Cablegate: Religious Freedom Makes Slow Progress in Hue

Published: Tue 18 May 2004 12:31 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 916 B) HCMC 76
1. (SBU) Both religious leaders and government officials in
Thua Thien-Hue Province expressed a generally positive
outlook on religious freedom during recent official
meetings. However, Embassy and Consulate General officers
were prevented from making unannounced visits to dissident
Buddhist and Catholic clerics by apparent police measures
(ref A). In discussions with both Catholic and Protestant
leaders, Missionoffs noted a willingness to compromise with
provincial officials in order to achieve specific goals.
This seems to have yielded some positive results, although
obstacles remain. End Summary.
Official View - No One Should Abuse Religious Freedom
--------------------------------------------- ---------------
2. (SBU) Meeting with Hanoi poloff and HCMC conoff during
their March 29-31 trip to Hue, Mr. Le Ba Hoang, Deputy
Director of the provincial Committee on Religious Affairs
(CRA) underscored freedom of religion guarantees under
Article 17 of the Vietnamese Constitution. But, he
cautioned, no one has the right to abuse freedom of
religion. Mr. Hoang gave an overview of the scope and
variety of believers in the province. The largest group is
the Buddhists, whose 550,000 believers comprise about half
the population of the province. A total of 1400 religious
staff, including 764 monks and 162 nuns, administered some
454 pagodas, although Hoang said his definition of pagoda
included some very simple places of worship. The Senior
Buddhist Seminary in Hue -- opened in 1997 -- graduates 200
students per class with the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts
in Buddhism, some of whom later go on to higher study
overseas. Moreover, the last ten years have seen four
"designation" ceremonies, in which more than 400 members
were selected to be trained for leadership roles within the
Buddhist hierarchy.
3. (SBU) Responding to inquiries about Hue's most prominent
activist monk -- Thich Thien Hanh, of the outlawed United
Buddhist Church of Vietnam -- Hoang's stance was
unequivocal. Thich Thien Hanh had been a member of the
provincial management board of Vietnam from 1981 until 1992,
Hoang said, and his 1992 resignation was an "internal
Buddhist matter." Since then, Thich Thien Hanh had been a
"subversive presence." Hoang called the UBCV a "splinter
group, intending to spread propaganda against the
government." When asked if missionoffs might meet with
Thich Thien Hanh, Mr. Hoang stated that we did not request
to see him, and so it had not been arranged, but that in any
case, "seeing him would do no good for Buddhism." When
asked to clarify this, Mr. Hoang replied with a Vietnamese
proverb: "A monk without a robe is not a monk; a person with
a robe might not be a monk." (Note: Officers had attempted
to meet with Thich Thien Hanh the day before, but were
blocked by police action. Generally speaking, Mission
informs provincial authorities of meetings with GVN
officials, but not of plans to meet with private individuals
including religious leaders. End Note.)
4. (U) The Catholic Church is comparatively small, with
four dioceses ministering to 52,000 believers, according to
Hoang. There are 99 priests and 531 monks and nuns serving
104 churches within the region. Both Mr. Hoang and Hue
Archbishop Nguyen Nhu The noted the Catholic Seminary in Hue
-- reopened in 1994 -- trains priests to serve in 3
provinces: Thua Thien-Hue, Da Nang, and Kon Tum. Hoang
claimed that seminary staff alone decided who was to be
admitted for study, but Archbishop The stated there was an
unofficial government "quota" of 10 students for each area,
leading to class sizes of 30 every other year. Hoang
claimed that the number of seminary students meets -- and
would soon exceed -- the requirements for priests for the
three provinces. Archbishop The agreed that the need for
parish priests would soon be met, but mused that his
government counterpart did not understand that priests do
not just perform rites and rituals, but are also vital to
charitable and humanitarian activities. He said the
Catholic Church still hoped to increase the number of
seminarians in order to expand Church operations in these
other areas.
5. (SBU) Following up on a U.S. Commission on International
Religious Freedom (USCIRF) delegation's attempted visit to
activist priest Father Phan Van Loi in January (ref B),
Missionoffs asked Hoang about meeting with Loi. The request
was met with mock confusion. Hoang claimed never to have
heard of any priest by that name. When it was established
that we did have the right to visit and speak with any
private citizen, however, Mr. Hoang said that the CRA does
not recognize Father Loi as a priest, but that nevertheless
he would try to arrange an official visit if and when we
returned to the region. Archbishop The commented later
that, as Loi had been ordained in Bac Ninh province, Father
Loi was "not affiliated with the diocese." The status of
Father Nguyen Van Ly raised more serious concerns. Mr.
Hoang said he wondered, "who controlled him," as Ly was a
"threat to National Security" for his outspoken comments.
Hoang claimed that Ly's imprisonment had nothing to do with
his religious actions, but was a result of Ly's having used
the pulpit "to lie about the government," and that he "tried
to turn his parishioners against the government." He
further claimed that the Catholic Church in Vietnam did not
support Father Ly.
Catholic and Protestant leaders cautiously optimistic
--------------------------------------------- ---------------
6. (SBU) Archbishop The gave a guardedly optimistic report
about the Catholic Church's relationship with provincial
authorities. Ten years ago, he said, the situation was very
difficult. Now, "the practice of religious belief and
religious study" are relatively unhindered. In general,
Archbishop The said, they have a "cordial relationship" with
the authorities, who are "becoming more cooperative."
Problems remain, however, and he noted that "religious
associations" -- for example women's and youth groups -- are
still very restricted, and cannot meet and operate freely.
He felt that bureaucracy and government red tape are the
main obstacles to continuing improvement. For example, a
charitable clinic at Kim Long staffed by Catholic nuns has
had problems in receiving drugs before their expiration
date. As they are generally donated just prior to this
date, the delays in processing them through customs in
Vietnam have led to whole shipments becoming unusable.
Sister Nguyen Thi Dien, the director of the clinic, said she
felt sure that there was no discrimination present in these
delays, but that it was merely bureaucratic in nature.
Archbishop The also noted that it took four years of
consistent effort to receive approval to build a Catholic
"Service Center" -- a conference and study center -- which
was due to open very soon. The inaugural event for the
center would be a conference for the Episcopal Council of
Catholics April 26-28.
7. (SBU) Archbishop The did describe a number of outstanding
disputes with the State over Church property. In Thien An,
107 hectares of Church land has apparently been seized, and
is slated to be developed into an "amusement center," most
likely a water park. Hoang of the CRA stated that, since
the land was bought by the Church under the Diem regime, it
is "subject to redistribution." Archbishop The said
although this project is "environmentally questionable," the
chances that the Church will get that land back are very
slim. Archbishop The also talked about a church in Ke Sung,
where a road is being built across parish land, very close
to the front of the church building. Hoang said that the
road was a necessary project given the province's overall
plan for infrastructure development, but added that because
the church at Ke Sung would be affected by this project, it
would receive "preferential compensation". He noted that
the church was not opposed to the road itself, but its
concern revolved around safety issues, and the potential
damage to the "spiritual environment." Speaking more
broadly, Hoang likened the situation to the time period
immediately following the American Revolution, saying that
"in order to bring about equality in society" it was
necessary to implement limited "land reform."
8. (SBU) Pastor Ma Phuc Hiep, of the government recognized
Protestant Church in Hue, was largely positive in his
comments. He noted the Protestant Church is small in Hue,
with only 380 believers, and said that strong Buddhist
traditions in the region made it difficult to attract new
converts. He said that the CRA had been very fair,
especially given the c's small numbers, and that Protestants
have been able to pursue community outreach programs and
some charitable work, although they would like to expand
their charitable activities. The Church has facilitated
three recent visits by doctors and chemists from overseas in
order to hold medical clinics and perform operations. Their
ability to do these kinds of charitable works, despite such
a modest congregation, was due in part to donations from
Vietnamese Americans. Hiep noted that there were
unrecognized Pentecostal congregations in Hue, but said he
was not aware of any difficulties encountered by these house
churches. When asked why he felt that Protestants were
receiving such favorable treatment in comparison with some
other religious groups, Pastor Hiep offered that
"Protestants have not done anything to break the legal
strictures," and therefore find themselves free to practice.
Taking poloff and conoff on a private tour of his church,
Hiep said that there had been "many problems with the
Communists" in the past, but agreed that the situation had
improved. (Note: It appears that Hiep felt more comfortable
speaking to officers when the Embassy translator and other
church members were not present. End Note)
9. (SBU) While the Catholics and Protestants appeared
frustrated with the attitudes of local authorities, it
appeared that both were taking an approach of patient
cooperation in order to ensure their ability to operate. In
the end, it seems many church leaders have come to the
conclusion that while progress was slow -- at times glacial
-- it was nonetheless progress, and they have chosen to
focus on commonalities and cooperation in the belief that
this would best serve their believers in the province.
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