Cablegate: Cirfdel Surveys Religion in Vietnam: Meetings in Hanoi

Published: Fri 13 Feb 2004 11:13 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 0076 C) HCMC 0084
This is a joint Embassy Hanoi-ConGen Ho Chi Minh City cable.
1. (SBU) Local religious leaders offered up fewer specific
complaints of violent or coercive acts of religious oppression and
called for greater activism during meetings with a delegation from
the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in
January. While some government officials alluded to the
possibility of expanded freedoms in the near future, most hewed to
the party line on the need to carefully control such things as
registrations of new churches and ordinations of pastors. The
delegation stressed Washington's interest in religious freedom in
Vietnam and the potential for this issue to become a sticking
point in an otherwise expanding bilateral relationship.
2. (U) Dr. Scott Flipse, senior policy analyst at the U.S.
Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), traveled
through Hanoi, Hue, the Central Highlands and Ho Chi Minh City
during January 7-16. 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 reports on their meetings in Hanoi and HCMC. Reftels report
on the CIRFDEL's meetings elsewhere in Vietnam. Septel will
report on meetings with the new Cardinal of HCMC.
Government Officials Toe the Party Line
3. (SBU) In official meetings in Hanoi, Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh,
Vice-Chairwoman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the National
Assembly, stressed that the GVN was always open to dialogue on
human rights/religious freedom. In her opinion, the situation for
religious believers in Vietnam was improving. While some
religious leaders are in prison, they were there for reasons other
than their faith. Madame Ninh also suggested that many observers
of religious freedom in Vietnam viewed the country with
preconceptions and narrowly defined concerns. She claimed that
much of the information being spread about religious freedom was
incorrect and was manipulated by groups overseas to attack the
GVN. She specifically named the Committee for Religious Freedom
in Vietnam, which had advertised its sponsorship for the
Congressional staff members of the CIRFDEL on its website. She
promised that high-level officials were paying increasing
attention to human rights concerns and attempting to implement
positive changes. Congressional resolutions chastising the
Vietnamese on human rights would do nothing to improve the
situation, however. In a brief discussion of refugee issues,
Madame Ninh thought that reopening in-country processing of
refugees would raise expectations that could not be met. If the
USG insisted, she suggested the programs be renamed and
repackaged. While the GVN would not be happy to see refugee
processing restarted, it would be pragmatic and likely not oppose
4. (SBU) Ngo Yen Thi, Chairman of the national Committee on
Religious Affairs and Hoang Cong Dung, Vice Chairman of the
national Committee on Ethnic Minorities, advanced similar views on
religious freedom in their separate meetings with the CIRFDEL.
Both officials assured the delegation that the GVN has long held
policies to uphold freedom of religion, and described the variety
of religions in Vietnam and rapid growth of Protestantism in
particular as proof of that fact. Chairman Thi noted specifically
that the CPV has identified religion as a need of the people, but
acknowledged (as did Vice Chairman Dung) that local officials
sometimes interpreted government policies incorrectly. He also
assured the CIRFDEL that the Committee on Religion was motivated
by a sincere desire to ensure that religious leaders were
sufficiently trained and of high moral character to lead their
congregations. He blamed problems in the Central Highlands on
separatist elements operating in the Protestant community, noting
that individuals had been incarcerated in some cases for political
activities, but not for religious beliefs. He said the government
was interested in working with local officials to assist the
legitimate Protestant churches in the Central Highlands to
develop. He thought the situation was more confusing in the
Northwest Highlands, where organizational problems within the
government recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN)
prevented Protestant leaders from guiding new converts. He
claimed that arrests connected to serious problems with drug
trafficking in the area had been incorrectly identified as
religious oppression.
5. (SBU) The same basic government positions were repeated in
official meetings in Ho Chi Minh City. Nguyen Thanh Tai, Vice
Chairman of the HCMC People's Committee, focused on explaining the
GVN's stance on the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam
(UBCV). While he started out by saying that the old UBCV had
voluntarily integrated itself into the government recognized
Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) in 1981 and no longer existed as a
separate entity, he later admitted the real problem was that the
UBCV had taken actions to undermine the GVN. Calling the UBCV
leadership "self-proclaimed representatives of no one," he
criticized the problem as one of political action, not religion.
He said the GVN was just helping Vietnam's Buddhists achieve their
own goals of unification, yet could not explain why the government
should be playing a role in that debate in the first place. Vice
Chairman Tai told the delegation they would not be able to meet
with detained UBCV Deputy Thich Quang Do in HCMC during their
visit, because he was under administrative surveillance for
undertaking actions "detrimental to the state." Addressing
Protestant issues, the Vice Chairman acknowledged communications
problems between police and believers were responsible for the
physical altercation at a local house church last year. He said
that the court case scheduled for the next morning against Pastor
Bui Van Ba for attacking police during that incident had been
postponed for the Tet Lunar New Year. Responding to a proposal
from the CIRFDEL, Vice Chairman Tai was open to the idea of
working with experts from other countries, possibly within the
ASEAN context, to promote human rights/religious freedom and train
local authorities.
6. (SBU) Vice Director Vo Ngoc Hue of the HCMC Committee for
Religious Affairs expanded on some of those themes in a separate
meeting. Warning the delegation not to believe distortions about
religious freedom in Vietnam, he dismissed the international
uproar over several recent cases of alleged oppression. He
claimed that the detentions following attempts to hand out
religious tracts packaged as official brochures during the
December Southeast Asia Games were related to copyright
infringement, not religion. In the case of the altercation
discussed by Vice Chairman Tai, he pointed out that Pastor Ba was
not a legally ordained pastor and had been responsible for
throwing the first punch. (Note: Pastor Ba had already confirmed
the latter claim to ConGenoffs himself. End Note.) Mr. Hue asked
the delegation to take a more comprehensive view of religious
issues in Vietnam, and stop focusing on a few minor cases of
individuals who distorted information for their own interests and
worked to undermine the government. Dr. Flipse pointed out that
the way to avoid such problems was to avoid entering known house
churches in that fashion during worship services, allow more
pastors to be trained and ordained, and remove the restrictions
forbidding congregations from building churches outside of their
homes. Regarding the UBCV, the Vice Director reaffirmed that the
delegation would not be able to visit with Thich Quang Do while he
was under investigation. (He said the group had been allowed to
visit imprisoned priest Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly during their time
in Hanoi because Ly had already been convicted and sentenced.)
Mr. Hue was unable to answer questions regarding what sort of
state secrets the 76-year-old Buddhist monk might have been
carrying. Urged to allow the UBCV to register as a legal
organization independently of the VBS, Vice Director Hue echoed
Vice Chairman Tai's response that the Buddhists themselves were
opposed to this plan. He did seem amenable, however, to separate
registrations for pre-1975 Protestant denominations outside the
umbrella of the SECV.
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And Official Buddhist Representatives Don't Disagree
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7. (SBU) Thich Thanh Tu, Vice President of the Executive Council
of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, rejected claims that religion was
oppressed in Vietnam. He asserted that unification of Vietnam's
disparate Buddhist organizations after 1975 had actually brought
harmony to Vietnam. He too claimed that former leaders of the now
banned UBCV had willingly merged with the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha
in 1982, and that those now claiming to lead the UBCV were
misrepresenting themselves, since the organization no longer
existed. Thich Hien Phap, Secretary General of the Executive
Council of the VBS in HCMC, reminded the CIRFDEL of the history of
the different Buddhist sects in Vietnam, with particular emphasis
on their political activities during the war years. He too was
unable to answer the question of why the VBS would be opposed to
the establishment of a separate UBCV organization, but said all
monks should work together for social stability. While he said he
respected the UBCV monks as Buddhists, he criticized them for
allowing themselves to be influenced by outsiders. Asked for his
views on the wisdom of drafting a new law on religion (the monk is
also a National Assembly delegate), Thich Hien Phap cited the need
to prevent the spread of superstitions.
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Protestants Mixed on Hopes for Change, but Mostly Defiant
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9. (SBU) Le Khac Dung and Dao Van Khue, of the Executive Council
of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) in Hanoi, were more
critical of the Government. Noting the small size of the ECVN --
three pastors and 10 preachers -- they complained that the
Government had blocked other preachers from being ordained,
leaving the church unable to meet the needs of its 11 churches and
six other places of worship. Dung and Khue said that the
Government had actually tried to force the ECVN to accept a
Government nominee as a pastor at one time, but that the church
had refused. (Note: It appears that this happened several years
ago. End note.) The two talked of the EVCN's plans to hold a
national convention, but said that plans were on hold over a
dispute with local authorities over the Haiphong congregation.
The GVN had also warned them against accepting new members
churches from the Northwest Highlands until they could be sure of
the moral character of the applicants. They noted that they had
heard stories about persecution of Hmong Protestants in the
Northwest Highlands, but had been unable to investigate these
claims themselves. Many of the problems, they believed, were due
to authorities not understanding the Hmong "Vang Chu" religion,
which they said is actually Protestantism.
10. (SBU) According to officials of the government recognized
Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) in HCMC, the
situation seemed to have improved a little more with every new
delegation from the U.S. and other interested countries. Still,
they regretted the fact there were so few churches for the
organization's 1.2 million believers, and that only 400 of 1400
pastors were registered. They hoped to break ground on new
quarters for the new Protestant seminary on a four-hectare site
this June. They acknowledged that the problems were worse up
north. The SECV leaders said the treatment of Protestants in any
given location depended greatly on local authorities, rather than
any sort of national policy. They worried that the new law on
religion currently being drafted in Hanoi would have a cultural
dimension that would favor Buddhism and indigenous religions over
11. (SBU) In meetings with prominent house church pastors in HCMC,
the picture was mixed. While some felt conditions were improving
in certain parts of the country, others dismissed such claims as
outright lies. As has often been the case with visitors in the
recent past, the pastors generally failed to highlight specific
abuses within the prior six months to one year, preferring instead
to rely on older material, such as a local government form dating
back to 2002, which allegedly requires parents to certify that
their children will say no to drugs and Protestantism as a
precondition to enrolling in school. One pastor mentioned a
couple that was fined for reading the Bible together, but provided
few details. A pastor who is active in the Northwest Highlands
said the GVN was becoming more and more concerned that the
region's 1.2 million Hmong (460,000 of whom were Christian) would
seek to establish an autonomous state. A pastor currently
affiliated with the SECV told the delegation he had come to meet
them privately because he felt restrained from speaking the truth
in the presence of his fellow legal church leaders. He decried
the lack of real church buildings and the difficulties faced by
Christians in more remote areas of the country.
12. (SBU) Meeting with a second group of Protestant leaders in a
nearby house church because the pastors thought there were too
many police around the original meeting site, the delegation again
heard more general statements rather than specific allegations. A
well-known pastor once affiliated with the SECV but now operating
independently claimed the situation was not better or worse, only
different, as the GVN had adopted new strategies. These pastors
agreed that international pressure works, but thought the pressure
should focus less on registration of individual churches and more
on noninterference in their affairs. One of these pastors
summarized his views for Dr. Flipse the following day at his own
house church, saying that he wanted direct dialogue with the GVN,
greater transparency in government decisions on religion, and the
return of church properties. He thought the GVN needed to do a
better job of listening to its own people and trying to understand
their religious needs. While he had heard that the GVN was
considering allowing pre-1975 denominations like the Mennonites,
Baptists, and Seventh Day Adventists to register, he believed the
GVN would only allow what it thought it could control. Under the
circumstances, he would no longer seek registration for his group
and hand over management of its affairs to the government, despite
the fact that he had attempted to register in the past. He also
told the delegation that he had recruited 2000 members for his
Christian Boy Scout troop, by looking for young people with the
pioneering spirit of the communists but without the communist
mindset. Many of the members were living in camps rather than
with their families and were given regular skills training. The
Boy Scouts also operated as something of a security force for
Christian gatherings.
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Cao Dai and Hoa Hao Still Can't Agree Amongst Themselves
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13. (SBU) Leading Hoa Hao and Cao Dai dissidents also seemed to
have gone the route of looking at the big picture, as opposed to
raising specific abuses. Blaming the rift within their own
organization on government opposition to reconciliation, the Hoa
Hao asked the international community to continue to press for the
right of religious groups to govern themselves. They also noted
that they have their own lines of communication with both their
counterpart recognized religious bodies and also the GVN, which
continued to approach them with offers of reconciliation. Both
were adamant that they would not join what they considered to be
government-run organizations. Neither seemed to place much value
on working ecumenically to deal with common problems. (In a
reminder of the mystical nature of the Cao Dai faith, those
representatives told the CIRFDEL that they had foreseen changes
within the next five months in a seance.)
Update on Dr. Nguyen Dan Que
15. (SBU) In a brief detour from the primary focus of religious
freedom, the CIRFDEL also met with the wife of imprisoned
democracy activist Dr. Nguyen Dan Que in HCMC. (As with Thich
Quang Do, Vice Chairman Tai had already denied a request to visit
Dr. Que on the grounds that he was still under investigation.)
She told the delegation she was continuing to make monthly visits
to the municipal jail, but had still been unable to establish
contact with her husband. On her most recent visit, just three
days earlier, she had followed her normal practice of bringing a
small amount of high-blood pressure and ulcer medication, and the
equivalent of USD$65 for food. She has no way of being certain
these items reached her husband, but believes they did. Prison
officials had told her that her husband was in a cell with one
other prisoner. She believes that person was likely placed there
to keep an eye on her husband. Prison officials also promised to
inform her of any medical problems that arose. Sounding slightly
more radical than in the past, she said that most Vietnamese
wanted change, although they were afraid to express their
feelings. She regretted the personal sacrifices she had made over
the past nearly 30 years, but was proud of her husband for
speaking out. She thought the new spate of arrests of prominent
activists last year represented a new tactic on the part of the
GVN. She thought her husband would likely be sentenced to 5-7
years in prison this time, but didn't say why she thought so. She
also said the GVN wanted her to write some sort of letter
requesting an amnesty for her husband, but she could never agree
to any GVN quid pro quo.
16. (U) The delegation did not have an opportunity to clear this
cable before their departure.
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