Cablegate: Cirfdel/Staffdel Grove Survey Religion in Vietnam:

Published: Wed 28 Jan 2004 12:58 PM
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. (SBU) The religious situation for Protestants in Gia Lai and
Dak Lak provinces has seen some real improvements in the last
three months, according to both government officials and
Protestant leaders who met with two USG delegations in early
January. Official registrations for new Protestant churches were
up in each province, new pastors were ordained, and there were no
significant incidents of religious oppression to report over the
Christmas holidays. While difficulties remained, including a
bureaucratic, cumbersome process for registering new churches, the
overall mood was more positive than it has been at any time since
the ethnic unrest of 2001. The delegations stressed Washington's
interest in religious freedom in Vietnam and the importance of
allowing USG officials access to provide first-hand reporting on
any allegations of abuse. After initially refusing to meet the
delegations due to the late notice and the impending Tet Lunar New
Year holidays, Gia Lai and Dak Lak provincial officials, with some
pressure from the Office of the National Assembly and the Ministry
of Foreign Affairs, were generally cooperative with scheduling
2. (U) Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations
staff members Paul Grove and Mark Lippert traveled through Hanoi,
the Central Highlands, and Ho Chi Minh City from January 7-10.
During roughly the same time frame (January 7-16), Dr. Scott
Flipse, senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), covered much of the same
terrain, with the addition of Hue, on an official fact-finding
mission. He was joined by Mr. George Phillips, from the office of
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), and Ms. Hannah Royal, from the office of
Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), who traveled in their personal
capacities under the sponsorship of a U.S.-based NGO, the
Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam, which was represented
on the trip by Vietnamese-American Catholic priest Tam Tran. This
cable covers the meetings of both delegations in the Central
Highlands. Septels report on their meetings elsewhere in Vietnam.
Gia Lai: Better Treatment, Lack of Space
3. (SBU) Staffdel Grove met with government and religious leaders
in Gia Lai province on January 9. Appointments included the Gia
Lai People's Committee, the Committee on Ethnic Minority and
Religious Affairs, and the Gia Lai Representative Board of the
government recognized Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam
(SECV). The Staffdel also paid an officially arranged visit to a
Gia Rai ethnic minority village. The CIRFDEL drove through the
province a few days later, without having arranged any official
appointments or notified local authorities. They were scolded by
local officials for meeting informally with members of the SECV
Board, and physically blocked from visiting a nearby village
unannounced. Reminding ConGenoff that the Consulate General's
consular district did not extend beyond Ho Chi Minh City,
provincial authorities were upset that they had not been asked to
arrange the SECV meeting and that the CIRFDEL was making impromptu
stops along the public highway running through Gia Lai. (Note:
CIRFDEL did request and receive official appointments in nearby
Dak Lak Province -- see below. End note.)
4. (SBU) In all of their meetings, Staffdel Grove stressed that
Congress is concerned about religious freedom in Vietnam and that
it was important to give access to USG officials so they could
provide first-hand, accurate reporting on allegations of abuse.
In a philosophical discussion spanning both the official meeting
and a dinner, Chairman Nguyen Vi Ha compared free expression to a
portrait of a naked woman -- something that could be admired for
its beauty by some, yet drive others to do bad things. In Mr.
Ha's view, the government was responsible for ensuring that free
expression did not become harmful. Chairman Ha highlighted his
own religious tolerance by pointing out that he had at least one
family member following each major religion in the province.
Staffdel Grove reminded him of his responsibility to ensure that
other local officials throughout the province were tolerant as
well. The Deputy Chairman of the provincial Committee on Ethnic
Minority and Religious Affairs reported that three new Protestant
churches had been approved in December 2003, bringing the
provincial total to ten.
5. (SBU) The SECV Board confirmed that three churches had been
approved, pending additional paperwork. They did not seem at all
concerned about the last few bureaucratic requirements. They said
the three new churches -- in Plei Betel, Plei Breng, and Plei
Athat -- would serve a total of 6500 believers in 22 villages,
raising to 10,000 the number of the province's approximately
71,000 Protestants who would be able to worship in registered
churches. SECV leaders reported no significant incidents in Gia
Lai province involving Christmas celebrations. While both
registered and unregistered Protestant groups had been permitted
to gather in most areas, they declined to comment further on a few
groups who had special problems with local authorities. When
asked what the USG could do to assist Christians in the province,
SECV leaders told Staffdel Grove that the biggest issue they faced
was a lack of real church buildings anywhere in Gia Lai. While
provincial authorities had returned confiscated properties to
other religious groups, they had yet to return anything to the
Protestants, or even allocate land for new construction. The SECV
Board members specifically requested that any USG pressure on this
issue not be traceable back to the Board, however.
6. (SBU) Chairman Ha had told Staffdel Grove that the registration
process could be as simple as a verbal agreement between a church
and local authorities, while the Committee on Religious Affairs
had further mentioned approvals from commune-level People's
Committees and the screening of church members for good
citizenship. The SECV Board members, on the other hand, described
a bureaucratic process that involved submitting a total of eleven
documents to as many as nine different offices, including: local
and provincial People's Committees, Fatherland Front Committees,
and Mass Mobilization Committees, as well as the Ministry of
Public Security. Only then could a church hold a General
Conference and select a Council of Deacons, requirements imposed
by the SECV Charter, not the GVN. The GVN, however, does require
that the General Conference Minutes be transmitted to local
7. (SBU) Meeting unofficially with the CIRFDEL on January 11, a
member of the SECV Board discussed his impressions of the current
situation at greater length. He said that things were better now
than in the past, but mostly because they couldn't have gotten any
worse. (Note: The trend toward improvement echoes comments by
underground Protestant leaders in HCMC, who told Staffdel
McCormick in a meeting earlier in January that the Central
Highlands was an area where the religious freedom situation was
getting better. End note.) The most difficult times were during
1979-1999, with modest improvement and fewer restrictions since
2000. The SECV Board member attributed those positive changes to
international pressure and Vietnam's desire to integrate into the
world community, and asked for a combination of continued
international pressure -- including visits by more USG delegations
--and ongoing dialogue. He thought it would be useful for other
countries to share with the GVN their own laws on religion, so the
GVN would see where it was out of step.
8. (SBU) The SECV Board members told the CIRFDEL that uneven
implementation of the central GVN's policies on religion by local
authorities continued to be the biggest problem. While government
treatment of registered churches was generally better than that
for house churches, most unregistered congregations still enjoyed
tacit approval from local authorities to continue their religious
activities. Unfortunately, it was difficult to get land for
construction and believers were reluctant to contribute money when
they thought the government should just return confiscated
properties -- there were 38 churches in Gia Lai pre-1975 -- or
build replacements. Registrations were being processed slowly in
part because congregations did not meet the criteria and were not
always well organized. In addition, small provincial staffs were
untrained to deal with the flood of applications they faced.
Priority was being given to churches that existed pre-1975,
including the three whose applications were submitted in
September and approved in December.
9. (SBU) Regarding church closures, this SECV Board members joked
that there had been nothing left to close after the initial
crackdown in the wake of the ethnic unrest of 2001. Turning more
serious, he noted that local authorities tended to be more subtle
in their methods in Gia Lai than in Dak Lak. Gia Lai relied on
persuasion, not force, to convince congregations to disband. Some
house churches had been physically closed down, but most had
either moved or simply continued to function at their original
locations. He said the government was generally lenient with
pastors it regarded as authentic believers, but not with those who
attempted to use religion as a means of opposing the government.
The same government approach to disbanding churches had been
applied to renunciations. While the government had ceased
attempting to force Christians to renounce their faith two years
ago, they were now relying on other methods -- such as offering
material benefits to those who renounced. Despite the
difficulties, Protestant numbers continued to rise, as many came
to see Christians as positive role models and sought to emulate
them. According to the SECV member's records, there were only
3500 Protestants in Gia Lai in 1975, versus the 71,000 today.
10. (SBU) According to these SECV Board members, there were two
negative forces at work in the Central Highlands which actively
oppose the GVN. One was composed of purely political Dega
separatists, and another used religion to pursue their separatist
aims. Both factions enjoyed backing from U.S.- based supporters.
Real Protestant believers might sympathize with Dega nationalism
and the desire to preserve traditional culture, but could never
approve of using violent methods to attain those goals. He
described the ethnic unrest of 2001 as an ethnic conflict, not a
religious one, although the two were certainly linked, with ethnic
minority resentment directed squarely at majority Vietnamese Kinh
coming down from the north to reap the benefits of their land.
11. (SBU) At Staffdel Grove's request, Gia Lai provincial
officials had arranged for the delegation to visit Mo Rong Ngo 4,
in Ia Ka commune, Chu Pa district, a village that reportedly
contained some returnees from Cambodia who had resettled in
Vietnam independently of UNHCR. Upon arrival in the village,
however, the delegation was informed that only one household had
any connection to Cambodia. Ksor Hom (a Gia Rai minority male)
had reportedly crossed to Cambodia and been resettled in America,
leaving behind his wife, Ro Cham A Lo, and eight children.
Nervous and speaking through a Gia Lai provincial interpreter, Ro
Cham A Lo told Staffdel Grove that she did not know when her
husband had left Vietnam and had not heard from him, although she
was aware of rumors that he might be in America. (Note: Post's
refugee resettlement section will follow up on her husband's
status. End note.)
--------------------------------------------- -----------------
Dak Lak: New GVN Directive on Protestant Churches Brings Hope
--------------------------------------------- -----------------
12. (SBU) On January 12, the CIRFDEL met officially with the Dak
Lak People's Committee, the Committees on Ethnic Minority and
Religious Affairs, the Fatherland Front, and the provincial SECV
Representative Board. People's Committee Chairman Nguyen Van Lang
expressed disappointment that the United States did not seem to
understand the real human rights/religious freedom situation in
Vietnam, despite improvements in many other facets of the
bilateral relationship. Citing the many economic gains he had
seen since his arrival in the province in 1975, he said that the
lives of Dak Lak's 600,000 ethnic minority residents had improved
dramatically. The CIRFDEL laid out concerns over continuing
reports of closed churches, forced renunciations and leaked
government documents detailing a campaign to stamp out
Christianity. The CIRFDEL asked Chairman Lang for his views on
GVN claims that any violations of human rights/religious freedom
were due to mistakes at the local level. They reminded their
Vietnamese interlocutors that they were talking about
international standards to which the GVN had voluntarily acceded,
and expressed hope that this issue would not become an impediment
to an otherwise improving bilateral relationship.
13. (SBU) Chairman Lang noted that Dak Lak's Christians were
happier than at any time in the past, although they still
sometimes faced problems from local officials who did not fully
understand the GVN's policies. In addition to the usual rounds of
visits from provincial and local officials, Protestant leaders
this past Christmas had received personal visits from First Deputy
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and other high-level officials for
the first time. Chairman Lang disputed the number of closed
churches provided by the CIRFDEL, saying the province's 200,000
Christians were served by hundreds of churches. Besides, he
retorted, there were only 7000 Protestants in Dak Lak in 1975, so
there couldn't have been hundreds of churches to close in the
past. He acknowledged only that two specific church properties in
the Ban Me Thuot area had been confiscated shortly after the war
for concealing weapons and documents pertaining to FULRO
separatists. (An otherwise very unfriendly Chairman of the
provincial Fatherland Front Committee seemed quite confident that
procedures were underway to return these two churches.)
14. (SBU) The Chairman of the Religious Affairs Committee,
however, admitted to the closure of hundreds of places where
Christians had gathered illegally to pray. (Post Note: Closure
in this sense often means asking people not to meet for group
religious services in the house/building anymore, since these
premises often serve other purposes, e.g., prayer services in
people's homes. The Chairman explicitly said that a family would
always be allowed to worship in its own home. End Note.)
However, while the government still had problems with the Dega
movement, he said, there was no campaign to suppress peaceful,
nonpolitical worship. The Religious Affairs Committee chairman
observed that peaceful Christians were often responsible for
turning in Dega leaders after hearing their sermons calling for
the overthrow of the GVN. Noting how poverty currently prevented
many Christians from purchasing land to construct new churches, he
said Dak Lak province had already provided land to one new church
in Phuoc An, and hoped to do the same for other congregations, now
that the SECV had disclaimed any relationship with the Dega
movement. He also said the province had taken steps to speed up
the registration process, as evidenced by the approval of three
new churches and the ordination of three new pastors just that
15. (SBU) According to Chairman Lang, another big impediment to
the further development of Protestantism in Dak Lak was the need
for more trained pastors. He said he was working with the SECV to
open a Bible training school in the provincial capital. While he
agreed with the CIRFDEL that he and other Dak Lak officials also
needed a better understanding of religion, he chafed at a proposal
for some sort of joint venture with the USG to provide training
for his own officials. He saw no need for foreigners to tell him
how to deal with religious issues in his own province, although he
left it open for the central government to agree to such a plan.
16. (SBU) A subsequent meeting with the provincial SECV Board, as
well as with a local pastor who has been a long time contact of
the Consulate General, confirmed much of what the CIRFDEL had been
told in its other meetings regarding the three new churches, three
new pastors and the promise of a bible school. Asked to comment
on a recent Human Rights Watch report detailing a new Christmas
crackdown, the Board members contradicted that dire portrayal.
Noting that 2003 had been a huge improvement over 2002, they said
they had been able to hold big services wherever there were
pastors, and smaller celebrations elsewhere. (Even the previous
Christmas, they said, while some number of believers had been
detained for unknown reasons, they could think of no pastors who
had been imprisoned.) What they now needed most was more
churches, more Bibles (the Religious Affairs Chairman promised the
CIRFDEL he was in the process of printing one million new Bibles),
and better training. Training for local officials would also be
helpful, since most problems started at the local level.
17. (SBU) Commenting further on the claims of massive church
closures, the Board members thought many had closed simply because
people had moved away, or because there weren't enough pastors to
go around. They admitted that in fact some congregations were
also Dega, something which had driven the government to send out
letters requesting churches to close until the membership could be
vetted in the first place. (They believed quite firmly, however,
that none of their SECV pastors were Dega.) Many churches had
been allowed to reopen since 2001, even though they were still
unregistered. The SECV Board members also acknowledged problems
with trying to even calculate the number of churches in the
province. They thought there could be thousands, depending on
what definition was used, with many villages having three or more.
The local SECV pastor questioned reports of beatings and forced
renunciations, noting that lots of people broke laws and went to
jail for things that had nothing to do with religion. In a
similar vein, he thought people complained about many things that
were unfair, but he had no personal knowledge of anyone who had
ever been discriminated against in employment, education, or
medical care for being Christian. He caveated his remarks by
acknowledging he did not always know what was happening in remote
areas, or among non-SECV churches.
18. (SBU) For the future, much hope seemed to rest on new GVN
directive 782/TGCP-TL (septel), distributed to the Dak Lak SECV
Board by the National Committee for Religious Affairs on December
4, 2003. The decree reportedly calls for the "continuation of the
normalization of operations of the SECV in the Central Highlands
and Binh Phuoc Province." (Note: No one mentioned this decree to
either delegation in Gia Lai. End note.) Based on this new
directive, the SECV Board was planning to ask its adherents to
submit some form of certification that they were not Dega to the
local authorities in advance of applying for registration. The
local SECV pastor told the CIRFDEL that circumstances had improved
dramatically since the release of this directive, although they
had already begun to improve in September. Government officials
had changed completely in the way they treated Protestants. Even
so, he predicted registrations would continue to move slowly, due
to small number of provincial staff assigned to process
19. (SBU) Note: A representative of the Office of the National
Assembly's foreign affairs section was dispatched to accompany
Staffdel Grove on the trip through the Central Highlands at the
last minute, and stayed in Dak Lak to greet the CIRFDEL for the
second leg of their trip. The ONA representative encouraged the
Embassy and Consulate General to work with his office on future
visits, but later threatened a formal protest when he was excluded
from meetings with religious leaders by both delegations.
Interestingly, the Gia Lai and Dak Lak provincial authorities
proved more cooperative on this visit, where they had been
notified in advance (paras. 1 and 3). Unlike the ONA
representative, they did not protest when the delegations asked
for private meetings with religious groups nor did they interrupt
those meetings (as they had sometimes on previous visits.) End
20. (U) Neither Staffdel Grove nor the CIRFDEL had the opportunity
to clear on this cable before their departures.
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