Cablegate: Staffdel Jannuzi Focuses On Religious Freedom In

Published: Thu 9 Sep 2004 10:52 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 2430; b) HCMC 789
1. (SBU) Summary: During a visit to the Central Highland Province
of Pleiku September 2 to 4, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Staffer Jannuzi focused on religious freedom issues, particularly
among the region's ethnic minorities. The response of local GVN
officials to Jannuzi's call for greater religious freedoms largely
was a rehash of party rhetoric, although GVN officials did commit
to working with local religious leaders and to "try to recognize"
another five protestant churches by the end of 2004. While
acknowledging continued police harassment, a key protestant church
leader told Jannuzi that he believed conditions for the Southern
Evangelical Church of Vietnam -- the dominant Protestant
organization in the area -- were gradually improving. He noted
that "political" activities by the "Dega" house church movement
led to the unrest in the Central Highlands in April 2004 and
continued to complicate SECV efforts to build cooperative links
with local GVN authorities. Mr. Jannuzi's discussions on other
minority rights issues will be reported septel. (Note: at the
invitation of the GVN, Michael Sullivan, a U.S. journalist baed in
Hanoi for National Public Radio, accompanied the Staffdel
throughout the visit to Pleiku.) End Summary.
Local Government offers little new
2. (SBU) Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Frank Jannuzi
accompanied by HCMC PolOff visited Pleiku, administrative seat of
the Central Highland province of Gia Lai September 2-4. (Gia Lai
was one of the epicenters of ethnic minority unrest in 2004 and
2001.) In Pleiku, Jannuzi met with Chairman of the Gia Lai
People's Committee, the Deputy Director of the centrally
administered Central Highlands Development Authority and the
Provincial Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA). Jannuzi
emphasized that while the USG and U.S. Congress supported improved
bilateral ties, the pace and depth of our relationship would
suffer should the GVN not protect human rights. In particular,
restraints on the religious freedoms of the Highlands ethnic
minorities were of growing concern to many in the United States.
3. (SBU) The local GVN officials offered little that we hadn't
heard before. The GVN was committed to protect freedom of worship
and belief but would not tolerate the use of religion as a pretext
for anti-GVN political activity. They repeated allegations that
outside elements linked to now defunct "FULRO Movement" were using
"Dega Protestantism" to spread insurrection among Montagnards (the
catchall term for the Central Highland's ethnic minority groups).
(FULRO was a Montagnard guerilla movement that continued to resist
Hanoi's authority in the Central Highlands well after unification
in 1975. Many of its leaders served along U.S. forces in the
Highlands during the Vietnam War. FULRO formally ended its armed
struggle in 1992.)
4. (SBU) Somewhat more helpfully, Nguyen Thanh Cam, Deputy Chief
of the Committee for Religious Affairs of Gia Lai, told Jannuzi
that he had just approved applications for two new Protestant
churches to be built in the province. The approval process took
one month, he claimed. Thanh Cam told Jannuzi that he was going
to meet "that afternoon" with leaders of the Southern Evangelical
Church of Vietnam -- the province's leading protestant
denomination -- to review mechanisms to ensure the smooth
operation of their churches. He also was hopeful that the
committee would recognize up to five protestant congregations in
the province by year-end. (Comment: overall, the local CRA
official's comments were far less committal than his counterpart
in Hanoi who told Jannuzi September 1 that seven new congregations
would be recognized in Gia Lai province by the end of 2004 (ref
SECV: under pressure but positive
5. (SBU) In a two-hour private meeting with Staffdel, Pastor Siu Y
Kim (strictly protect), head of the Southern Evangelical Church of
Vietnam (SECV) in Gia Lai province, painted a picture of ongoing
religious harassment from local authorities in the Highlands
tempered by some positive steps toward cooperation and coexistence
with the GVN. According to Pastor Kim, of the roughly 100,000
Protestants in Gia Lai province, 75,000 are affiliated with SECV
churches. 15,000 belong to the 11 GVN-recognized churches in the
province. The other 60,000 worship in 89 different congregations
with 474 "gathering points." Of these 75,000 worshipers, only
1,000 are ethnic Vietnamese "Kinh."
6. (SBU) According to Kim, the unrecognized SECV churches face
significant pressure from local authorities: they are under
constant police surveillance. The police, on occasion, disrupt
prayer sessions and confiscate bibles. While SECV members have
been called into police stations for "informative interviews,"
none have been arrested thus far.
7. (SBU) The need for additional pastors is acute, Kim said. The
15 GVN-sanctioned pastors are barely sufficient to minister to the
needs of the 15,000 parishioners in the 11 recognized churches.
He complained that the GVN continues to limit intake of
seminarians -- SECV/Gia Lai requested that 44 individuals be
granted permission to attend the SECV's seminary in Ho Chi Minh
City, but only 20 were okayed. As a result, the SECV in Gia Lai
is training 200 ministers locally without GVN approval. He held
out the hope that, over time, he and local authorities would find
a way to regularize their status.
8. (SBU) The pastor said that he had not yet been informed
directly of the provincial decision to approve two new churches,
but welcomed it as a significant gesture nonetheless. He noted
that Staffdel visit cut "at least a couple of months off the
approval process." That process has thus far lasted over a year,
not the month that the local GVN official claimed. Even with the
CRA approval in hand, the SECV must now work to obtain building
permits, a process, which as the pastor outlined it, is full of
Kafkaesque bureaucratic obstacles.
9. (SBU) Despite the harassment and the difficulties in dealing
with an opaque GVN, the pastor said that progress has been made
since the GVN recognized the SECV in 2001. There are budding
lines of communication and cooperation between the SECV and local
GVN officials. For example, the pastor said that every year he
writes a letter to the People's Committee notifying them that the
100 unrecognized house church congregations of the SECV are local
affiliates of one of the SECV's 11 recognized churches. This
mechanism, which local authorities appear to have accepted at
least "de facto" even if not "de jure," has brought some relief to
SECV worshipers in parts of the province.
10. (SBU) Looking to the future, he said that the thorniest
challenge facing the SECV will be working with the GVN to recover
church properties expropriated after unification in 1975. In that
regard, he handed Staffdel a list of 31 churches and 7 other
facilities that he maintained the GVN seized after the war. He
indicated that he has begun informal discussions with local
authorities on the issue but has seen no progress thus far. Lack
of physical space is one of the biggest rate limiting steps to the
expansion of the church in the Central Highlands.
Tarred with the Same Brush
11. (SBU) Pastor Kim noted that police presence and scrutiny of
the SECV was heaviest in localities where violence had flared in
April of 2004 and in areas where ethnic minorities had fled to
Cambodia. He attributed this intense GVN scrutiny at least in
part to the presence of "Dega" protestant churches in the same
area. According to the pastor, roughly 18,000 of the 25,000 non-
SECV affiliated Protestants in Gia Lai province belong to the
"Dega" church movement. (The remaining 7,000 are Mennonites or
other smaller denominations not yet recognized by the GVN, who,
according to the pastor also face considerable harassment.)
12. (SBU) According to the pastor, there are no theological
differences between the SECV and the "Dega" church. Where they
differ is on approach. The SECV focuses on supporting the
spiritual needs of the people, while the Dega church deals with
"politics, not religion" in its meetings and sermons. The Dega
church answers to a small group of leaders "based in North
Carolina," the pastor added.
13. (SBU) The pastor acknowledged that local police find it
difficult to differentiate between SECV and Dega house churches.
This is particularly the case when persons known to police to be
active in the Dega movement attend services in an SECV-affiliated
facility, thus casting a cloud of suspicion over the SECV
congregation. Despite the additional harassment that the presence
of Dega supporters brings, the SECV would not turn away those
seeking God's word, he pastor said.
14. (SBU) With regard to the April 2004 ethnic minority protests
in the Central Highlands, the Pastor said that he was aware "3 or
4 days" before the fact that Dega leaders were organizing
protests. He said SECV members did not participate, but were
caught between the police and protestors as they gathered in
villages to walk to church to attend Easter services. He stated
that he has credible information that 10 persons were killed in
the unrest -- he witnessed two deaths himself. He did not see
protestors equipped with homemade weapons (as the GVN alleged),
but protestors did use whatever was at hand when violence flared
with police. (He did not state which side initiated the
violence.) Other than perhaps two incidents, he was not aware of
the police using armed force to suppress the protests.
Links with other activists
15. (SBU) Pastor Kim said he maintained contact with Dega and
other groups who used the Church as a bully pulpit to speak out
against the GVN and to press for other -- "political" -- causes.
In one instance, he said that Mennonite pastor/human rights
activist Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang sought to build a common front
with the SECV in Gia Lai, but that he rejected the overture,
preferring to concentrate on seeking "God's help." (See HCMC 789
for additional information on Pastor Quang and his arrest in Ho
Chi Minh City in June 2004.)
The View from the Catholic Church
16. (SBU) Staffdel met separately with Father Phero Nguyen Van
Dong, Chief Parish Priest of Pleiku (the Bishop's seat is in the
nearby town of Kontum), who, despite being flanked by local GVN
officials, made it clear that the Catholic Church was not fully
satisfied with the treatment it received from the GVN. Father Van
Dong saw some promise in the new religious affairs ordinance,
particularly in giving more room to the church to be involved in
charitable works.
17. (SBU) The Catholic Church badly needed more priests to
minister to churchgoers, particularly to ethnic minorities, who
comprise two thirds of the 180,000 Catholics in the province,
Father Van Dong said. He regretted that at least thus far the GVN
has prohibited the Church from supporting education in the
province -- the Church, among other initiatives, wished to open a
vocational school for ethnic minority youth.
18. (SBU) In a show of inter-denominational support, the Father
said that the Protestant church in Gia Lai was in greater need of
assistance, particularly to secure the return of confiscated
property. In his view, the shortage of GVN-approved houses of
worship forced the faithful to gather in house churches, breeding
suspicion in the police, who instinctively feared unauthorized
gatherings of any kind. He opined that the minority unrest in
2004 and 2001 generally was not religious in nature but driven by
economics; particularly minority demands for land and benefits
from the GVN.
19. (SBU) Pastor Kim is a trusted and reliable Mission contact --
he is well plugged into developments in ethnic minority
communities throughout Gia Lai province and the Central Highlands.
His private statement to Staffdel Jannuzi that Dega Church leaders
were focusing on political issues anathema to the GVN should not
be discounted.
20. (SBU) We are not surprised that our GVN interlocutors offered
nothing beyond some tinkering at the margins to improve the
environment for religious activity in the Highlands. Communist
Party orthodoxy runs strong there even as Hanoi's fiat weakens.
What was encouraging was the relative optimism of Pastor Kim and
Staffdel's other religious interlocutors who outlined ways that
they were finding ways to coexist with the GVN and slowly expand
the space in which their congregations could operate. As is the
case elsewhere in Vietnam, this coexistence comes at a price. As
the church depends on GVN cooperation to grow and operate, the
Communist Party can exert control over a powerful voice for
social, political and economic justice and change. Pastor Kim and
others appear to be betting that their gradualist, less
confrontational approach will, over the long term, allow them to
minister to both the spiritual and material needs of Vietnam's
21. (SBU) Note: On September 8, CG and Poloff shared with Le Quoc
Hung, Director of the HCMC External Relations Office on our
impressions of the Jannuzi visit. We noted that the local
authorities were (relatively) open and supportive, particularly in
allowing Jannuzi to meet privately with some key church leaders.
We emphasized the importance of continuing this positive trend in
our future dealings on the Highlands, and underscored that we
shared Jannuzi's view that the GVN should permit NGO operations in
the region. Hung welcomed the dialogue and cautiously "commended"
the idea of increased involvement of NGOs in the Highlands and the
development of "confidence building measures" to ease mistrust
over Highlands-linked issues.
22. (U) Mr. Jannuzi did not have an opportunity to review this
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