Obituary: Archbishop Paul Nguyen Van Binh

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The Independent Online
Paul Nguyen Van Binh headed Vietnam's largest Catholic diocese for almost 35 years, seeing the capitalist Saigon invaded by North Vietnamese forces and turned into the Communist Ho Chi Minh City. All his diplomatic skills were required to steer the Church through these difficult times.

Nguyen Van Binh was born in Saigon in 1910, and given the Christian name Paul. He showed an early desire to be a priest and was sent to Rome; he was ordained in 1937. He served in parishes in southern Vietnam before, in 1955, being consecrated bishop of Can Tho. In 1960 he was transferred to the post of Archbishop of Saigon.

Vietnam was soon embroiled in all-out war. The Catholic Church was a strong backer of the South Vietnamese government, though, days before the fall, Binh called on President Thieu to resign. Saigon fell to Northern forces in April 1975 and Binh issued a cautious statement welcoming the new peace and pledging that Catholics would work under the new regime. But reprisals against the Church began. Hundreds of priests were arrested.

The first big clash Binh had to handle was the Vatican appointment of Mgr Nguyen van Thuan, the nephew of the former South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, as coadjutor bishop of Saigon with the right of succession to Binh, who was now 64. Although the conflict was not of Binh's making, he had to ride the inevitable storm of orchestrated demonstrations by "patriotic" students. Thuan himself was banished from the city.

Unlike the northern Vietnamese bishops in the 1950s, Binh and his colleague the Bishop of Hue, Nguyen Kim Dien, sought to forge good relations with the government based on pragmatism. In 1976, they called on Catholics to help build the new society. In 1978, Binh even declared that the loss of the Church's "privileges" - its landholdings and social institutions - might be a blessing and help it remain close to the people. Such sentiments were not universally popular among the Church's estimated 5 million adherents in the South, especially when Binh condemned armed resistance to Communist rule.

Binh's close working with the government was sorely tested in 1980 with the hardening of the regime's attitude towards the Church and the arrest of the country's leading Jesuits, including his friend Fr Nguyen Cong Doan, the superior.

In 1983 a solidarity committee of Patriotic Vietnamese Catholics was formed, to act as a pro-Communist front within the Church on similar lines to the Pacem in Terris group in Czechoslovakia and the Catholic Patriotic Association in China. The government claimed that Binh supported the new organisation, though in reality he was suspicious of it, aware that its predecessor in the North had acted merely as a government front without popular support. It is a testament to his skill that the government's attempts to divide the Church and isolate it from the world-wide Church failed.

Relations improved after the appointment of Nguyen Van Linh as the Communist Party secretary-general in late 1986, with the freeing of a large number of Catholic priests from re-education camps. Not all restrictions were lifted, though, and Binh faced constant battles for permission for any important new activity, especially in the area of training and ordaining new clergy.

Binh had for a long time been trying to retire, but the government's refusal to agree the Vatican's choice of successor meant that he had to remain in office up to his death.

Felix Corley

Paul Nguyen van Binh, priest: born Saigon 3 September 1910; ordained priest 1937; Bishop of Can Tho 1955-60; Archbishop of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) 1955-95; died Ho Chi Minh City 1 July 1995.