The ceremony on the day the Church commemorates the 117 Vietnamese martyrs canonized by Pope John Paul II. Great festival is overshadowed by rumours of resignation submitted by the archbishop of Hanoi, the subject of a government slander campaign, to the Pope.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) - Candles carried by tens of thousands of faithful (in photo) last night illuminated the town of Kien Khe where the Jubilee of the Church of Vietnam was officially opened. A long procession led by Msgr. Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, president of the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam, followed by thirty bishops from 26 dioceses in the country, 250 priests and 600 religious in Vietnam, along with Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, vice-dean of the College of Cardinals, former president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Andre Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris and Bernard Law, former archbishop of Boston, now head of the basilica of Saint May Major in Rome. Guests included the Bishop of Orange, Msgr. Tod Brown, Father Jean-Baptiste Etcharen, Superior of the Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) and priests who came from Europe and the United States.

At 17:30 the long procession recalled the 117 Vietnamese martyred saints, commemorated in the feast day. They are part of the approximately 130 thousand Christians who have lost their lives in 261 years, between 1625 and 1886, during which there were 53 "Edicts of persecution of Christians". The 117 martyred saints included 96 Vietnamese, 11 Spanish Dominicans and 10 members of the Missions Etrangères de Paris. Beatified on four occasions by Pope Leo XIII, Pius X and Pius XII, they were canonized as one group by Pope John Paul II in 1988. The same pope, in 2000, beatified another young Vietnamese Martyr, Andrew Phu Yen.

The memorial of their sacrifice was chosen as the eve of the opening of a year that will highlight the 350 years since the establishment because of the first two dioceses in the country, Dang Trong and Dang ngoai (the North and South Vietnam) and, as the archbishop of Hanoi, Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, said "It is especially a major event for the Vietnamese Church: 50 years (1960-2010) of the Episcopal Conference.

"Vietnamese Catholics - said Msgr. Kiet - should be grateful to the missionaries who sacrificed their lives to bring us the gifts of the Faith. I feel pride and gratitude for our ancestors who sacrificed their lives to keep the gift. As the Gospel says: 'If a grain of wheat falls to the ground and does not die, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit'. The Gospel planted in Vietnam - he added - has known many difficult experiences. These are the forces of evil that want kill the seed of the Gospel. But strangely, the more the seed of the Gospel encounters difficulties, the more it is time to work for a rich harvest. "

The Parish of So Kien was chosen for the opening of the Jubilee. Here in 1659, Catholicism in Vietnam began; today the Church has a cardinal, two archbishops, 40 bishops, 3 thousand priests in parishes, 770 other activities, 15.750 religious 57 thousand catechists, 6.2 million faithful, and 190 parishes 2.135 centres for social activity, such as kindergarten, support classes, vocational and health care centres.

At the end of the procession and the Mass, Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, Chairman of the Committee for the Jubilee, declared the official opening of the Year. The announcement was followed by a night of celebration and illustrations of the 350-year life of the Church in the country. A group from the Diocese of Bui Chu, with 400 drummers and trumpeters, was particularly applauded.

The opening of the Jubilee also found space in the regime press, who labelled it "unambiguous evidence" of the policy of respect for religious freedom applied in Vietnam. The Joy of the event was overshadowed, however, by spreading rumours of the resignation that Mons. Kiet has apparently submitted to the Pope, motivated by the deterioration of his health. They say, the Archbishop of Hanoi – who was unable to participate in the October Assembly of Bishops for health reasons – informed the priests of his diocese himself, during the annual diocesan retreat, which ended on November 14.

Notwithstanding what was said by Msgr. Kiet, there are, among Catholics, those who link the submission of the Archbishop’s resignation with the tremendous pressure the government has exerted on him, through a press campaign and explicit request for his removal advanced several times by Nguyen The Thao, chairman of People's Committee (City Hall) of the capital

The spread of the news impacted on the mass that Mons. Kiet concelebrated with the card. Etchegaray, on the 22, in Hanoi. Some saw in the cardinal’s gifting of his pastoral to Msgr. Kiet, saying he did not want to bring it back to Rome, the support of the Holy See.