Viewing cable 03HANOI592
Title: Religion in Lao Cai and Yen Bai - Different Stories

03HANOI5922003-03-12 03:07:00 2011-08-30 01:44:00 UNCLASSIFIED Embassy Hanoi
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 
SUBJECT:  Religion in Lao Cai and Yen Bai - Different Stories 
Ref:  A.  02 Hanoi 2628    B.  Hanoi 0551 
-     C.  Hanoi 566        D.  Hanoi 073 
¶1.  (U)  Summary:  Local officials in two mountainous, 
predominantly minority northwestern provinces appear to be 
taking differing approaches towards religion.  Lao Cai 
officials talked a cautious and rigid line while trying to 
explain how they have supported religious practice within 
legal guidelines.  They refused to acknowledge even the 
existence of Protestantism in Lao Cai.  Yen Bai authorities 
highlighted the increase in the province's (still small) 
number of Catholics and Buddhists, and expressed a live-and- 
let-live attitude towards ethnic minority Protestants. 
Septel will cover ethnic minority affairs in the two 
provinces.  End Summary. 
¶2.  (U)  Poloff and Pol FSN met with the Acting Director Xan 
Quang of the Lao Cai Department Religious Affairs on 
February 19, with a TV cameraman present.  Quang, making 
frequent references to "great national unity," read a 
doctrinaire explanation of the CPV's policy on religion and 
its implementation through the GVN's Decree 26 of 1999. 
Stressing the "favorable conditions" for religion provided 
by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and the GVN, he 
outlined the development of religious practice in Lao Cai 
for Catholic and Buddhist believers. 
Catholics in Lao Cai 
¶3.  (U)  Lao Cai's 10-12,000 Catholics are under Hung Hoa 
Diocese, headquartered in Ha Tay province.  There are two 
parish churches, one in Lao Cai town, the other in Sapa 
town, as well as five Catholic chapels.  Members of the 
Hmong minority worship at two of the chapels, while the 
other congregations are almost entirely ethnic majority 
Kinh.  There are no priests assigned to Lao Cai, but a 
diocesan "vicar" visits five times a year, spending about 
100 days in the province. 
¶4.  (U)  Quang, several other officials, and the TV 
cameraman escorted poloffs to Lao Cai town's Coc Leo 
Catholic Church.  A Catholic worker ("tu sy," a term used in 
Catholic circles apparently to describe seminary graduates 
who have not yet been ordained) is resident at the church. 
Provincial officials claimed that the Chinese had destroyed 
the original Catholic church in Lao Cai during the 1979 
border fighting.  The current large concrete cruciform 
structure rising prominently near the Red River was built 
between 1999-2002.  There are three services each Saturday 
and Sunday, with over 1000 people attending on a weekly 
basis.  The Catholic worker conducts some religious 
education classes, but most are taught by specially trained 
laypersons who are "recognized" by provincial authorities. 
Provincial officials expressed confidence that there would 
"soon" be a priest in Lao Cai, probably at Coc Leo Church, 
but claimed the final decision depended on the bishop. 
No Protestants in Lao Cai 
¶5.  (U)  Quang did not mention Protestants at all in his 
prepared statement.  In response to questions, he claimed 
that he had not been notified that the GVN-recognized 
Evangelical Church of Vietnam-North (ECVN) had enrolled any 
Lai Cai-based Protestant congregations (ref a).  He further 
claimed that he had heard "nothing" about Protestants in the 
province.  When asked if it was legal to posses a Bible, 
Quang answered that this would be decided according to 
specific case-by-case circumstances, based on the policy of 
the CPV and the GVN.  However, all "officially published 
documents" were permissible, including Bibles published by 
the GVN's Religious Publishing House, he clarified. 
¶6.  (U)  Poloff expressed concern over numerous reports of 
problems Hmong Protestants in Lao Cai's Bao Thang district 
were experiencing in trying peacefully to practice their 
faith (ref b provides details on allegations of attempts at 
forced renunciation in several districts in Lao Cai). 
Poloff emphasized that such reports were publicized overseas 
and would hurt Vietnam's international image.   Poloff 
assured Quang and his colleagues that there was no American 
plot to divide Vietnam and that US policy supports the 
territorial integrity of Vietnam.  He urged officials to 
allow Protestants to practice their religion peacefully 
without interference.  Poloff asked Quang to comment on 
these reports, but Quang only replied that he had no "formal 
documentation" about such reports and categorically refused 
to comment further.  He assured Poloff that he knew 
Protestantism was not an "American" religion and added that 
it was actually a "good" religion. 
A Few Buddhists 
¶7.  (U)  Quang said that there were "a few thousand" 
Buddhists and one pagoda in Lao Cai, but no monks.  In 
principle, he explained, there was no problem with assigning 
a monk to the pagoda, but there had been no formal request 
yet.  He said that monks come from Quan Su Pagoda in Hanoi 
once or twice a year to perform ceremonies.  (An official at 
Quan Su Pagoda later confirmed this.) 
¶8.  (U)  Poloffs visited Cam Lo Pagoda in an agricultural 
village near Cam Duong town about 15 km outside Lao Cai 
town.  About a dozen people, mostly women, were at the 
pagoda praying, while others were preparing decorations.  A 
pagoda attendant confirmed that monks come from Hanoi to 
perform ceremonies during some important holidays such as 
the Buddha's birthday.  She indicated that these requests 
were made on an ad hoc basis rather than as part of an 
annual plan submitted to provincial authorities.  Like Coc 
Leo Church, Cam Lo Pagoda was said to have been destroyed 
during the 1979 Chinese invasion.  The pagoda was rebuilt 
around 1990 on the site of the original structure.  Much of 
the pagoda's financial support was apparently local, but a 
large portion of the pagoda's publicly listed donors showed 
residences elsewhere in Vietnam.  In addition to the pagoda, 
there are Buddhist shrines in at least some of the temples 
for other traditional religions in Lao Cai. 
Traditional Temples 
¶9.  (U)  In response to Embassy's overall request to visit 
various religious establishments in Lao Cai, Quang also took 
poloffs to a large traditional complex dedicated to 16th 
century general Tran Hung Dao, located directly across the 
Nanxi river from China.  Except for a huge banyan tree, 
several steles and some furnishings, the temple was entirely 
rebuilt after the 1979 border conflict.  Poloffs had visited 
the temple on their own the evening before; during both 
visits, a variety of people were participating in rituals in 
different parts of the temple.  The temple's attendant 
claimed that a recent festival had attracted 160,000 people 
from all over Vietnam.  There was still some evidence of a 
recent large gathering. 
¶10.  (U)  Poloffs also visited two other local temples, 
including one dedicated to the traditional "motherhood 
goddess."  This well-maintained temple in Lao Cai town is 
located on what looks like prime real estate next to the 
bridge over the Nanxi River dividing Vietnam and China. 
Even at 9:00 p.m., dozens of people were visiting the 
temple, including more than a dozen mostly young women 
participating in a ceremony presided over by two robed 
attendants to ask for the "help of ancestors in heaven."  A 
number of people were also visiting the traditional temple 
next to Cam Lo Pagoda at the time poloffs visited. 
Religion "Strongly Developing" in Yen Bai 
¶11.  (U)   Yen Bai provincial Director of Religious Affairs 
Tran Duc Thang briefed poloffs on February 21 and later 
escorted them to the Catholic church in Yen Bai city.  Thang 
made brief reference to CPV resolutions and Decree 26, 
emphasizing that the province did not discriminate on the 
basis of religion.  He highlighted that Yen Bai officials 
only carried out their "state management tasks" and did not 
interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups.  He 
explained that a People's Committee member and a member of 
the Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF) in each local 
jurisdiction were responsible for religious affairs.  The 
Yen Bai VFF had launched an "excellent movement" to mobilize 
Catholics; a Catholic farmers' group was particularly 
successful, Thang claimed. 
Catholics in Yen Bai 
¶12.  (U)  Thang said that only over six percent of the 
province's population was either Catholic or Buddhist. 
Since the province divided from Lao Cai in 1992, the number 
of Catholics had increased from 34,000 to 44,000.  About 
3,000 of the Catholics were Hmong.  The 36 Catholic 
facilities in 1992 had grown to 69, and the 37 Catholic 
congregations to 85.  There are five priests, two ordained 
in 2000, according to Director Thang.  Three of the priests 
were not yet legally resident in the province.  Two Yen Bai 
students are now attending the Catholic seminary in Hanoi, 
he added.  Thang claimed that there were over 20 nuns in Yen 
Bai, an increase from two in 1992.  (Note:  This claim is in 
marked contrast to the difficulties nuns face in receiving 
GVN recognition elsewhere in Vietnam -- see refs c and d. 
End note.)  Each Catholic congregation received a priest 
three or four times a year, he asserted.  The province also 
facilitated special requests by Yen Bai's priests and visits 
by priests from other provinces, he claimed.  He cited the 
participation of 30 to 40 priests in two ceremonies in 
recent years at the Catholic church in Yen Bai town as well 
as the activities of the three non-resident priests. 
¶13.  (U)  The priest at Yen Bai's Catholic church said that 
he was responsible for three of Yen Bai's districts as well 
as Yen Bai town and that another priest was responsible for 
the other four.  He was assisted by a seminarian, scheduled 
to graduate in 2004.  He admitted some difficulty 
communicating with the Hmong Catholics in his charge when he 
began working in Yen Bai in 1992 and noted that there were 
still no church documents available in the Hmong language. 
A priest at the Hung Hoa diocesan office later confirmed 
that, while there are two priests resident in Yen Bai, only 
one (not three) non-resident priest is currently working in 
the province.  He said that one of the province's two 
seminarians is scheduled to graduate in June and that the 
diocese expects to assign him to Yen Bai, pending provincial 
government approval. 
Buddhists in Yen Bai 
¶14.  (U)  Thang claimed that the 1,000 Buddhists in Yen Bai 
in 1992 had now increased to 5,000.  He said that "due to 
wars and disinterest" there were "almost no" Buddhist 
facilities in 1992, but that there were now nine.  He added 
that the provincial administration had approved the 
assignment of monks and said that they would come "soon." 
¶15.  (U)  In response to questions, Thang said that the 
authorities were aware of several thousand Hmong Protestants 
in Yen Bai.  He claimed that the Protestants did not know a 
great deal about their religion, but that they caused no 
problems and the authorities left them alone.  Most of them 
were not actually from Yen Bai, but had migrated from other 
provinces such as Lao Cai, according to Thang. 
¶16.  (U)  Poloff noted frequent reports in the international 
media about abuses of religious freedom in Vietnam, 
particularly of Protestants, which cause problems for 
Vietnam's image abroad.  Reports do not seem to come from 
Yen Bai, however; poloff remarked that the authorities' 
stance of leaving the Hmong Protestants alone seems 
positive.  He noted to Thang that such a hands off attitude 
would be a good example for other provinces to follow. 
¶17.  (U)  Lao Cai and Yen Bai have grown apart in their 
attitude towards regulating religion since their split in 
¶1992.  While post has received many reports of religious 
freedom problems in Lao Cai, Embassy sources could not come 
up with any specific problems for Protestants in Yen Bai. 
Although Yen Bai's depiction of religion in the province 
appears to have been somewhat sugarcoated, the differences 
between the two provinces are nonetheless striking.  These 
differences demonstrate the important influence of local 
officials on religious practice in Vietnam.  Concerns about 
"national unity" -- real or imagined -- seem to be a major 
excuse in cracking down on religious freedom in Vietnam; 
such worries are likely felt more keenly in border