With new Catholic leader in Hanoi, a breakthrough in sight?

May 11, 2010

Protesters wave banners in support of Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi outside the city's cathedral, 7 May 2010/Nguyen Huy Kham

Hanoi Catholics held a ceremony last Friday to welcome the man who is expected to become their new archbishop, but for many on hand – priests and faithful alike – it was a moment of sadness. There were no flowers at the altar of Hanoi’s 124-year-old cathedral welcoming Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, 72, to the role of coadjutor bishop. Outside on the steps, several dozen people brandished banners in protest of what his papal appointment represented.

It’s not that they had anything personal against Nhon, who is head of Vietnam’s bishops conference and hails from the southern city of Dalat. But Nhon happens to be taking over for Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, 57, an archbishop who stood up to local Communist authorities by backing church groups embroiled in land disputes with the government in recent years.

For that, Kiet was beloved by the city’s Catholics — and hated by the city government, which lobbied vigorously to have him removed. Observers say the Vatican eventually came to see Kiet as an impediment to better relations with Vietnam, home to Asia’s second biggest Catholic population after the Philippines and one of the few remaining countries with which the Holy See has no diplomatic relations.

“We are very sad and very surprised. They are very different people,” said Peter Nguyen Van Khai, a priest from the parish of Thai Ha, where eight Catholics were arrested and convicted for their role in a land protest 2008.

“Pray for us,” he said as he and the rest of the city’s priests marched slowly toward the cathedral.

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Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet waves to supporters at St. Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi, 7 May 2010/Nguyen Huy Kham

At the end of the long procession was Kiet, looking pensive in white vestments and carrying a wooden crozier. A crowd that had gathered applauded when he walked past, and one woman yelled: “Support the Archbishop!”

Kiet tendered his resignation a year ago when tensions over the land disputes were still simmering, but it was apparently not entertained until more recent months. Earlier this year, he traveled to the Holy See on the pretense of seeking rest and medical care, and priests said at the time he may not return for several months. But he was back within weeks and the Nhon appointment was made.

During the ceremony on Friday, Kiet implored the Hanoi faithful to treat Nhon as family. Outside, some of the protesters tied yellow strips of cloth around their heads and pinned photos of Kiet to their shirts proclaiming their love for him. Several held up banners lauding the bespectacled archbishop. They said he had been great because he had looked out for them above all else.

“We feel very sad,” said Nguyen Thuy Nga, one of the demonstrators. “We need a leader who is good for us, not for policy, not for the government.”

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Coadjutor Archbishop of Hanoi Peter Nguyen Van Nhon (L) and Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet (R), 7 May 2010/Nguyen Huy Kham

Vietnam and the Vatican have held more than a dozen rounds of talks to pave the way for relations. Last year, Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet met the Pope during a visit to Italy. In 2007, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met the Pontiff. But there has been little to show for all the effort.

With Kiet on his way out, only one real question remains: Will there be a breakthrough? There have been rumours for some time that the Pope might visit, and Vietnam’s bishops conference extended an invitation last July. It’s safe to say the first ever papal visit to Vietnam would be a telling sign.

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