Fr. Pascal Nguyễn Ngọc Tỉnh, OFM, a biblical scholar living in Ho Chi Minh city (formerly known as Sàigòn), is the leader of the translating team “Liturgy of the Hours” which has for decades dedicated itself in a great effort to translate the Bible and Roman Missals into Vietnamese.

By Fr. Pascal Nguyễn Ngọc Tỉnh, OFM

“Death to Kiệt! Death to Kiệt!”

It would make your hair stand on end listening to the scream of hundreds of government thugs who in their fury smashed everything within their reach, shouting slogans and calling for Archbishop Joseph Ngô Quang Kiệt’s head. The incident at the sacred shrine of Our Lady at Thai Ha parish at 0:05 am Monday Sep. 22 was reported in details by VietCatholic News. It should be noted that everything happened clearly in front of a large number of officials who were in charge of keeping security and safety in the region. The question is that why the prelate has suddenly become their objective of hatred, and even a person they want to put to death? Let us find out the answer through previous incidents.

“Warning” against Mr. Ngô Quang Kiệt.

Archbishop Joseph Ngô Quang Kiệt
According to VietCatholic News, the day before, Hanoi People’s Committee released the correspondence No 1370/UBND-TNMT “to warn Mr. Ngô Quang Kiệt, Archbishop of Hanoi” and force him to:

1. Stop all breaking the law behaviors or otherwise facing punishments in accordance with law. At the same time, he also in charge of urging his clergy and faithful to honor the law, not to have illegal religious activities, and to move immediately statues and crosses…to the right worship places.

2. Not to organize activities to spread distortional information in order to incite, take advantage of his clergy and faithful, and lure them in to illegal actions.

The correspondence is absurd. However, it’s not hard to understand why it was born. It came after a meeting between the delegation of Hanoi archdiocese’s office, led by the archbishop himself; and Hanoi People’s Committee, led by chairman Nguyen The Thao on Saturday Sep. 20.

Reporting on the meeting, state media had seized on an isolate phrase in a comment by the archbishop and pulled it out of context in order to condemn him. Here is the full text of his comment: “Hence, we want to repeat here our wish to build up the nation as a great united block. Travelling overseas often, we feel humiliated to be carrying a Vietnamese passport because wherever we go, we are always examined scrupulously [by customs agents]. We are really sad. We desire our country becomes stronger so that we can be like Japanese citizens who can pass through everywhere without being inspected. Koreans already enjoy that. We hope Vietnam becomes a strong, united country, so that we are respected everywhere we go."

His comment was condensed by state-controlled media into a few words: “we feel humiliated to be carrying a Vietnamese passport” in order to condemn him of smearing the nation, and thus causing the fury of people in the capital. Obviously, the quote was left out of context to interpret the speaker's comment in the opposite way. What is the real reason underneath this extreme grudging attitude toward the prelate?

Right, not a mercy.

In the same meeting with Hanoi People’s Committee, the prelate said: “Mr. Chairman has just said that: the City’s People’s Committee has relaxed worship conditions for the Catholic Church in recent years, especially at Christmas...We acknowledge that there have been such changes. But there seems to be a psychological attitude according to which, in response to your request, I grant you a favor at the mercy of my kindness. However, religious freedom is a natural human right everyone is entitled to, not at the mercy of those in power. A government ‘for the people’ must have the responsibility to relax conditions for everyone to enjoy it. It is not a grace poured out on us at your mercy. No, it’s not. Again, religious freedom is a human right, not a grace granted only if requested.”

One needs to view the video clip from VietCatholic to see that when the archbishop spelled out these strong words, he was very serene in an attitude of not kneeling down to beg but standing up to forcefully demand for the freedom taken away from people. In my opinion, the very reason that made the communists jump up crazily as if they had electric shocked is that the prelate has the nerve to cry out for rights. When I stand up to demand for my rights, it means my rights have been taken away. They have been deprived from me.

Who said first?

Some may raise eye brow questioning why did the archbishop jump into the nest of ants to be attacked? In fact, the prelate has been very patient for years in the dialogue with the government. Now, all in a sudden, it bulldozed the nunciature, and smashed all hopes for peaceful dialogues. But the most important one should not forget is that when the prelate protested the attitude of “granting on request at the mercy of those in power”, he did not say something new, he just repeated what the Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops had repeatedly demanded. This can be seen in the open letter that bishops sent to legislatives in Vietnam congress after the annual meeting in 2002, in which the bishops asked for

- The removal of unjust policies in which people are alienated.

- The policy of “granted only if requested” is unjust and alienates people because it turns the citizens’ freedom rights into permissions granted by the government as favors. Hence, it turns the government of people for people into a lord who keeps in his hand the rights of people and grant back to them at his mercy, his will, and his random feelings.

When the Archbishop of Hanoi openly criticized the policy of “granted only if requested”, he was in the position of standing up to demand for his rights. It is the very reason accountable for crazy reactions from Hanoi leadership when it employed all its human resources (police, security personnel, anti-riot police, militia, and Communist Youth League), materials resource (baton, stun gun…), including professional trained dogs in order to bulldoze the nunciature for a public park to be built at a lightning speed; and also when it employed its press, television and radio to distort, and discredit the leader of the Catholic Church in North ecclesiastical province.

From surprise to fury and revenge.

Looking back to the report on the meeting between the archdiocese’s office and Hanoi People’s Committee, one can see that after telling a long story on favors that the city had granted to the Church in recent years, chairman Nguyen The Thao might expect a thankful remark from the archbishop expressing his gratitude for “the relaxation of conditions…” (a sort of the literature we have been so familiar with in ceremonies of church dedication, priest ordination, perpetual vow…) However, what he was about to hear this time was not a familar “thank you” that he used to hear, and was waiting to hear again, but a frankly and forceful correction. It was probably the first time he could hear, and from the highest leader of the Catholic Church in North ecclesiastical province, that all the things he mentioned are NOT graces poured out on the Church at his mercy. No, they are human rights. In other words, “I am not here to beg for your favors, I am here to demand for my rights.” That idea upset not only Mr. Chairman and the committee he was leading, but also the dictatorial regime which treats its own people as if they were rubbish.

Stature of a leader.

His words and behaviors have proven that he is a leader of high stature not only in the eyes of his faithful but also of his enemies. And behind a deafening campaign to smear and isolate him, we see quite clearly the fear of a government addicted for years with modest and humble words. From a Catholic perspective, we have to thank God for giving us a peaceful, wise, yet extremely courageous leader.


When I am writing these words, there have been reports on the meeting between four representatives of the Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Prime Minister. Wasting their efforts to travel up to the capital, they heard nothing but what they had heard for years on the viewpoint of the Vietnam government on land. I thought to myself: it’s a waste of money and time. Everything has gone to the point that no one dares to believe in the dialogue with the communist government. Also, it is absurd to learn that during the meeting the representatives of the Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops have been assigned with the task to “educate” Msgr. Kiệt. See, the prelate has now become the fear of top officials in Vietnam leadership. This is to prove that they have seen the high stature of the leader of the Catholic Church in North ecclesiastical province: Archbishop Joseph Ngô Quang Kiệt.

© Translated from Vietnamese by J.B. An Dang.