Officials from Vietnam and the Vatican began two-day talks Wednesday on prospects of restoring full diplomatic ties as a respected local bishop acknowledged that “conflicts” between the government and church have decreased.
The two sides said the meeting in the Vietnamese capital was “to deepen and develop bilateral relations between Vietnam and the Holy See.”
Vietnam and the Holy See—the government of the Catholic Church— have not had formal diplomatic relations since Vietnam’s communist government took over in 1975, but have been working toward closer ties since resuming dialogue in 2007 with the establishment of a Joint Working Group.
“We have seen progress in meetings in recent years even though it is not as some people expect, but we have to acknowledge progress,” Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop of the Vinh diocese in Nghe An province and president of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“We have to be patient and pray,” he said when asked whether the communist government leaders were cooperating with the church. “But looking back, we can see the conflicts have decreased.”
Bishop Hop said a government crackdown a year ago on parishioners at the My Yen church of the Vinh diocese in which police fired gunshots and lobbed grenades to disperse hundreds of demonstrators demanding the release of two detained parishioners was unfortunate but said dialogues have helped address the situation.
At least seven people were injured in the crackdown, which was among the most high-profile government actions on religious groups in Vietnam, where religious activity is closely monitored and which is home to some 6 million Catholics, the most of any country in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.
“We hope… those unfortunate incidents will no longer become hot news and stir up the public,” Bishop Hop said.
Delegations to the fifth meeting of the Joint Vatican-Vietnam Working Group are led by Vietnamese deputy foreign minister Bui Thanh Son and the Vatican’s undersecretary for international relations Anthony Camilleri.
The Vatican delegation met bishops from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday and Wednesday and would have a key meeting with government officials on Thursday.
Camilleri said at a reception hosted Wednesday by Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh that Pope Francis and the Vatican wanted to enhance bilateral ties with Hanoi, the official Vietnamese News Agency (VNA) reported.
Minh highlighted "the State and Government of Vietnam’s consistent application of the policy to respect and safeguard people’s rights to religion and religious freedom, as well as to support religions, including Catholics," VNA said.
Since 2011, the Vatican has had a nonresidential representative in Vietnam, officially an atheist country.
During a visit to the Vatican in March, Vietnamese parliament chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung met with Pope Francis and “affirmed that the country considers religions and creeds as a spiritual need of the people that contribute to ensuring and promoting national unity,” Vietnamese state media reported.
In a July visit to Vietnam, Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, acknowledged that the one-party communist government was increasing efforts to improve freedom of religion.
But he said that during his 11-day visit, there were “serious violations of freedom of religion or belief.”
Bielefeldt said his planned visits to An Giang, Gia Lai, and Kon Tum provinces were “unfortunately interrupted” and that he had received “credible information” that some people with whom he had wanted to meet had “been under heavy surveillance, warned, intimidated, harassed, or prevented from traveling by the police.”
“Even those who successfully met with me were not free from a certain degree of police surveillance or questioning.”
Reported by An Nguyen. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.