invaders in Vietnam. As did all of the GVN
officials, Director Hung stressed there has been enormous progress
in recent years, but that balancing religious freedom with
security/stability concerns requires a "step-by-step" approach.
7. (U) A/S Dewey did not clear on this message.
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