By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis met a delegation from Vietnam’s Communist Party on Thursday and the Vatican’s foreign minister said the pontiff was keen to visit the Southeast Asian country in the wake of upgraded relations.
The meeting followed a private audience between the pope and Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong in July, when both sides announced that Vietnam was allowing a Resident Papal Representative to return to Hanoi for the first time since the end of war in 1975.
The Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, told reporters that Thursday’s meeting with the 16-member delegation from the Communist Party was “very positive” and that he would be visiting Vietnam in April.
Asked about a possible papal trip to Vietnam, Gallagher said: “I think it will (take place) but there are a few further steps to be taken before that would be appropriate.”
“But I think the Holy Father is keen to go and certainly the Catholic community in Vietnam is very happy to want the Holy Father to go. I think it (a papal trip) would send a very good message to the region,” he said.
Vietnam broke off relations with the Vatican after the communists took over the reunited country at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The authorities at the time viewed the Catholic Church in Vietnam as having been too close historically to the former colonial power, France.
Vietnam is home to nearly 7 million Catholics, about 6.6% of the population of 95 million.
Apart from the Vatican, Communist Party-ruled Vietnam has in the past two years upgraded ties with the world’s top powers, including former foes, China and the United States, as part of its “bamboo diplomacy”, which it has proactively pursued to navigate rising global tensions.
“Vietnam is an increasingly important country in the region. It is a little bit of an economic miracle in many ways,” Gallagher said, speaking on the sidelines of another event at the Vatican.
He said the Vatican was “confident” that relations with Vietnam would improve further, adding that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin would likely visit Vietnam separately later this year.
“This (Thursday’s meeting) represents quite a renewal of their attitude to the international community, to the Church,” Gallagher said.
“We are, of course, hoping to encourage them along lines of greater religious freedom, which they have in their constitution and that they are practicing but it’s obviously a work in progress,” he said.
Vietnamese government media have rejected criticisms from groups such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressional watchdog that has placed Vietnam on its list of “countries of particular concern”.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Bernadette Baum)