Viewing cable 03HOCHIMINHCITY1143

03HOCHIMINHCITY11432003-11-24 11:12:00 2011-08-30 01:44:00 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Consulate Ho Chi Minh City
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 
REF:  A) HCMC 1087  B) HCMC 1093  C) HCMC 2897 
¶1. (SBU) Summary:  Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious 
Freedom John Hanford traveled to Gia Lai and Dak Lak provinces 
from October 20-22 to meet with local officials and gain a 
firsthand view of conditions for Protestant worship in Vietnam's 
Central Highlands.  Raising the specter of Country of Particular 
Concern (CPC) status, Ambassador Hanford laid out demands for an 
end to serious abuses (such as arrests, beatings and forced 
renunciations), called for the reopening of closed churches, and 
urged speedier registration of house churches wishing to affiliate 
with the government recognized Southern Evangelical Church of 
Vietnam (SECV).  He left lists of religious prisoners with 
provincial leaders and promised to follow up.  As expected, local 
officials did not admit to any serious violations of religious 
freedom in their provinces.  Still, the visit provided some unique 
insights into life in this heavily controlled area of Vietnam, as 
Ambassador Hanford met with local Protestant leaders and sought to 
investigate allegations of abuse in remote villages on the drive 
between the two provinces.  Ambassador Burghardt and Consul 
General joined him on the trip.  Reftels report on official and 
unofficial meetings in HCMC and Hanoi.  End summary. 
¶2. (SBU) Meeting on October 20 with Gia Lai People's Committee 
Chairman Nguyen Vi Ha and other local officials responsible for 
overseeing ethnic minority and religious affairs, Ambassador 
Hanford stressed the need to reopen more than 300 churches that 
had been closed since the ethnic unrest of early 2001, as well as 
to speed up registrations for those churches wanting legal 
recognition.  He also called on the Chairman to prevent abuses by 
local police, such as beatings and forced renunciations.  He said 
he had received information on such abuses from too many sources 
to believe they were overstated.  What's more, his information 
indicated the majority of those being oppressed were true 
Christian believers with legitimate, peaceful motives.  Only a 
"tiny percentage" belonged to the Dega separatist movement. 
Chairman Ha denied police pressure on religious believers, but 
added that both Dega and former FULRO elements are a real threat 
and had infiltrated many churches.  He promised no one is in 
prison in Gia Lai for purely religious reasons.  Those individuals 
in prison are there because of their allegiance to Dega or other 
political agendas, or for common criminal acts incompatible with 
¶3. (SBU) According to Chairman Ha, there are 71,000 Protestants in 
five different denominations in Gia Lai Province.  Nearly all 
(66,000) belong to the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), 
the principal denomination of the SECV.  Seven churches have been 
legally registered, but registration requires that a congregation 
have both approved facilities and a government recognized pastor. 
(The deputy head of the Committee for Religious Affairs pointed 
out that there were only 31 Protestant churches in the province 
before 1975.)  There are only four legal pastors and seven lay 
pastors at the moment, but two students from the province are 
studying at the new SECV seminary in HCMC.  Protestants who do not 
live near one of the legal churches are still free to worship 
quietly at home pending registration of their own churches, but 
Chairman Ha did not see the need to allow worshippers to gather in 
large numbers at "temporary" house churches.  He rejected the 
notion that the government had closed churches by refusing to 
recognize house churches as legitimate churches.  He acknowledged, 
however, that 20 Dega churches had been closed.  The Chairman 
asked for more time to deal with the registration of new SECV 
churches, faulting the SECV for organizational delays in 
identifying suitable new churches. 
¶4. (SBU) Ambassador Hanford met with Dak Lak provincial People's 
Committee Chairman Nguyen Van Lang and a similar supporting cast 
on October 21, and inquired about reports that hundreds of 
churches had been closed and registrations of new churches were 
proceeding very slowly.  Like Chairman Ha, Chairman Lang noted the 
importance of training qualified pastors to lead new 
congregations.  He confirmed that there are still only two legal 
Protestant churches for the entire province, with five more still 
under consideration.  While he admitted that the Dak Lak 
provincial SECV Representative Board had included 70 congregations 
on its list for eventual registration, he said they had only 
submitted applications for five.  Meanwhile, he said, most of the 
province's 120,000 Protestant believers (40,000 "baptized") 
continue to worship at home in small family units of up to six or 
seven.  Ambassador Hanford challenged Chairman Lang to explain 
what appeared to be official documents calling on local officials 
to eradicate Christianity and obtain renunciations.  Ambassador 
Hanford also criticized the reported closure of 440 churches and 
provided specific cases of beatings and forced renunciations.  He 
said that every Christian leader with whom he had spoken had 
assured him that the Dega represented a very small percentage of 
the overall Christian population.  When  Chairman Lang blamed the 
U.S. for supporting the Dega movement, Ambassador Burghardt asked 
for concrete information that anyone in the U.S. was lending 
support to activities seeking the overthrow by violence of the 
current GVN.  Ambassador Burghardt also urged Chairman Lang not to 
block passports for Dak Lak residents seeking to join relatives 
who had been resettled in the U.S. under various refugee programs. 
¶5. (SBU) Meetings with members of the provincial SECV 
representative boards in the two provinces provided a contrasting 
picture.  In Gia Lai, the board members told Ambassador Hanford 
that they had been given a different time for the meeting.  Hence 
the two Protestants believers whom they had invited from 25 
kilometers away, where there had been many recent incidents of 
government repression, were unable to attend.  The SECV board 
members said there were two applications for registration under 
consideration, and three more in the preparation stage. 
Unfortunately, they were only allowed to submit applications for 
congregations that they already knew would be approved.  In 
addition to 347 churches which had been closed, they cited another 
500 "meeting points" which had experienced problems.  They 
estimated that the government had completely shut down 
approximately 50 percent of the total number of worship places, 
and regularly visited another 30 percent in order to disrupt 
services.  The remaining 20 percent of the congregations 
functioned more-or-less normally.  The SECV board members thought 
there were at least 30,000 Protestants of other denominations in 
the province, in addition to the 66,000 CMA and 5000 "others" 
cited by provincial Chairman Ha.  The board members told 
Ambassador Hanford that many Christians had been beaten in remote 
areas recently.  Back in August, board members were visited by a 
man from a village 60 kilometers away who was beaten so badly that 
he had blood in his urine.  A few villagers from neighboring Kon 
Tum Province had visited just last week to report that 20 or 30 
Christians were beaten in Sa Thay District.  Some had bruises and 
needed medication. 
¶6.  (SBU) Asked about the presence of Dega Protestants in the 
province, the Gia Lai SECV board said between 3000-5000 declared 
Dega admitted their affiliation openly.  They estimated there were 
another 14,000-17,000 "undeclared" Dega followers who sympathized 
with the movement's goals.  When pressed as to whether they were 
saying that potentially 20,000 of the 90,000 Protestants in Gia 
Lai Province could be Dega followers/sympathizers, this reliable 
source said yes.  (Note:  These Dega numbers are much higher than 
the Mission had previously thought, as Dega membership has usually 
been described as "small" or "insignificant."  The Dega openly 
advocate autonomy from the GVN, with some Dega advocating violence 
to achieve a separate state.  Since this particular SECV board 
member is often considered a reliable source for negative 
information regarding GVN actions against Protestant believers, we 
were surprised to hear him acknowledging such large numbers of 
Dega.  End Note.) 
¶7. (SBU) In Dak Lak, the SECV Board said 20 out of 400 churches 
are presently allowed to operate normally.  Claiming they had been 
cut off from much of their community by restrictions on travel, 
however, they were unable to personally confirm that 300 house 
churches had been asked to close since the start of 2001.  They 
had heard that pastors were warned several times to cease their 
illegal services, then ordered more forcefully to desist, or made 
to sign documents promising not to conduct services until they 
were legal.  They had only secondhand knowledge of forced 
renunciations, saying they thought it had happened in some places 
where Christians were "weak and uneducated."  They had only 
secondhand information on beatings as well.  Presented with a list 
of four individuals, they knew nothing specific about the 
circumstances, although they knew the individuals and had heard 
they were beaten.  Presented with a list of pastors believed to be 
imprisoned simply because of their normal religious activities, 
they said they knew most of them and did not believe them to be 
Dega, although the government did. 
¶8. (SBU) Ambassador Hanford also visited three remote rural 
villages in the two provinces to try to meet with individuals 
alleged to have suffered at the hands of the government for their 
religious belief.  These stops were arranged by pastors in HCMC 
with extensive contacts in the Central Highlands, and included 
only individuals who had agreed to meet with the Ambassador.  In 
all three cases, the traveling party was "escorted" by numerous 
police, both uniformed and plainclothes, who sometimes seemed to 
materialize out of nowhere and blanket the neighborhood. 
Residents were understandably unwilling to talk under those 
circumstances, and it was impossible to locate anyone who even 
admitted to having heard of any of these individuals. 
¶9. (U) Ambassador Hanford did not have an opportunity to clear 
this message before his departure.