Pope Benedict XVI welcomed the chief of Vietnam’s ruling communist party to the Vatican on Tuesday, in an unusual meeting aimed at improving fraught ties between the Catholic Church and the one-party state.
Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, was granted a private papal audience, an honor usually reserved for heads of state.
The meeting was the first between the pope and a party chief from officially atheist Vietnam, where Catholics have complained of persecution and Church-affiliated social activists face imprisonment.
The Vatican said after the talks that it hoped “pending” issues between the two sides would be resolved.
It did not elaborate, but Hanoi imposes various restrictions on religious activities.
Tensions between the government and Vietnam’s Catholic community have also been marked by disputes over church property seized by the communists during the Vietnam War.
Earlier this month, a Vietnamese court jailed a group of over a dozen activists, many of them affiliated with Catholic Redemptorist churches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for plotting to overthrow the state in a decision condemned by rights groups and several governments, including the U.S. and France.
The churches have been part of a growing voice among Vietnamese movements for democracy and human rights in recent years.
Trong and his delegation of 10 other party members also met with the Vatican’s number-two in command, Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone.
The two sides, which do not have full diplomatic relations, held friendly talks aimed at strengthening ties, the Vatican said in a statement after the visit.
“During the course of cordial discussions, topics of interest to Vietnam and the Holy See were covered, expressing the hope that some pending situations may be resolved and that the existing fruitful cooperation may be strengthened,” the statement said.
Vietnam and the Holy See—the government of the Catholic Church—have been working toward closer ties since resuming dialogue in 2007, establishing a Joint Working Group to discuss the start of full relations.
Since 2011, the Vatican has a non-residential representative in Vietnam, and last year a bilateral meeting was held in Hanoi.
Religious activity is closely monitored in the communist Vietnamese state, which is home to some 6 million Catholics, the largest community in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.