May 7, 2010
Vatican, Vietnam sacrifice a holy man
By The Hanoist
A major stumbling block to diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Vatican has seemingly been removed with the resignation of a popular Vietnamese Catholic leader and government critic.
Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet was the archbishop of Hanoi for the past five years, overseeing parishes in the capital and in the northern third of the country. He quietly supported a wave of protest vigils calling for the return of government-confiscated church properties and greater religious freedom.
The Vietnamese government, which is often accused of violating religious freedom, hopes to silence human-rights critics, especially in the United States, by establishing full relations with the Holy See. Vietnam, with approximately six million Catholics, offers the Vatican the second-largest Catholic population in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.
Kiet, 57, was succeeded by 72-year-old Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon, who was appointed by the Vatican to be coadjutor archbishop of Hanoi on April 22. According to church observers, his was an unusual appointment since the coadjutor archbishop is usually groomed to eventually take over the top post. Not only is Nhon 15 years older than Kiet, he is set to officially become archbishop any day now.
Relations between communist Vietnam and the Holy See have always been fraught. Two contentious issues have been the settlement of communist-confiscated church properties – beginning in 1954 in the north and after 1975 in the south – and the training and appointment of clergy.
Unlike China, which severed ties with the Vatican and created a state-sponsored “patriotic church”, Hanoi allowed a Catholic church to exist under nominal Vatican control. In practice, Vietnamese authorities restricted the ordainment of clergy and cleared all appointments. This led to a generally pliant Catholic church leadership in Vietnam.
There was nothing in Kiet’s history that indicated a dissident streak. But after becoming archbishop of Hanoi he inspired mass civil actions by church followers. In late 2007, Catholics began gathering by the thousands at the former site of the Vatican embassy in Hanoi, which was confiscated in the 1950s.
After a series of unprecedented vigils demanding the return of the property, municipal officials appeared to accede to the demands on the condition that the gatherings stopped. But authorities later reversed course and instead of returning the church land they bulldozed over the ground and turned it into a public park.
In 2008, vigils spread to the Thai Ha parish in Hanoi, again over the issue of confiscated properties. Authorities broke up the peaceful gatherings and subsequently convicted eight parishioners for causing public nuisances and damaging property. There were rumors then that Kiet would be arrested.
State-run newspapers have vehemently attacked Kiet, calling him unpatriotic and an instigator of social disturbances, and have repeatedly called for his dismissal. The chairman of the People’s Committee of Hanoi reprimanded Kiet in writing and frequently criticized him in the media and to outside delegations.
At a meeting with foreign diplomats, a Hanoi official stated, “A number of priests, led by Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, took advantage of parishioners’ beliefs and their own low awareness of the law to instigate unrest, intentionally breaking the law and acting contrary to the interests of both the nation and the church.”
Over the past year, demonstrations spread to other parishes. In the heavily Catholic area of Vinh in north central Vietnam, half a million people reportedly protested the beatings of co-religionists by security police in July 2009.
Against this backdrop, President Nguyen Minh Triet paid a visit to Pope Benedict XVI in December 2009, following Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s historic Vatican trip in 2007. The two sides are reported to be discussing normalization of diplomatic ties.
Following Triet’s meeting with the pope, Kiet went on medical leave and traveled to Rome for treatment. Vietnamese Catholic websites report that Triet insisted that the Vatican remove Kiet as a condition for establishing closer ties. This request, if true, would be consistent with the tone of government-controlled newspapers.
On returning to Vietnam in April, Kiet announced that he was retiring, for “health reasons”. His stepping down, though not unexpected, was a disappointment for many Vietnamese, Catholic and non-Catholic, who admired his courageous leadership. Several online petitions have been organized calling on Pope Benedict to keep Kiet as archbishop of Hanoi.
Vietnamese Catholics living overseas are a major source of funding for the church at home. They are also among the most vocal groups lobbying the United States administration and congress to blacklist Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” for its many well-documented religious rights violations.
In Vietnam, Catholic bloggers have extolled “the spirit of Ngo Quang Kiet” and compared him to the early martyrs of the church. Le Quoc Quan, a human-rights lawyer, wrote that there cannot be a universal church without the voices of the faithful. He wrote that Catholics in Vietnam had demonstrated their empowerment and were beginning to change the church from the ground up.
If the current pope eventually makes a grand visit to Vietnam, like Pope John Paul II did in Cuba, he will encounter a faithful inspired by Ngo Quang Kiet, a religious leader in the mold of John Paul.
The Hanoist writes on Vietnam’s politics and people.