The Vietnam-Vatican Joint Working Group held a third meeting in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi Monday as part of a bid to consider the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations.
The Vietnamese delegation to the two-day meeting was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, while the Vatican delegation was headed by Undersecretary for Relations with States Archbishop Ettore Balestrero.
The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry said in a statement before the talks began that the talks were being held “under the agreement reached between the two sides at their second meeting in the Vatican in June 2010."
Following that meeting, Vietnam and the Holy See agreed to a Vatican appointment of a nonresident Representative for Vietnam as a first step toward the establishment of full diplomatic relations.
The Vatican said last week that the talks, scheduled after several visits to the country by papal representatives, will serve to "deepen and develop bilateral relations."
Religious activity is closely monitored in the communist Vietnamese state, which is home to the second largest Catholic community in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.
Tensions between the Hanoi government and Vietnam’s Catholic community have led to unrest in recent months over church property seized by the communists during the Vietnam War, as well as other issues.
Hope for progress
Catholics in Vietnam voiced their desire for the two sides to develop better relations, which they said would benefit both their community and the country as a whole.
Catholic follower and blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, who has written frequently on Hanoi-Vatican relations, said in an interview from Hanoi that previous meetings between the two sides had yielded little improvement in ties.
“Although unofficially, the [state] press has described problems on both sides, with occasional ‘progress’ … This has brought them to the table again to solve these troubles in the interest of better relations,” he said.
He said the Vatican, the Vietnamese government, and the Vietnamese Catholic community had all placed high expectations on the new round of meetings.
“I also hope for big progress in Vatican-Vietnam ties so that the two sides can achieve normal relations similar to those between other countries. Bilateral relations will benefit the country and will bring better things for the believers … [who] will enjoy greater respect.”
Kontum province Bishop Mi-ca-e Hoang Duc Oanh, a strong voice in the official Council of Bishops for Vietnam, said he hoped for greater “mutual understanding” between the Vatican and Vietnamese authorities in order to solve the “common problems regarding the Church.”
“Everybody expects that such meetings will pave the way to better things,” he said.
He said his primary concern was to provide his followers in a remote area of Vietnam with a full Catholic education so that they might go on to serve their fellow man.
“I don’t have access to the ‘high and remote’ matters, so I don’t have any greater aspirations. I hope the [Holy Vatican] and the government can come to a greater understanding to improve relations.”
Catholicism in Vietnam
Catholicism claims more than six million followers in Vietnam, making it the second largest religion after Buddhism among Vietnam's 86 million people.
The Vatican and Vietnam do not have diplomatic relations but in recent years have begun a reconciliation, although the land issue remains a point of contention.
Vietnam's communist government says it respects the freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity remains under state control.
The U.S. State Department last September did not include Vietnam in its annual "Countries of Particular Concern" blacklist of top violators of religious freedom, as demanded by rights groups. Vietnam was included in the list from 2004 to 2006.
The independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressional watchdog, had asked President Barack Obama's administration to reinstate Vietnam on the blacklist, saying the communist government there severely restricts religious practice and "brutally" represses those who challenge its authority.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Long. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.