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Viewing cable 10HANOI7, Vietnam Religious Freedom Update - The Case Against CPC

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
10HANOI7 2010-01-20 09:09 2011-01-12 17:05 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Hanoi
DE RUEHHI #0007/01 0200954
O R 200954Z JAN 10 ZFF6
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 HANOI 000007


E.O. 12958: DECL: 2020/01/20
SUBJECT: Vietnam Religious Freedom Update - The Case Against CPC

REF: A) HANOI 5; HANOI 3; 09 HANOI 1398; 09 HANOI 1202; 09 HANOI 1182 09 HANOI 1084; 09 HANOI 873; 09 HANOI 859; 09 HANOI 839; 09 HANOI 713 09 HANOI 695; 09 HANOI 694

CLASSIFIED BY: Michael Michalak, Ambassador; REASON: 1.4(B), (D)

1. (C) SUMMARY: Vietnam’s poor handling of the situations at the Plum Village Community at the Bat Nha Pagoda and the Dong Chiem Catholic parish last week — particularly the excessive use of violence — is troublesome and indicative of a larger GVN crackdown on human rights in the run-up to the January 2011 Party Congress.
However, these situations are primarily “land disputes,” do not meet the statutory requirement in the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, and should not divert our attention from the significant gains in expanding religious freedoms that Vietnam has made since the lifting of CPC designation in November 2006. These gains include increased recognition and registration of scores of new religions, implementation of a new legal framework on religion, and training programs at the local and national level. Catholic and Protestant communities, including those in the North and Northwest Highlands, continue to report improvements, as do members of the Muslim, Baha’i, and Cao Dai faiths throughout Vietnam. The widespread, systematic religious persecution that existed prior to Vietnam’s designation in 2004 does not exist anymore. Post therefore recommends that the Department not re designate Vietnam and instead use high-level engagement opportunities to press the GVN to continue to expand religious freedom in Vietnam. END SUMMARY.

Conditions Prior to CPC Designation 

2. (C) Prior to the designation of Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2004, the Vietnamese government’s repression of certain religious groups and their followers was systematic and widespread, and official interference with religious activities was the norm. The U.S. Government had a list of 45 individuals imprisoned because of their religious belief —  including members of the Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Hoa Hao and Cao Dai faiths. Thousands of Central Highland villagers and other ethnic minorities were restricted from practicing their religion and many were forced to renounce their faith. Religious believers were often subjected to harassment and physical abuse. In 2001, the government forced the closure of nearly all unrecognized Protestant congregations and meeting points in the Central Highlands.

3. (C) The Vietnamese government, moreover, limited the intake of new seminarians and the ordination of new priests to numbers well below the necessary “replacement rate” for the Catholic Church. The government also did not support the Church’s participation in humanitarian activities such as the fight against HIV/AIDS. Church requests for the creation of new dioceses, the formation of a new seminary and the appointment of new bishops also languished in the absence of formal GVN approval.

Improvements Prior to Lifting of CPC Designation 
--------------------------------------------- ---

4. (C) After Vietnam’s designation as a CPC in 2004, DRL/IRF and the Embassy created a roadmap to assist Vietnam in lifting the designation. In 2004 and 2005 — just two years’ time — the Vietnamese government introduced sweeping changes to its religious freedom policy by implementing a new legal framework on religion that bans forced renunciation, grants citizens the right to freedom 

HANOI 00000007 002 OF 004 

of belief and religion, as well as the freedom not to follow a religion, and prohibits violations of these freedoms. The government conducted many training programs to assure uniform compliance of the new legal framework at the provincial, district, commune, and village levels. Central government officials began responding to complaints from religious leaders about their treatment at the grassroots level. Protestants across the north also reported improvement in officials’ attitudes towards their religions and practice.

5. (C) In the North and Northwest Highlands, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, and the government itself reported an increase in religious activity and observance. Nearly 1000 Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) “meeting points” and places of worship affiliated with other religious organizations in the Central Highlands were registered, including in Gia Lai province where registrations effectively legalized operations for 75,000 believers in the province. 76 SECV congregations were recognized in the Central Highlands and were engaged in regular religious activities. 29 Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) congregations were registered in the North and Northwest Highlands.

6. (C) The new legal framework allowed for the training of hundreds of new Protestant and Catholic clergy members, including 71 SECV pastors in the Central Highlands. 57 Catholic priests were ordained in a mass public ceremony in Hanoi. Other Catholic priests, including nine in the Dak Lak diocese, were ordained throughout the country. A new SECV Christian training center was approved and opened in Ho Chi Minh City and a new seminary was opened by the Catholic Church in 2006.

7. (C) Throughout the country, including the Central and Northwest Highlands, officially-recognized religious organizations reported that they were able to operate openly, and followers of these religions report that they were able to worship without harassment. Other non-recognized religions, such as the Baha’i faith, reported that their followers did not face harassment and that the authorities facilitated the legalization of their activities. Finally, all individuals raised by the United States as prisoners of concern for reasons connected to their faith were released as of September 2006.

Improvements since Lifting CPC Designation (November 2006)
--------------------------------------------- -------------

8. (C) While implementation of the legal framework has been uneven, the pace of progress continues to be swift. Since 2006, the GOV issued national-level recognition or registration to the following churches: Seventh Day Adventists, Grace Baptist Church, Bani Muslim Sect, Vietnam Baptist Convention (Southern Baptist), Baha’i Faith, Vietnam Mennonite Church, Assemblies of God, United World Mission Church, Pure Land Buddhist Home Practice Association, Vietnam Presbyterian Church, Vietnam Christian Fellowship, the Bani Muslim Sect, Threefold Enlightened Truth Path, the Threefold Southern Tradition, Mysterious Fragrance from Precious Mountains, and the Four Gratitudes.

9. (C) Ho Chi Minh City has registered at least 91 Protestant house churches, serving 7,225 parishioners from many different denominations established before and after 1975. These groups include Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, LDS Church, Assemblies of God and the United Gospel Outreach Church. Additionally, all meeting points that had been closed in the Central Highlands have since been reopened, totaling over 1,700 meeting points and 150 registered congregations. The SECV has also opened scores of new churches with the assistance of Central Highlands’ authorities in Gia Lai, Dak Lak, and Dak Nong provinces. The SECV has confirmed that training classes for pastors in Dak Lak and Gia Lai are ongoing and that hundreds of new pastors have been ordained and assigned to newly-registered meeting points. The SECV has reported that a previous shortage of pastors 

HANOI 00000007 003 OF 004 

in the Central Highlands no longer exists.

10. (C) Additional churches were registered in the Northwest Highlands bringing the total ECVN registered congregations in the region to 168. The ECVN was allowed to build its first new church in decades in Lang Son Province in November 2008. The Church houses an ethnic minority Red Dzao congregation, but will also conduct services for a recently established and newly registered ethnic H’mong congregations. During the past few years, members of Mission Vietnam and foreign visitors, both official and religious, have witnessed religious ceremonies involving thousands of Christians, Catholics and Buddhists, as well as Vietnam’s indigenous religions, such as the Cao Dai.

11. (C) Ongoing land disputes notwithstanding, the Catholic Church continues to report that its ability to gather and to worship has improved, and restrictions have eased on the assignment of clergy. During the 2007 visit of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, one Catholic priest told Commissioners that in the past, the Church had to wait for explicit approval from the GVN before moving forward with the appointment of clergy. Now, the Church submits names and the GVN has 30 days to voice its disapproval. The priest said the GVN objected in only one instance, and since the objection came after the 30 days had passed, the Church proceeded with their choice without repercussions. In 2008, the GVN approved the establishment of an additional Catholic seminary and the GVN no longer restricts the number of students entering seminary each year. In April 2008, government officials returned the La Vang church and pilgrimage center, the most important Catholic pilgrimage site in the country.

The GVN also has also relaxed its stance against Church efforts to involve itself in the fight against HIV/AIDS and other social work activities, a process we are encouraging. In December 2009, State President Nguyen Minh Triet met with Pope Benedict XVI in Vatican City for a meeting that the Vatican characterized as a “significant event in the progress of bilateral relations with Vietnam.” Since 2006, the Vatican and Vietnam have exchanged a number of delegations, including a January 2007 visit by PM Nguyen Tan Dung, and created a Joint Working Group on reestablishing relations that met for the first time in February 2009.

More Needs to be Done 

12. (C) Vietnam’s improving record on religious freedom has been tarred by the recent violence against Catholics in Dong Chiem and the forced eviction of nearly 400 monks and nuns affiliated with Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Order from first the Bat Nha Pagoda and later the Phuoc Hue Pagoda both in Lam Dong Province. These evictions, and the violence associated with them, were preceded by months of intimidation and physical attacks. Vietnam has been slow to acknowledge the damage caused by the Lang Mai/Bat Nha dispute, with the GVN repeating the now standard line that the incidents reflected a convoluted intra- Buddhist disagreement. As religious freedom progresses in Vietnam, religious groups are increasingly demanding more from the government than the right to worship freely -- including the desire to be more involved in charitable activities and seeking resolution to longstanding property disputes. Vietnam’s single- Party-dominated state still draws the line at any co-mingling of religion with politics. This explains not only Vietnam’s very rough treatment of leading political dissident and BLOC 8406 cofounder Father Nguyen Van Ly, as well as the GVN’s approach to the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the so-called “Dega Protestant Church” in the Central Highlands. Additional areas that need improvement include the slow pace of registrations of Protestant congregations in the Northwest Highlands and the lack of approval of a H’mong translation of the Bible. Isolated incidents of harassment of Christians; and while illegal, the occasional forced renunciation of faith, also continue in far-flung areas.

Comment HANOI 00000007 004 OF 004 

13. (C) The GVN is coming under pressure, justifiably, for its ham-fisted, at times brutish, handling of the situations in Bat Nha and Dong Chiem. As we saw with the large-scale Catholic protests a year ago in Hanoi and July 2009 in Quang Binh province (reftels), there are complicated historical and land use issues at play. Until the government develops a transparent, fair process for adjudicating land claims, disputes between the government and religious organizations will continue to fester and occasionally flair up. However, such incidents are largely land issues, not religious persecution. Furthermore, they do not approach the threshold established by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. Moreover, despite the continuing problems mentioned above, there are no indications that the GVN is backsliding on its commitment to register and recognize religious groups, a principle condition for the lifting of CPC in 2006. The GVN appears to be implementing its legal framework on religion that it codified in March 2005. END COMMENT.