Cablegate: Poloff Visits Bac Giang, Meets with Local Baptists And

Published: Thu 6 Jul 2006 10:38 AM
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Summary and Comment
1. (SBU) On June 19, Poloff met with provincial officials in Bac
Giang Province and sat in on a heated exchange between Baptist
believers and local commune officials. Provincial officials
acknowledge that the province does not plan to register the group
anytime soon under the GVN's framework on religion. That said, the
access to the Baptist's house church that we were given -- despite
initial attempts to deny the existence of the group and to warn the
group from meeting with us after we made clear our intention to meet
-- was a positive development. The frank discussion between local
officials and the Baptists that our visit generated was even more
surprising. The Ambassador will visit the province and the Baptists
on July 6. End Summary and Comment.
2. (SBU) On June 19, Poloff and Pol Assistants traveled to Bac Giang
Province and met with the Provincial People's Committee's (PPC)
Chief of Staff Nguyen Sy Nhan and Director of the Department of
Ethnic and Religious Affairs (DERA) Vu Dinh Canh. Poloff sought
clarification about the harassment of a Baptist congregation in Song
Mai Commune after it attempted to register in early May. Local
authorities allegedly interrogated Pastor Than Van Truong, the head
of the church, and told members of the congregation that
"Protestantism is an illegal American religion" and that "God will
never exist in the north." (Note: Truong was committed to a mental
institution in July 2004 after sending letters to provincial
officials calling on them to abandon Communist teachings and follow
Christian scripture instead. He was released on September 17, 2005
after reportedly signing a document acknowledging a mental illness.
Since his release, Truong has strenuously advocated religious
freedom over GVN objections. End Note.)
Officials are evasive about existence of Protestants...
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3. (SBU) Although Nhan noted that "every story has two sides," he
also acknowledged that "rumors sometimes are based in facts."
Describing the province's religious demographics, Canh said there
are 300 Catholic deacons in Bac Giang and four priests serving
25,000 Catholics among the province's residents. There are 150,000
Buddhist adherents who worship in 618 pagodas with the assistance of
71 monks. Canh repeated the standard GVN talking points that
Vietnam guarantees religious freedom for all, but that "the State
also needs to maintain national solidarity among all citizens and
guarantee the spiritual well-being of the people." The Bac Giang
PPC aspires to create favorable conditions for religious activities
and works closely with the Catholic and Buddhist clergy to establish
this environment. Canh categorically rejected the existence of
Protestants in the province and refused to discuss problems with the
registration of Pastor Truong's Baptist group.
...but then discuss registration and deny harassment
--------------------------------------------- -------
4. (SBU) After his initial denial that Protestants live in Bac
Giang, Canh said provincial officials will abide by the PM's
Instruction on Protestantism, but "prospective Protestants must
fulfill certain criteria before they can properly register." Groups
must demonstrate a spiritual need for religion, after which they may
meet in small groups. Following this stage, a congregation must
develop correct rituals according to a doctrine that does not
interfere with traditional customs. The group must then have a
nationally-recognized umbrella organization "recommend their
application" to the province. In addition, the applicant
congregation must have a leader who resides in the province, he
5. (SBU) Canh acknowledged that a Baptist group did attempt to apply
for registration in May in Song Mai. The district's Ethnic and
Religious Affairs Committee rejected their application because
Baptist Protestantism is not a recognized faith in Vietnam, and
because Pastor Truong is not a legal resident of Bac Giang. (Note:
Although Truong was born in Bac Giang, he is legally resident in
Dong Nai Province. End Note.) Furthermore, local police
interrogated Pastor Truong because he has an outstanding debt with
the Vietnam Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Agribank),
not because they were trying to persecute him for his religious
beliefs. (Note: According to local officials, Pastor Truong moved
to Dong Nai Province in 1984, leaving an unsettled loan of VND 18
million with the Agribank. When Truong returned to Bac Giang in May
2006, he committed to repay his debt, now amounting to VND
75,810,000 with compounded interest, by June 15, 2006. Troung
allegedily did not pay as promised. End Note.)
6. (SBU) Canh assured Poloff that provincial authorities do not
differentiate in their treatment of different religious
denominations, but only focus on facilitating "activities at home"
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for groups that do not meet provincial criteria for registration.
"We do not prevent anyone from practicing their faith at home," Vu
concluded. Nhan added that an allegation that police forced the
removal of a cross from the exterior of the Song Mai house church
was taken out of context. The police intervened because several
members of the family owning the house disagree over the practice of
Protestantism and local officials simply settled a family conflict,
he asserted.
Song Mai officials criticize Pastor Truong
7. (SBU) Embassy team later traveled to Song Mai Commune and met
with the Chairman of the People's Committee (PC), Mr. Do Van Bao,
and the President of Vietnam Fatherland Front's (VFF) Veterans
Association (VA), Mr. Nguyen Van Chien. On the subject of the
difficulties faced by the Song Mai Baptists in registering, Bao
acknowledged that the group had applied for registration, but
reiterated the PPC officials' arguments for why the application had
been denied. Bao further noted that, aside from his financial
problems, "Truong also tries to preach Protestantism to his extended
relatives." While the commune respects the freedom of religion for
every Vietnamese citizen, the PC cannot allow "anyone to exploit a
religion to disrupt the solidarity of the commune, force the people
to believe and to work against the GVN." Villagers are displeased
with Truong's conversion of the owners of the Baptist's place of
8. (SBU) Poloff immediately challenged Bao's arguments and insisted
that stability is preserved only when local officials provide legal
means for people to organize their religion openly. It is the
responsibility of the PC to explain that people are free to believe
under Vietnam's legal system. Bao answered that the commune does
not prevent any individual from worshipping at home, but Pastor
Truong has not completed the necessary paperwork for registration
and does not cooperate with commune's officials.
Song Mai Baptist Church
9. (SBU) Embassy team visited the house in which the Song Mai
Baptists meet. It is owned by an elderly couple, and during the
meeting with them, Poloff asked the local officials for Pastor
Truong to also be allowed to participate in the discussion. The PC
officials appeared displeased but did not prevent him from joining
the meeting. Pastor Truong informed Poloff that a local MPS officer
had just told him not to meet with the Embassy team. An
uncomfortable local official tried to explained that the Embassy
team had only requested a meeting with the house church residents,
but "if the hosts are not opposed to Truong's presence, the PC has
no objections." The house church owner said that he and his wife
welcome Baptist followers to worship in their house and that the
Baptist group followed legal procedures per the PM's Instruction on
Protestantism, when it applied to register the group in May.
However, local officials rejected both the congregation's
application and suggested that the congregation file its request at
the central level. Pastor Truong also met with CRA officials in
Hanoi but without much result.
10. (SBU) Local MPS officers subsequently informed the couple that
"under secret instructions the commune's PC will never register
Protestants." The homeowner concluded that while he believes that
Protestantism is a virtuous religion, his discouragement and fear
forced him "to give up and not to pursue the matter further."
However, the two homeowners still believe in Protestantism.
"Americans are by our side and I hope the congregation will be able
to register," he added. One of the local officials present loudly
asserted that the commune's responsibility is "to guide the people
to conduct activities in accordance to the law." National unity is
crucial and national solidarity comes before international
obligations, he said.
11. (SBU) Continuing, the local official said that the commune's
position is that "preaching Protestantism is legal, but needs
authorization from local authorities." At this point, one of the
house church owners confronted the official: "How can you make such
a statement after you visited us yesterday and claimed that
Protestantism is an American religion and will never be allowed in
Song Mai. You said yesterday that Song Mai's VFF will crush
Protestantism in the commune while it is still only an egg." She
then turned to Poloff and asked him whether local authorities'
allegations that the USG is rewarding Protestants with VND 1,000,000
for each Protestant conversion were true. After Poloff rejected the
allegation, the homeowner then shouted at the PC officials: "You
see! It's official! The Americans are not paying us!"
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12. (SBU) Despite the sophomoric attempts by local officials to
limit our access to the Song Mai Congregation, this visit was an
important step forward in forcing the provincial and commune
officials to deal with their Protestants in an open and legal
manner. It is particularly striking that the Baptists felt
comfortable challenging the local officials directly in front of the
Embassy team. We have heard from the house church owner that since
our visit, the Baptists have been left alone by local police and
other officials. Despite this positive development, Bac Giang will
likely not register the group any time soon. We expect that the
Province will allow the Baptists to worship at home in the interim
if only because of our direct attention.
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