Vatican, Vietnam hope to foster closer relations

The Vatican non-resident pontifical representative for Vietnam, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, visits Cistercians in Vietnam's Khanh Hoa Province in August. (Peter Nguyen)

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — The Vatican aims to restore diplomatic ties with the Vietnam government, which in return pledged to support local Catholics' involvement in the country's social and charitable activities after the two sides' latest talk.

The Vatican delegation, led by Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, Vatican's Under-Secretary for Relations with States, worked with the Vietnamese delegation, led by Bui Thanh Son, deputy minister for foreign affairs, Sept. 10-11 in Hanoi.

"The Holy See reaffirmed its commitment towards the goal of establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam," the press release published at the end of the meeting said.

The two sides have had no formal diplomatic relations since the last Vatican nuncio was forced to leave Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) soon after northern Communists reunified the country on April 30, 1975. Both established a Joint Working Group in 2007 to resume dialogue for closer ties, and the Vatican named Italian Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli as the non-resident pontifical representative for Vietnam in 2011.

The press release said the Vatican delegation "reaffirmed that it attached great importance to the development of relations with Vietnam in particular and Asia in general, as evidenced by the recent and upcoming papal trips to the continent."

Pope Francis visited South Korea Aug. 14-18 and plans to visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January.

However, some church observers noted that Vietnam and the Vatican could not have diplomatic ties until China sets up its own relation with the Vatican.

"Vietnam's religious policies are strongly influenced by its great neighbor," they added. There has been no channel of communication between China and the Vatican for years.

The press release also said Pope Francis followed with interest recent growth in relations between Vietnam and the Vatican and urged Vietnamese Catholics to continue contributing toward the country's major aims.

The press release said Vatican and Vietnamese Catholics wish to "make more active contributions to the country's development where the Catholic Church is strong, for example in health care, education, charity and humanitarian works."

So far, the Catholic church and other religions have been banned from participating in those services since reunification in 1975.

According to the press release, the Vietnamese government stated its respect for the freedom of religion and its support for the church in Vietnam to "actively participate in national social and economic development."

Both sides also asked local Catholics to follow underlying principles of "living the Gospel within the Nation" and said "being a good Catholic means being a good citizen."

In a Sept. 9 interview with Radio Free Asia's Vietnamese Service, Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop of northern Vinh diocese said that early this year, a few high-ranking officials in the Vietnamese government had approved the involvement of the local Catholic church in education and health care services, "but until now no formal approval has been granted."

Hop said he hoped those issues would be on the agenda for both sides during their latest meeting because local people complain about the government-controlled, low-quality education.

"Our church always tries to ensure that the presence of religion brings peace and happiness to all people," Hop said. "Religion is not a political force but requires having opportunities to serve people, especially the needy and miserable."

[Joachim Pham is an NCR correspondent based in Vietnam.]

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