Cablegate: Religion in Vietnam - Three Contrasting Views

Published: Wed 10 Sep 2003 12:22 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: A. HANOI 2152 B. HANOI 0175
1. (SBU) Summary: In meetings on September 4 in Hanoi with
DRL/IRF's William Inboden, prominent Buddhist, Protestant,
and Catholic leaders provided personal perspectives on the
religious situation in Vietnam that ranged from rosy to
troubled. (Ref a reported on EAP/BCLTV's discussions with
religious figures in Hanoi.) The three portrayed markedly
different levels of support in their dealings with the
government: from the representative of the officially-
sanctioned Buddhist church talking of warm relations with
the State, to a Catholic painting a picture of operating but
under considerable oversight, to a Protestant expressing
continued frustration with repression and an arrest. End
2. (SBU) The Venerable Thich Minh Tien (please protect),
Secretary of the Office of the officially sanctioned Central
Buddhist Church of Vietnam, portrayed a positive situation
for Buddhist adherents in Vietnam. He talked of
"friendship" between the Buddhist Church and the State, and
said that, while there were some difficulties in church-
state relations in the past, there had been major
improvements in recent years. The Venerable Tien mentioned
with approval the January 2003 Communist Party Central
Committee resolution on religion (ref b), claiming that this
was a sign the Party recognized religion as a strategic
issue, and that the resolution underscored how the Party
supports freedom of religion in Vietnam.
3. (SBU) Pressed by Inboden about official attitudes towards
Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang and Venerable Thich Quang Do of
the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Tien
dismissed the dissidents as having "no real support." He
portrayed the two as malcontents, saying that "all" other
UBCV followers had happily joined the Central Buddhist
Church, that there were no doctrinal issues between the
Central Buddhist Church and the UBCV, and that the existence
of the UBCV should not be recognized or even acknowledged,
as it could only serve to damage the consensus that exists
among Vietnamese Buddhists at this time. Tien also
volunteered his negative opinion of the USG's recent catfish
decision and the South Vietnam flag legislation, and
suggested that the GVN was right to focus more on the
nation's socio-economic development than on increasing
political or religious freedoms.
4. (SBU) Father Joseph Dang Duc Ngan (please protect), chief
priest of the Catholic parish of downtown Hanoi, depicted a
church growing both in members and ability to operate, but
still under government constraints. Father Ngan pointed to
what he characterized as "considerable improvements" in the
naming of bishops to dioceses, although in the past some
positions had remained open for as long as ten years due to
the GVN's rejections of the Vatican's candidates.
Similarly, he said that it was now "common" for priests to
travel abroad for study, something that had been restricted
in the past. He acknowledged, however, that appointments
and travel requests are still subject to State approval, and
that some difficulties remain. Father Ngan also touched on
other areas where he thought there had been some
improvements, such as more seminarians now able to study
than in the past. He noted that conversions to Catholicism
posed no problem, and were actually quite frequent with
inter-faith marriages. In all, he contrasted the position
of the Catholic Church in Vietnam favourably with that in
China, saying Vietnamese Catholics have more autonomy then
their counterparts across the border.
5. (SBU) A Protestant church leader, who spoke freely but
asked his name not be used, recounted a personal history of
acting in unofficial status for years as the GVN refused to
acknowledge new ministers in his church; he also described
detentions and fines in past years for working with Hmong
Protestants in northern highland areas. He lamented that
"old age" continued to reduce the number of Protestant
ministers to less than one per church, with GVN refusals to
permit the training and appointment of new ones. He opined
that this was part of a GVN desire to restrict the spread of
Protestantism. Nonetheless, he pointed to some positive
developments for Protestants in recent months, notably
central authorities being somewhat more responsive in
"educating" local officials after complaints of specific
abuses. He predicted that the Evangelical Church of Vietnam-
North would soon be able to hold a long-delayed convention,
at which members would be able to vote internally on the
appointment of new leaders and ministers.
6. (SBU) The minister nonetheless expressed regret over
continuing difficulties and limited progress for Hmong
Protestants in the Northwest Provinces. He said that this
was the largest growing section of the Protestant church,
but was frequently "misunderstood" by local officials, who
viewed the underground church as similar in structure to the
Communist Party. He noted that, while some Hmong churches
had joined the ECVN-North, they have not been recognized as
such by the GVN. He reported the continued detention of at
least one church volunteer, as well as the imprisonment of
an unknown number of other Hmong Protestants. He added that
he continued to hear claims of evictions from villages and
attempts at forced renunciations of faith in northern
highland areas. The frequency of these claims has dropped,
however, and by his account, the rapid growth of the church
among the Hmong is increasingly leading some higher GVN
officials to accept it as an important part of people's
7. (SBU) Comment: A common theme emerges from these
discussions about the GVN's ongoing supervision over
religion. Those faiths and organizations that the GVN can
supervise more successfully receive (paradoxically) some
latitude to operate. Those faiths that, by their nature,
growth, or convictions resist GVN efforts at oversight are
subject to more pressures.
8. (U) DRL/IRF's Inboden has cleared this message.
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