An archbishop selected by Pope Francis as the new cardinal of Vietnam’s Roman Catholic community said Monday that he faced a challenging task but the move signaled improving ties between the Vatican and the communist leaders of the Southeast Asian state.
Archbishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon’s appointment was announced on Sunday together with that of Myanmar’s first ever cardinal, Archbishop Charles Maung Bo. They were among 20 new cardinals from 18 countries named by the Vatican and who will officially assume office on Feb. 14.
Nhon, 76, said his selection as cardinal of Vietnam—where the communist government claims to respect the freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity remains under state control—came amid warming relations between Hanoi and the government of the Catholic Church, or Holy See.
But he said the Catholic Church “still has a lot to do” for its estimated 6 million followers in Vietnam, who make up the second largest religious group after Buddhists among the country’s 92.5 million people.
The Vatican and Hanoi have not had formal diplomatic relations since Vietnam’s communist government took over in 1975, despite resuming dialogue in 2007 with the establishment of a Joint Working Group.
“Based on visits exchanged between the two sides and especially the presence of … the Vatican’s representative in Hanoi, we can see there have been efforts to hold productive dialogue,” he said.
“Such dialogue requires patience and sincerity. I’ve seen obvious efforts from the Vatican, as well as from the government [of Vietnam]. The direction looks positive, but the path is still long and we need time.”
In September, officials from Vietnam and the Vatican held talks on prospects of restoring full diplomatic ties.
Nhon said that his recent experiences attending services around Vietnam have led him to believe that Catholics are generally optimistic about improving freedom of religion in the country.
“However, [the state of freedom of religion in Vietnam] depends on the locality and timing,” he said.
“During certain times, some issues may arise that don’t at others. There may be problems in one place though not in others. However, in general, I see positive signs.”
Nhon replaces Cardinal John Baptist Pham Minh Man, who retired in March last year at the age of 80.
“The work has been there always and now I will have to do it better,” said Ngan, who was ordained as a priest in 1967 and named Archbishop of the Hanoi Archdiocese in 2010.
Nation’s first cardinal
Meanwhile, Archbishop Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar received a warm welcome on Monday after his appointment as the first cardinal of the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Only around one percent of the country’s 51 million people are Catholics.
Bo, 66, returned to his home in the commercial capital Yangon to bouquets of flowers sent by well-wishers and congratulations from friends and followers, the Associated Press reported.
Bishop Felix Lian Khen Thang, who heads the country’s Catholic Bishop Conference, said Bo’s appointment was the crowning achievement of the church’s work in Myanmar.
“It's time a Myanmar cardinal was selected because even Thailand, which has fewer Catholics, has had a cardinal,” the AP quoted Reverend Maurice Daniel, the conference’s general secretary, as saying.
Archbishop Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij of Thailand, which is home to around half as many Catholics as Myanmar, was among the new cardinals appointed over the weekend.
Bo, who was ordained as a priest in 1976, was nominated and installed as Archbishop of Yangon in 2003.
His appointment as cardinal comes amid growing religious intolerance in Myanmar despite democratic reform introduced by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, which took power from the military junta in 2011.
Violence targeting Muslims of the Rohingya ethnic minority by members of the country’s Buddhist majority have left hundreds dead since 2012.
According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, Bo raised eyebrows in his New Year’s Day address last year when he proposed granting citizenship for members of the Rohingya Muslim community born inside the country.
He has called for the protection of rights for all ethnicities and religious faiths, and warned about the growing influence of extreme Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, adding that the government should bring to justice those who incite discrimination and violence.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.