Vatican delegation to visit Vietnam
J.B. An Dang2/9/2009
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A Vatican delegation led by the second position in the Vatican's diplomatic service will visit Vietnam next week after the Church has struggled through a difficult year, clashing with the Communist regime repeatedly over the ownership of properties that have been seized by the government for decades.

Monsignor Pietro Parolin, the Holy See's Undersecretary of State for Relations with States will lead a Holy See's delegation to visit Vietnam from Feb. 16 – Feb. 21, 2009 in response to an invitation extended to him by the Vietnamese Foreign Minister. Although the purpose of the visit has not been officially announced, it has been speculated that talks of a diplomatic relationship between Vatican and Hanoi would be on top of the agenda.

In June 2008, talks of the same kind were held between the Holy See delegation and Deputy Prime Minister also Foreign Minister of Vietnam Pham Gia Khiem in order for both sides to lay out a road map for the relationship to be established. This upcoming visit, however, would include new topics on the agenda which didn't suppose to be on the previous one as bilateral relations have been complicated by a series of mistreatment of Catholic activists by the Vietnamese government as disputes over Church property seized by the government taking placed.

The most dramatic conflicts have occurred in Hanoi, where lay Catholic activists have staged public protests demanding the return of a building that once housed the offices of the apostolic nuncio in Vietnam, and a piece of property that belonged to Hanoi Redemptorist monastery. Several other conflicts also have broken out involving other properties in Ha Dong, Saigon, and Vinh Long provinces. These disputes are likely going to raise tough questions during the talks between the Vietnamese and Vatican officials next week.

In a letter to Archbishop Joseph Ngo on Jan. 30, 2008, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone reassured Vietnamese Catholics that Vatican "will not miss out in explaining to your country and your government the legitimate aspiration of the Vietnamese Catholics."

At a time when the country's government has shown an increasing hostility toward the religious followers, local sources have expressed concerns that Vietnam Foreign Ministry and the Committee for Religious Affairs would put a great pressure on the Holy See delegation for the removal of Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet who has suffered a long period of virtual house arrest, calculated public defamation campaign by state-controlled media, not to mention public threat of violence and death aimed at him personally.

Msgr. Barnabe Nguyen Van Phuong, a Vietnamese priest, bureau chief at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, who has joined the Holy See delegation in previous 15 trips to Vietnam, seems not to be welcomed by Vietnam government. He will be replaced by another priest. This has raised further concerns among Catholics in Vietnam.

Another hot topic on the agenda would be the long delays in the appointment of bishops and diocesan administrators. This has always been a central point on the agenda in the bilateral meetings between the Vatican and the Vietnam government. There are numerous dioceses such as Phat Diem, Buon Me Thuot still without a bishop, and there are aging bishops who would like to but cannot retire due to lack of replacement such as bishops of Vinh and Thai Binh dioceses.

The situation of the Church in Vietnam has been somewhat improved due in good part to the persistent efforts of the Holy See to maintain an official dialogue with the authorities, including a more or less annual visit to Vietnam of a Vatican delegation. However, there can be no denying that religious freedom is still severely limited in today's Vietnam. Typically, the government still requires consultation on the appointment of bishops and the selection of candidates for the priesthood.

Nguyen The Doanh, head of Committee for Religious Affairs once stated that "It doesn't matter (to the state) who the bishop is going to be, as long as this person can maintain stability in his locality and balance between religious and secular relationships." But reality has revealed a different picture in which numerous of dioceses are still vacant while several able and qualified candidates who have been chosen by the Church have been told to wait indefinitely for the approval of the state.

Apart from dialogues with Vietnam government, the delegation also plans to visit a number of dioceses and to meet with the Vietnam Bishop conference while visiting Vietnam.

Though Vatican has expressed its willingness to conduct fruitful dialogues with the state of Vietnam, series of government’s mishandling religious issues and human right abuse in recent months has not been helpful to their position on the issue at hand. Reports from the foreign and Vietnamese overseas news outlets such as VietCatholic News has shed light into what truly happening to the Vietnamese Church behind the iron curtain of communist Vietnam, especially when the human rights and religious abuse is being covered up by the entire state owned news media.

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