Vietnam's prime minister holds first meeting with the pope

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Thursday January 25, 2007

Vatican City- Pope Benedict XVI held talks at the Vatican on Thursday with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the first ever such meeting between the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and the head of government of the South-East Asian communist state. The 25-minute private audience, described as "cordial" by Italy's Ansa news agency, saw the two leaders exchange gifts and discuss bilateral relations.

Tan Dung later met with the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Relations between the Vatican and Hanoi have been strained since unified Vietnam broke off diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1975. Hanoi was openly hostile at times to the late Pope John Paul II, who was an outspoken critic of communist regimes.

But Thursday's meeting appeared to confirm reports that diplomatic relations between the two countries may soon be restored under Benedict XVI.

Catholics in Vietnam welcomed the talks, expressing hope that the meeting would improve their condition back home.

"I hope the meeting will be good for Catholics and the Church," said parishioner Nguyen Thuy Luyen prior to Tan Dung's visit to the Vatican. "Better relations with the (Vietnamese) government will improve the situation of Catholics in Vietnam."

The communist regime, which once tightly controlled religious activities, has loosened its grip on both Catholics as well as Buddhists.

But the Vatican remains frustrated that the Vietnamese government retains final say over Church issues, such as senior leadership appointments.

Church officials in Hanoi have refused to comment on Thursday's historic meeting but in a recent interview with the religious news service AsiaNews, Cardinal Pham Minh Man, the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, said that diplomatic ties "should not face obstacles anymore."

"I think through meetings and dialogue, the Vatican and the Vietnamese government will understand each other better and their relations will improve," Man was quoted as saying.

With an estimated 6 million followers, Vietnam has one of the largest Catholic populations in Asia.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency