Cablegate: Mixed Picture On House Churches in Ambassador Hanford's

Published: Sat 8 Nov 2003 07:18 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) HCMC 0766 B) HCMC 0836 C) HCMC 0933
1. (SBU) Summary: In meetings with several Protestant house
church pastors and "victims" of religious oppression during his
visit to HCMC, Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom John
Hanford heard several credible-sounding reports of arrests,
beatings, forced renunciations, and church closures. Other
reports seemed less credible, or were based more on secondhand
information. ConGen had arranged for three sessions with local
contacts in the Protestant community to give various informal
groupings and denominations equal time. Unfortunately, one group
inexplicably sent their "victims" back to the Central Highlands
the night before the meeting, saying they had not been able to
contact the local HCMC pastor who was assisting with arrangements.
Septels report on Ambassador Hanford's official meetings in HCMC
and Hanoi, and his trip to the Central Highlands. End summary.
2. (SBU) The first individual in group one was an ethnic minority
woman who claimed to have been persecuted for many years with her
husband in Kon Tum Province because their house had been used as a
meeting place for Protestant worship. Her allegations of abuse
included at least two beatings by police, and several close
escapes after being warned by friends. (The HCMC pastor who had
invited her to the meeting and was present throughout her
testimony told Ambassador Hanford that he knew of another pastor
who was beaten for visiting the couple in their village.) While
her husband had been beaten on the head, she said that all of her
wounds were internal and left no scars. She knew nothing of her
husband's current condition, as they had been "forced to live
apart" in Dong Nai Province (next door to HCMC), to avoid being
picked up by security agents. Local officials had also "told"
them to renounce their faith, on the grounds that they were the
only Protestants in a village of Catholics.
3. (SBU) As the story emerged, it was clarified that most of the
hardships she and her husband had endured were at the hands of
Catholic neighbors, although she believes the villagers acted on
the instructions of local officials. She and her husband were not
"forced" to renounce their faith and never did. She said she and
her husband were actually living apart to make it less likely that
they would be questioned for living in Dong Nai Province without
residence permits (since Dong Nai is a haven for economic migrants
looking for jobs), not because they believed the police were
actively searching for them. The HCMC pastor added that the
police are always on the lookout for ethnic minorities in HCMC,
and while she would be safer among her own people, her community
would not accept her. As to whether other Protestants in the
Central Highlands suffered similar treatment, she did not know.
She told Ambassador Hanford she would not be comfortable with him
raising her case directly with the GVN, despite the fact that she
was the subject of a written appeal to the international community
listing the names of her local tormentors.
4. (SBU) The second person invited by the same HCMC pastor was a
young woman who claimed to have been expelled from a university in
HCMC, along with three classmates, for sharing their faith back in
2001. (A total of 13 students had been implicated, but nine had
already graduated.) She said that she and a friend had been
"sharing the gospel" by handing out pamphlets and talking to
people in a park near her school back in 2000 when the police
arrested her friend. The friend spent the night in jail and was
beaten by a drunken policeman. The next day, police confiscated
their religious materials. When the police later gave the list of
students involved in this "illegal activity" to the school in
2001, the four remaining students were expelled. The written
documents this woman provided, which had already been given to
Ambassador Hanford by a contact in Bangkok, charged the students
with "disseminating religious materials." (Note: It is illegal in
Vietnam to proselytize.) The former student is currently teaching
English, but has yet to resume her studies for fear she will not
be accepted by any university in Vietnam. She, too, requested
that Ambassador Hanford not use her name in discussions with the
GVN. The HCMC pastor told Ambassador Hanford that 42 students
meeting for religious worship last year at Easter had been
arrested, repeatedly questioned, and made to write confessions
before they were expelled.
5. (SBU) The last speaker in this first group was a pastor whose
weekday worship service at a house church in HCMC's District 11
earlier this year had deteriorated into a physical confrontation
with police who were trying to check the identification cards of
those present (ref A). He too claimed to have been beaten, but
only on the top of his head. In the course of briefing Ambassador
Hanford on the specific sequence of events, including his
subsequent arrest, he volunteered that he had actually struck the
first blow, punching a policemen in the face twice when he
wouldn't allow him to leave the house in order to take his wife to
the hospital.
6. (SBU) In response to Ambassador Hanford's request for advice on
designating Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the
pastor leading the group warned that backing the GVN into a corner
could make it retaliate. At the same time, he said things could
not possibly ever get as bad as they were 15 years ago, so
Protestant leaders were not afraid. He said the GVN had recently
started using dangerous new methods that were difficult to detect.
For example, security operatives had poisoned many Protestants,
including some who had sought refuge in Cambodia. They were never
the same again mentally. Some had died within a matter of months.
He hoped that Ambassador Hanford would tell the GVN that the U.S.
would only work with Vietnam if there was real religious freedom,
including for house churches. The GVN had closed many churches
since 1975, and not allowed any of them to reopen. Without real
churches, believers had had no choice but to form house churches
over the years. Now they realized that registration with the GVN
brought too many restrictions, like those faced by the government-
recognized Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV).
According to this pastor, house church pastors are in fact freer
to move from place to place. The pastor from District 11 echoed
this sentiment, noting that the house church movement had trained
thousands of pastors over the years without GVN permission, and
those pastors are freer to lead their churches than the pastors
belonging to the legal church.
7. (SBU) Since what would have been the second group had sent its
victims/witnesses back to the provinces, Ambassador Hanford met
the third group at the home of a pastor who was once affiliated
with the SECV, but later returned to the house church movement to
gain greater independence. During the nearly four-hour meeting in
his home, he left for a couple hours to conduct a Sunday evening
worship service in the church atop his downtown HCMC shop house.
This pastor told Ambassador Hanford he was preparing a thick file
outlining the difficulties faced by house churches and would send
it to the GVN, selected foreign governments, and NGOs in early
2004. He cautioned that religious freedom meant more than just
stopping persecution, however. He looked forward to the day when
Protestants could broadcast their messages freely over TV and
radio, and preach openly on the sidewalks. He presented
Ambassador Hanford with six CD-ROMs detailing government abuses.
He noted that since the GVN knows Protestant leaders can place
documentary evidence on the Internet, government officials were
relying more on oral communication to hide their tracks. They had
also adopted more cunning methods for dealing with dissent, such
as letting other prisoners beat up religious prisoners in jail,
rather than having government officials do the dirty work.
8. (SBU) Also present at the pastor's home were several relatives
of imprisoned Catholic Priest Nguyen Van Ly. One relative, who
has probably had the most contact with Father Ly since his
imprisonment, suggested the cleric was being held in solitary
confinement and slowly poisoned. (Father Ly had told him once
that prison staff often held food the family sent for several
weeks, giving them ample time to tamper with it.) The relative
based his conclusion on the fact that Father Ly had seemed quite
angry and "different" when he last visited him in June 2003.
According to this relative, Father Ly called for his niece and
nephews to confess their crimes (ref B) and talked about other
"strange things", such as "seeing the Lord." The relative was
never allowed to be alone with Father Ly, and had only been
permitted to stay 20 minutes the last time, as opposed to the
usual hour. The relative also believed the GVN was out to punish
Father Ly's entire family for his outspokenness, although he
acknowledged the two nephews currently in prison in HCMC had
indeed communicated with people in the U.S. regarding Father Ly's
case and tried to visit Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam leader
Thich Huyen Quang. He said some people in Hue had been paid the
equivalent of USD$10 to make false statements about Father Ly and
his family, including accounts that his niece, Mrs. Nguyen Thi
Hoa, was involved in the drug trade. Asked about the apparent
reluctance of the Catholic Church to support the jailed priest, he
responded that the Bishop of Father Ly's former diocese had
demonstrated quiet support by failing to appoint a successor to
his parish.
9. (SBU) Another pastor in this third group, well-known for his
involvement in organizing resistance to GVN oppression in the
Protestant community, said the Communists were very "wicked," and
employed "subtle" techniques to control the people. Religious
practice was only allowed up to a level where it could be
controlled. He accused an unnamed member of the SECV Council of
Dignitaries of being a secret agent for the government. He
alleged that this individual had shaped the SECV Charter in order
to allow for GVN control and had informed on many pastors. This
agent had also at one time been a member of a "killing team,"
which had killed people right before the pastor's very eyes some
20 years ago. The pastor described a new Communist Party of
Vietnam (CPV) document, allegedly signed by Prime Minister Phan
Van Khai, which called on officials to tighten up restrictions on
religion by January 2004. House churches would be forced to join
the SECV so that the GVN could control their activities. Churches
which refused to follow CPV guidelines would not be allowed to
register. In his most startling statement of the evening, he said
that while the government forced many Protestant to confess
falsely to being followers of the Dega separatist movement, he
estimated that fully 10 percent of all churches in the Central
Highlands were Dega churches. (Post Note: We say startling
because in the past, the Dega separatist movement has always been
described as small.)
10. (SBU) This pastor brought several other individuals to meet
with Ambassador Hanford, the first of whom was a young man whose
father had been arrested two years ago. The father was an ethnic
Ede pastor in the Central Highlands who had disappeared without a
trace after leaving for HCMC in the wake of the violent
demonstrations that shook the region in early 2001. While it was
unclear whether or not he knew for sure that his father had been
arrested, or where he was being held, the family had had no
contact with the father since. The father's church had about 200
members at the time of the demonstrations, but is now meeting in
smaller groups under the care of another pastor. The son said he
had heard of many forced renunciations and disappearances among
the ethnic H'mong in the Northwest Highlands, but had no firsthand
knowledge or specific information to share.
11. (SBU) Two people from the small Protestant house church that
was recently torn down in HCMC's Can Gio District (ref C) were
also present. They told Ambassador Hanford that while local
officials had justified the destruction in the name of a public
campaign to "restore public order in construction," this was
really a ruse to target their church. When police had come in the
middle of a worship service and levied a fine for the illegal
construction, the congregation had asked if they would be allowed
to continue worshipping there if they paid. When the police said
no, they refused to pay. Sometime later, the police returned to
remove the structure. The two members acknowledged that they had
built their church without a construction permit, but pointed out
that other structures leveled in the "public order" campaign were
more than 300 meters away. In addition, they said no one in that
area ever obtained building permits. In fact, they had
specifically chosen to build their church in the middle of an
isolated area to avoid attention, although they mounted a cross on
the building's front.
12. (SBU) In response to Ambassador Hanford's request for guidance
on possible CPC designation, two other pastors present thought he
should press for more legal international worship services and
permission for foreign missionaries to preach. Ambassador Hanford
outlined his intention to push for release of prisoners, an end to
forced renunciations, the reopening of closed churches, and
official recognition for all churches that wanted to affiliate
with the SECV. The pastors from this third group noted that the
SECV churches had given up their freedom when they registered, and
that their very existence had given the GVN a reason to
discriminate against the house churches. They were certain they
would never want to register with the GVN -- even if they could do
so independently of the SECV. They believe there are too many
differences in doctrine for the many house churches in the Central
Highlands to group themselves under a single organization. They
said their preferred, "most realistic option" would be to pressure
the GVN to allow all churches in the Central Highlands to register
independently, if they so desired.
13. (SBU) Comment: Overall, this very full day of meetings
provided a wealth of information on current government
restrictions on religious activity in southern Vietnam. At the
same time, the meetings revealed some of the problems inherent in
relying on indirect sources. Claims of poisonings, beatings,
disappearances, and forced renunciations can be very compelling
and emotional. But the facts, when available, do not always
support the claims, which therefore need to be backed up by solid
evidence if they are to be credible when raised with our GVN
interlocutors. Speculation on GVN motives by those so far outside
the prevailing system is also of limited utility. Post notes
these particular pastors have had several opportunities to present
solid evidence to back up claims of recent abuses, and have in
fact assured ConGenoffs the evidence was "in the mail", so to
speak. Mostly they have chosen to present secondhand reports of
the same allegations that are carried in the reports of various
NGOs. Also worth noting is that most of the cases raised during
these meetings were not current, and some cases were only
tangentially related to freedom of religion. Such cases can
undermine our credibility when we seek to make our points on
violations of religious freedom with the GVN.
14. (SBU) While it seems that the situation is not as bleak as
some groups suggest, it is also far from being as rosy as GVN
officials often insist. The GVN is highly suspicious of
Protestant house churches in the Central Highlands, even when
there may be no evidence that a specific church is affiliated with
the Dega movement. The GVN must do a far better job of educating
and controlling local officials in order to prevent abuses. For
the most part, the GVN allows worship in registered churches,
regardless of the denomination, and grants freedom of religion to
individuals and family members living together to worship at home.
For those groups who wish to gather without prior permission in
house churches and other, less formal settings however, the
situation remains unpredictable and difficult. There is great
variation in local practice, which may involve significant
individual vulnerability, even in HCMC. Any activity perceived as
being a challenge to Communist Party rule, especially if linked to
outside groups with a political agenda (such as recent meetings by
the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam), is likely to cause a
harsh reaction.
15. (U) Ambassador Hanford did not have an opportunity to clear
this cable prior to his departure.
View as: DESKTOP | MOBILE © Scoop Media