Cablegate: Catholics Dedicate New Cathedral

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

1. (U) Summary: A large number of Catholic bishops, priests
and believers celebrated the dedication of a new cathedral
in Lang Son City on October 2. The dedication comes after a
long period of difficult relations between the Catholic
Church and provincial authorities in Lang Son and is
reflective of the improving situation for Catholic believers
in Vietnam. End Summary.

2. (U) At least 4,000 Catholics attended the October 2
dedication ceremony for Lang Son Diocese, including the
archbishops of Hanoi, Hue and Saigon; 20 bishops from around
the country; some one hundred and forty priests from many
northern dioceses, southern Vinh Long Diocese -- the
previous home to Lang Son Diocese's bishop -- and abroad;
and as many as forty nuns. Lang Son Diocese geographically
covers the northern mountainous Cao Bang and Lang Son
Provinces and part of Ha Giang Province. Many of the 5000
Catholics in the diocese are ethnic minorities. According
to Thomas Nguyen Xuan Thuy, a professor at the Hanoi
Seminary, the ceremony was "unexpectedly well organized" and
drew a "record number" of clergy. The dedication was timed
to take place immediately after the end of the annual
Episcopal Council meeting in Hanoi.

3. (U) The dedication of the new cathedral helps mark the
end of a long and difficult period in relations between the
diocese and local authorities. When current Bishop Ngo
Quang Kiet took over the diocese in 1999, he found it
consisted of one priest and a nun in her late 90s. (Note:
Bishop Kiet, who also runs operations of the Archbishopric
of Hanoi on behalf of the elderly Archbishop, is a
significant and rising figure in the Vietnamese Catholic
church. He is rumored as a likely successor to the
Archbishop of Hanoi. End Note.) His predecessor, Bishop
Pham Van Du, had passed away in 1998. Bishop Du, who became
the first bishop for Lang Son in 1960, had only been allowed
by authorities to reside in the Bishop's Office in Lang Son
City since 1990.

4. (U) After taking over as bishop, Kiet managed to
temporarily transfer some priests from Vinh Long Province in
Southern Vietnam to Lang Son. In 2002, he ordained two new
priests who had graduated from Hanoi Seminary in 2001.
Bishop Kiet also managed to get consent from local
authorities to bring nuns of the Dominican Order back for
charity and religious work on an ad hoc basis. (Note:
Historically, there have been five branches of the Dominican
Order in Vietnam, including one in Lang Son Province. Most
of nuns from Lang Son Diocese left for the South in 1954.
End Note.)

5. (U) Construction of the new cathedral in Lang Son City
started in 2002, with most of the financing needed coming
from local donations as well as Vietnamese Catholics in the
United States and elsewhere, said Thuy. Bishop Kiet
reportedly had undertaken long negotiations with local
authorities over the rebuilding of the cathedral, which was
destroyed in 1969 during American bombings.

6. (U) Thuy said Bishop Kiet faced no major difficulties in
getting permission to conduct the dedication ceremony as
well as to facilitate large clerical participation in the
event. The Church had gone through normal procedures in
seeking approval to organize the dedication ceremony, which
was considered an "irregular activity" requiring special
political approval as it was not on the diocese's approved
calendar of annual events. According to Thuy, Lang Son
provincial officials are "no longer so difficult to deal
with." He implicitly attributed this change to Bishop
Kiet's tendency to "favor conciliatory approaches"
concerning operations of the Catholic Church in Lang Son.

7. (U) Despite the improved relations, Catholic clergy at
the ceremony told PolFSN that the GVN has not relaxed its
influence over Church operations, especially -- they said --
as compared with Protestant churches. They confirmed,
however, that the Church tends to keep a long-term view when
it comes to disagreements with Hanoi. The GVN cannot really
"control" the Church where there are strong Catholic
communities, opined Thuy.

8. (U) Comment: The experience of Bishop Kiet in Lang Son
is an excellent microcosm for the overall situation of
Catholics in Vietnam. While clergy still chafe under
Government restrictions, the improvements over the last
twenty years have been dramatic. Credit can be given to
both sides -- the Church has been patient but determined,
favoring pressure without sustained confrontation -- and the
GVN and Party have lessened their reflexive hostility to
organized religious groups. These advances are, of course,
not evenly distributed across Vietnam, but that Lang Son --
in the mountainous, ethnic minority north -- has made such
progress is perhaps a hopeful sign for other troubled
minority areas. As always, though, a long-term view is
required. End Comment.

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