Vietnam to let Vatican appoint resident representative

But some Catholics say authorities will maintain control over religious clerics.
By RFA Vietnamese
Vietnam to let Vatican appoint resident representative Vietnamese Catholics attend mass in front of Saint Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi in a file photo.
Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP

The Vietnamese government will allow the Vatican to appoint a resident representative in the communist Southeast Asian country, following years of negotiations amid the fraught diplomatic relationship between the two states. 

The development will likely be announced during the visit of President Vo Van Thuong to the Holy See by the end of July, Reuters reported on June 16, citing a senior Vatican official and a Hanoi-based diplomat with knowledge of the matter. 

Thuong and his wife will pay an official visit to Austria, Italy and the Vatican on July 23-28, Vietnamese state media reported.

Relations between Hanoi and the Vatican dissolved when communist leaders took over Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. After the country’s reunification, they placed restrictions on the Catholic Church and jailed several Catholic leaders who opposed the new government. 

Today, about 7% of the country’s population of roughly 97 million people are Roman Catholic, partly as a result of evangelism by missionaries from Portugal and Spain beginning in the 16th century.

Archbishop Marek Zalewski, the current nonresidential papal representative to Vietnam who is based in Singapore, is allowed to visit Vietnam only with government approval.

The Vatican has proposed having a permanent representative in Vietnam for more than a decade. The two states reached an agreement in principle on the proposal in 2022.

But there is concern among some Catholics that Vietnamese authorities will continue to tightly control religious clerics who speak out about social issues and human rights in the one-party country.

‘More normal’

Having a permanent representative of the Holy See in Vietnam would normalize Catholic activities in the country, said Bishop Nguyen Thai Hop, the first bishop of the newly established Ha Tinh Diocese.

“Of course, when there is a permanent representative, the work in Vietnam on religious and diplomatic issues will be easier,” he said.

With a permanent representative in place, "diplomatic work, visits to dioceses, and religious activities will be more normal,” Hop added.

During the past years, Vietnam and the Vatican have sent many working groups back and forth periodically to discuss the appointment of a permanent representative.

Hanoi’s consent to the issue is a result of the process of promoting relations between two sides, said Rev. Dinh Huu Thoai of the Redemptorists, an order of Catholic priests.

“In principle, having a permanent representative of the Holy See in Vietnam can bring about some changes and impacts in the relationship between the two sides” by improving diplomatic relations and promoting religious freedom, he said.

A Catholic resident of Ho Chi Minh City said that the new development will bring a relaxation to the celebration of holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and to other religious activities as long as politics are not involved.

“For example, in the past, there were some Masses for justice and peace, for prisoners of conscience … then the government would find ways to obstruct and remove them,” the resident said. 

Authorities also didn’t like it when priests raised social issues during Mass, he added.

Though Vietnam’s constitution ensures that all individuals have the right to freedom of belief and religion, the situation of religious freedom in Vietnam has not progressed, Thoai said.

The country’s 2016 Law on Religion and Belief gives the government significant control over religious practices and contains vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the name of national security and social unity. 

“There are always difficulties with religious activities,” Thoai said. “Recently, there have also been many cases where [authorities] insulted the Catholic Mass, even in the presence of the archbishop of Hanoi presiding over the Mass, but they also attacked the Mass.”

Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.


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