Vietnam's prime minister to hold first meeting with Pope

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Thursday January 25, 2007

Hanoi- Decades after ties with the Vatican were severed, Catholics in Vietnam are applauding Thursday's meeting between the communist country's prime minister and the Pope. "I hope the meeting will be good for Catholics and the Church," said parishioner Nguyen Thuy Luyen, prior to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's visit to the Vatican. "Better relations with the (Vietnamese) government will improve the situation of Catholics in Vietnam."

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 Pope John Paul II, who was an outspoken critic of communist regimes.

There are indications, however, that under John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict XVI - who has expressed a desire to reach out to Vietnam - that restoring diplomatic relations is just a matter of time.

"The relationship between the government and Catholics is very good now," said Vu Kim Dung, a Catholic from the Bac Ninh diocese. "The government has created favourable conditions for us to practice our religion. Our dioceses was even given a piece of land to build a church."

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 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.

Man added that he and several bishops had met with Vietnam's president in November and had exchanged points of view on issues such as religious freedom, property rights, education and healthcare.

"The president promised that the government would gradually meet the right expectations," he said.

Vietnam, with an estimated 6 million followers, has the second largest Catholic population in Asia.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency