Cablegate: Contrasting Perspectives On Religious Freedom in Central

Published: Fri 14 Sep 2007 06:10 AM
DE RUEHHM #0951/01 2570610
P 140610Z SEP 07
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: REF A: HCMC 880 REF B: HANOI 1128 C: HCMC 811 D: HCMC 844
HO CHI MIN 00000951 001.2 OF 003
1. (SBU) Summary: Despite considerable progress in religious
freedom in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai and
genuinely supportive provincial-level authorities,
implementation of Vietnam's legal framework on religion remains
quite uneven at the community and village level. While the
provincial chief of the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA)
appears quite engaged and dedicated to his task, even he
acknowledges that progress on religious issues is hampered by
uneven local implementation and a lack of understanding at the
local level. A stop in a rural district provided insights into
the lack of respect pastors sometimes face when one pastor was,
in effect, held waiting for over five hours in what appears to
have been an act of intimidation by local authorities prior to
the pastor's meeting with ConGenoffs. Another pastor, one of
the province's most outspoken and respected religious figures,
spoke of the productive relations he has forged with both the
provincial Committee for Religious Affairs and the Province's
top political leaders while complaining that the real problem is
with the uneven and even arbitrary enforcement of Vietnamese
laws on religion at the local level. Religion is only one
factor contributing to tensions Gia Lai, an ethnically diverse
region with economic and cultural divisions. END SUMMARY.
2. (SBU) During their August 13-15 trip to the Central Highlands
province of Gia Lai, Poloff and HRS Chief met with the Chief of
the Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), Mr. Tran Thanh Hung,
in Pleiku. Mr. Hung was open, helpful and informative. Hung
said relations between the four major religious organizations in
Gia Lai--Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants and Cao Dai--were
close and collaborative. Hung said leaders and followers often
attended each others' holiday and social gatherings. In Gia
Lai, Hung said the CRA facilitates the construction of parishes,
helps with the publication of bilingual bibles, and provides
training on recognition and registration procedures. Mr. Hung
said relations between religious groups and the local
authorities were improving, but agreed isolated problems remain
-- problems which he attributed to a lack of training and
knowledge of the law on religion on both sides.
3. (SBU) Hung said of the 17 registered and official Protestant
denominations in Vietnam, nine are present in Gia Lai. Hung
believes the overall number of Protestants in the area is
growing steadily, but affiliations tend to change depending on
what a congregation has to offer. Hung said competition among
Protestant house churches for followers is strong and many offer
charitable assistance as a way to attract new members. When the
assistance runs out, followers move on to the next church.
(Note: Hung's description exactly matches that of Pastor Tho, as
reported in ref C.) Hung said this practice makes registration
difficult since the law requires that each congregation reach a
certain membership threshold before they can apply. Despite
complications, Hung said a new church registration typically
takes less than 50 days--just slightly more than the 30-day
response time mandated by law. Hung said he often met with
congregations to listen to their concerns and confessed his own
limits in comprehending how to practically implement the legal
framework at times. Hung was optimistic, however, and intent on
working with all religious groups to improve mutual
understanding of the law. Upon leaving, Hung provided Poloff
with copies of the legal framework on religion translated into
ethnic minority languages for use in training sessions.
Chu Se Chairman's Not-So-Helpful Hand
4. (SBU) In sharp contrast to the CRA chief's well-informed and
open attitude, a visit to the Chairman of the Chu Se District
People's Committee, Nguyen Dzung, proved quite frustrating. The
hour-long meeting began well enough, with Dzung reciting a long
litany of GVN goals for economic development through the
promotion of agriculture and education as well as GVN efforts
to help the ethnic minorities that comprise 52 percent of the
district's population. Dzung said the Chu Se District People's
Committee provides small loans for ethnic minority families to
start businesses and also provides transportation for those
attending refugee visa interviews at the U.S. Consulate General
in HCMC. Turning to the issue of refugees, Dzung said he
believed some who flee to Cambodia are encouraged by
opportunists who want to buy ethnic minority-owned land at a low
price. Dzung said the victims are told if they go to Cambodia,
they will be resettled to a third country where they can live
without working.
5. (SBU) When asked about Montagnard Foundation reports of Degar
followers being arrested and put on trial for their Christian
beliefs, Dzung launched into a fiery tirade denouncing those
HO CHI MIN 00000951 002.2 OF 003
arrested as Forces United for the Liberation of Races Oppressed
(FULRO) separatists and instruments of hostile foreign forces
actively trying to foment rebellion in the region. Dzung
affirmed there had been several recent trials of Degar people
for "political activities," but declined to provide specifics.
(Note: Another ConGen contact has since corroborated that
several arrests and trials took place in Gia Lai in recent
months, noting that the charges brought against the Degar
detainees were for political versus religious activities.
Poloff will continue to try to confirm trial and sentencing
details. End note.)
6. (SBU) As Poloff began to bring the meeting to a close in
order to depart for the home of ethnic minority member and
Baptist Pastor Dinh Van Triet, Dzung informed us that Pastor
Triet was already at the People's Committee Headquarters.
According to Dzung, Triet had been "invited" to the PC many
hours earlier to discuss his church's registration application.
Dzung added that local authorities had received Triet's
application only in August of this year, not in December 2006 as
Triet had reported to ConGen. Dzung also made a point of noting
that Triet's branch of the Baptist denomination was not yet
recognized by the GVN. (Note: CRA has told Hanoi that it is
giving priority in registrations to those Protestant churches
falling under the umbrella of the Southern Evangelical Church of
Vietnam (SECV) or Evangelical Church of Vietnam North (ECVN).
Protestant denominations not affiliated with the
government-recognized SECV and ECVN face greater difficulties
with legalization and are more likely to be subject to
local-level harassment. End note.)
7. (SBU) When ConGenoffs met Pastor Triet, he had been waiting
in a small meeting room for five hours and was surrounded by
several officials who claimed to work for the district External
Relations Office. Several more officials, including a
cameraman, filed in after we entered the room. The head of the
District Committee for Religious Affairs then began haranguing
Pastor Triet for having told ConGen that his church registration
had been filed in December 2006 versus August 2007.
8. (SBU) Poloff asked all but the three ERO officials who had
traveled with ConGen team to Chu Se to leave, including the
cameraman, citing our original request for a private meeting
without press. By the time the officials left, Triet was
clearly uncomfortable and the ensuing conversation was
superficial and stilted. Triet told Poloff he converted from
the Protestant United Mission Church to follow his brother, who
is also a Baptist preacher. Triet said his congregation is made
up of 27 followers who hold meetings freely at his home, but are
not yet registered. He said he hoped the GVN would help them
with "the people who don't understand their religion" and said
the 2004 passage of the legal framework on religion showed the
GVN is trying to "improve their religious lives." After twenty
minutes, ConGenoffs thanked Pastor Triet for his patience and
encouraged him to keep ConGen posted on efforts to register his
--------------------------------------------- ----
9. (SBU) On August 15, ConGenoffs met with Pastor Siu Y Kim of
the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV), officially
recognized by the GVN in 2001. A native of Pleiku city and
member of the Jarai minority group, Pastor Kim was able to
discuss not only the general state of religious freedom in Gia
Lai but also the many socio-economic factors that impact
GVN-ethnic minority relations in the province. While Pastor Kim
said cooperation between local authorities and SECV
congregations has improved since 2001, church activities are
still closely monitored by authorities, albeit in a more cordial
way. Kim believes formulation of GVN religious policy at the
national level to be appropriate, but implementation at the
local level remains lacking. While Pastor Kim provided us with
many examples of his run-ins with local officials, nearly all of
them ended with Kim prevailing. Kim noted that particularly in
the past few years, both the Chairman of the provincial CRA and
the Chairman of the People's Committee for the Gia Lai province
have played very helpful roles in pressuring local officials to
respect Pastor Kim's rights and those of his followers. One
particularly notable incident involved a rural plainclothes
police officer who disrupted a church service by walking in and
snapping photos of the participants. After considerable effort
and complaining to regional officials, Pastor Kim obtained an
apology and the offending police officer was transferred to
another locality.
10. (SBU) Pastor Kim's experience with official registration of
his congregations ran the gamut. The fastest permit he received
was issued in 2 months while one application filed two years ago
HO CHI MIN 00000951 003.2 OF 003
was yet to be processed. The SECV in Gai Lai has 87 new meeting
houses at various stages of ground breaking, construction and
completion. Of those 87 meeting houses, only six have received
permits. Pastor Kim acknowledged that building new churches was
in many ways no different than building any other building in
rural areas where most construction is done without permits.
The problem at first, however, was that while local authorities
turn a blind eye to most unauthorized construction some
officials were attempting to block church construction. After
considerable effort and the direct involvement to top provincial
officials, Pastor Kim is almost always able to convince
authorities to allow construction to proceed without formal
building approvals in place.
11. (SBU) Pastor Kim believes local officials' prejudice towards
ethnic minorities is also a contributing factor in continuing
delicate Protestant-GVN relations in Gia Lai. Kim said ethnic
minorities need to be more active and vocal about economic
development needs in their communities, while the GVN needs to
provide more culturally appropriate and effective assistance.
Pastor Kim cited rubber plantations as a hot issue in Gia Lai at
the moment. Kim said ethnic minority farmers are often hired by
rubber companies to clear the land and plant the rubber trees
but are then dismissed because they lack the skills needed to
cultivate the trees and harvest the rubber. Instead, the
companies recruit "northerners" to work on the plantations,
increasing ethnic tensions in the region. (Note: This was also
reported by a hamlet chief in Ref A. End note.)
12. (SBU) One particularly sad and divisive incident involved a
youth engaged in the common practice of gleaning waste rubber
left on the ground after regular harvesting. A few weeks prior
to our visit, a plantation caretaker killed a 13 year-old ethnic
minority child with a machete after he suspected the child of
"stealing rubber." The caretaker was arrested and the company
offered the family compensation. The family was incensed,
refused to take the money, and demanded restitution in land
instead. The company has thus far refused.
12. (SBU) Meetings with district and provincial GVN officials,
ethnic minorities and religious leaders in Gia Lai reflected the
comments made by house church pastors in Ho Chi Minh City (ref
D) -- while overall conditions for religious freedom are
improving in Vietnam, difficulties remain, especially in remote
areas where local officials have little knowledge of the
bureaucratic framework on religion. Tensions between ethnic
Vietnamese and ethnic minority communities, especially in terms
of economic development priorities, are a significant
contributing factor. End comment.
13. (U) This cable was coordinated with Embassy Hanoi.
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