Cablegate: Gvn and Hcmc Religious Leaders Consult On New Legal

Published: Fri 5 Nov 2004 12:45 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
1. (SBU) Summary and Comment: GVN officials in Ho Chi Minh City
are in the process of consulting with the religious community in
southern Vietnam on new draft implementation guidelines for
Vietnam's new religious ordinance. These officials are also
making overtures to Vietnam's evangelical Protestant house church
movement; at least some house church leaders are reciprocating.
One key leader told us that house churches would be willing to
operate under the new legal framework if the GVN modifies it to
meet their concerns. We understand that HCMC authorities and
house church leaders began discussions on the implementation
guidelines November 3, but time is short before the framework
comes into effect on November 15. Ultimately, what we and our
contacts have seen so far is in draft, and there is no telling
what the official and final version of the implementation
regulations will look like on November 15. Significantly,
however, our official and "unofficial" religious contacts appear
encouraged that the GVN is engaging in a consultative process with
them. End Summary.
A new framework for religious practice in Vietnam?
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2. (SBU) On October 8, Nguyen Thanh Xuan, Vice-Chairman of the
central-level Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), along with
representatives from the central-level Fatherland Front and the
Ministry of Public Security, unveiled for 100 southern religious
leaders draft implementation guidelines for the Ordinance on
Religion. The Ordinance and guidelines -- to be issued as a GVN
decree -- will take effect on November 15. According to ConGen
contacts at the meeting, the GVN representatives said that the new
legal framework would extend significant new freedoms to organized
religion. They maintained that it also would make treatment of
religious organizations uniform across Vietnam.
3. (SBU) ConGen HCMC has obtained a copy of the draft decree for
translation and analysis and has held a series of meetings to
gauge the reactions of recognized and non-recognized religious
groups to the draft implementation guidelines.
4. (SBU) Our religious contacts noted positively that "coercing
citizens to give up their religions" is explicitly prohibited.
They also welcomed the draft decree's concrete procedures for non-
recognized religious organizations (the Protestant house church
movement, Baptists, Mennonites and others) to regularize their
operations and register with the Government. According to the
draft guidelines, once approved, registered organizations would be
allowed to:
-- organize and hold religious rites, ceremonies, and teach at the
registered locations;
-- elect leaders;
-- conduct religious training for believers;
-- repair and upgrade religious facilities; and
-- conduct charitable or humanitarian activities.
5. (SBU) Pastor Le Van Thien (strictly protect), a senior official
of the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV), told us that
the draft implementation guidelines contained several important
improvements related to the ordination and transfer of religious
staff. The SECV was hopeful that the new legislation, once
official, would facilitate the quick reopening of SECV churches in
the Central Highlands. (The draft decree allows in-province
"refresher courses" to facilitate the ordination of new religious
staff for already-recognized religious organizations such as the
Catholic Church and the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam
(SECV). It also eases restrictions on the transfer of pastors and
priests between provinces.)
6. (SBU) The SECV said that during the October 8 meeting with GVN
officials, Catholic, SECV and Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS) -- the
GVN-recognized Buddhist organization -- representatives pressed
for specific language defining how and when religious institutions
would be returned property confiscated after 1975. At this
meeting, Catholic and SECV representatives also criticized the
GVN's approach on religion, saying that, in general, there was no
need for the government to be involved in the internal affairs of
religious organizations.
7. (SBU) Our SECV contact noted that the draft decree does not
specify punishments for officials that violate it, other than
noting that those who violate regulations on forced conversions
"shall be dealt with in accordance with the law." Nor does the
draft decree delineate what specific reasons the GVN can use to
deny a religious group registration or recognition. A number of
our religious contacts also objected to the strong GVN imprint on
religious school curriculum and new controls on the travel of
religious officials overseas. The SECV cited the absence of
provisions facilitating publishing of the Bible and other
religious works.
8. (SBU) Thich Tri Quang (strictly protect), head of the HCMC
branch of the VBS, told the Consul General October 27 that he did
not anticipate that the new legislation would have any impact on
VBS activities whatsoever. He added that the outlawed Unified
Buddhist Church of Vietnam would not be allowed to apply for
registration as a new religious organization after November 15, as
the VBS charter clearly stated that it was the "sole"
representative of all Buddhists in Vietnam.
9. (SBU) In discussions on October 22 and 27, Pastor Pham Dinh
Nhan (strictly protect), a leader of the Vietnam Evangelical
Foundation (VEF), an umbrella organization for Vietnam's
Protestant house church movement, told us that there were a number
of positive elements in the draft implementation guidelines. He
said that, after a review of the draft decree and meetings with
senior GVN officials in Hanoi and HCMC in late September and early
October, he and his colleagues were prepared to begin a dialogue
with the Committee for Religious Affairs.
10. (SBU) Nhan said that, if the VEF's concerns were met, it would
be willing to register its operations and operate within the new
legal framework. Nhan acknowledged that this marks a major shift
in the VEF's approach: during a trip of VEF leaders to Hanoi in
late September, the VEF had declined to meet with the CRA despite
repeated requests from CRA and other GVN officials.
11. (SBU) Nhan said his biggest concern was that, at this point,
the draft decree allows registered organizations to operate only
from defined places of worship. However, the very nature of
Vietnam's house church movement means that it owns or controls few
structures large enough to convert into permanent churches. The
VEF also is concerned that permitted activities for registered
religious organizations are overly restrictive. In particular,
the VEF maintains that registered organizations must be allowed to
ordain pastors and build new churches.
View from the HCMC CRA
12. (SBU) On October 28, HCMC CRA Chairman Nguyen Ngoc San
stressed to us that the draft implementation guidelines as they
stand are a significant softening of controls on religion. He
welcomed dialogue with house church leaders, but noted that his
previous calls to Pastor Nhan and other VEF leaders had gone
unanswered; however, at our urging, he said he would try again.
He warned that there was little time left for the VEF and other
non-recognized house church groups to meet with the CRA before the
final decree was published. San also noted that the GVN was
"insulted" that VEF leaders had circulated a letter to the
international community in September criticizing the new Ordinance
on Religion but had not responded to CRA "efforts" to meet with
them prior to issuing the communique. He added that "if the house
church movement was more patient and more respectful, they would
get more sympathy and understanding" from the GVN.
13. (SBU) San admitted that there were still a number of important
gaps and imprecisions in the draft legislation. In particular,
how the GVN would deal with the house church movement after
November 15 was a "major headache." The CRA also needs to
determine the numerical threshold at which an organization would
have a sufficient number of believers to register. For example,
Mormons only had "tens" of believers in HCMC, insufficient
critical mass, in San's view, to merit registration. He did not
specify if the Mormons or other groups would be allowed to
continue to practice their faith until they reached critical mass.
14. (SBU) All of our contacts recognized that the regulations are
still in draft and that there is no telling what the final version
of the implementing regulations will look like. Post also will
defer commenting on the regulations until we have seen the final
product. That said, the GVN's process of consultation with
recognized religious organizations on the draft implementation
guidelines and its overtures to the house church movement are
encouraging. Equally, the change in tone from members of the
Protestant community -- many of whom criticized the Ordinance,
insisting that the GVN has no role in religious affairs --
suggests they see the Ordinance on Religion and the draft
implementation guidelines as a good faith effort to meet some of
their concerns.
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