The Vatican's appointment of its first official representative to Vietnam signals a detente between the country's communist rulers and the Catholic Church that could represent the first step towards establishing formal diplomatic relations.

Pope Benedict XVI recently named Italian Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, currently the Vatican's nuncio to Indonesia, as its "non-resident pontifical representative" for Vietnam, extending his current position as nuncio in Singapore and apostolic delegate to Malaysia and Brunei.

Vietnam is among a handful of countries in the world, including China, with which the Vatican does not have diplomatic relations. The Holy See, located at the Vatican in Rome, speaks for the Catholic Church and is recognized under international law as a sovereign entity. In a formal address to the Vatican's diplomatic corps, the pope said that the agreement to name a representative to Vietnam was a sign of improved religious freedom.

The appointment comes after over a dozen rounds of talks that culminated in a historic meeting between Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the pope at the Vatican in 2007 and President Nguyen Minh Triet's follow up visit in December 2009, representing the first time a Vietnamese president had visited the Vatican since the communist takeover in 1975.

The appointment also coincides with the conclusion of the 50th jubilee anniversary of the Catholic hierarchy in Vietnam and the 350th year since the first two apostolic vicariates were established there. According to media reports, more than 500,000 people joined 35 Vietnamese bishops, seven bishops from other countries, and 1,200 priests for three days of celebrations in early January.

Hanoi's agreement to the appointment aims to ease pressure from the United States and European Union to allow for more religious freedom. According to a 2010 US State Department report "the Vietnamese constitution provides for freedom of worship; however, government restrictions on the organized activities of many religious groups continued".

The European Union also wants to see greater flexibility from Hanoi towards practicing Catholics – the fifth-largest congregation in Asia. "The European Union is interested in the relationships between the Holy See and Vietnam. A conciliatory policy between the two would represent an improvement in terms of democracy and freedom in Vietnam," a source inside the Vatican told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.

In recent years, trade and investment with both the EU and US has accelerated despite steady criticism about the lack of progress on religious freedoms. The US earlier required demonstrable progress on the front before granting Vietnam most-favored trade status, a designation it required to accede to the World Trade Organization. Two-way trade in the first eleven months of 2010 was nearly US$17 billion, a record high since the two sides re-established diplomatic relations in 1995.

Meanwhile, the EU has emerged as Vietnam's biggest source of development assistance, its second-largest export market and its largest source of committed foreign direct investment (FDI), including in the crucial manufacturing sector. The two sides will officially start top-level negotiations towards a possible tariff-reducing free trade agreement (FTA) later this year.

Vietnam's constitution broadly guarantees freedom of religion, but at the same time states that "No one has the right to infringe on the freedom of faith and religion or to take advantage of the latter to violate State laws and policies." The government recognizes various religions, including Catholicism, but maintains strict control over congregations through the 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief.

The ordinance includes registration requirements and gives local level authorities discretion over religious activities and leadership appointments. "This ordinance has been strongly criticized by bishops who think that it does not guarantee a real freedom to the Vietnamese clergy because the pope's nomination and consecration of Vietnamese bishops must conform to the Vietnamese government's agreement," a Vietnamese priest told ATol on condition of anonymity.

Holy disputes

Despite the Vatican's new appointment, Vietnam and the Holy See will have to overcome a number of long-standing issues before full-blown diplomatic relations can be established. In particular, land disputes remain a vexed issue. Previous efforts to normalize relations with the Vatican have been hampered by confrontations between Catholic demonstrators and security forces and the jailing of a number of prominent priests over land-rights issues.

Communist authorities seized a number of church lands after seizing power in 1975. The government issued a decree in 2003 that stated lands nationalized during the socialist period before 1991 will not be subject to claims of restitution. That decree, however, hasn't smoothed over many long simmering disputes.

In a charged incident in January 2010, the Dong Chiem Catholic community accused the government of demolishing a crucifix on land claimed by both the Church and local authorities. Clashes erupted between parishioners and police over the land dispute.

US-based watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) last week called on the US to return Vietnam to a list of the world's worst abusers of religious freedom. HRW accused Hanoi of continuously harassing certain religious groups and hampering their ability to worship in peace.

Other groups have chronicled similar harassment, including several incidents after the US removed Vietnam from its list of "Countries of Particular Concern" on religious freedoms in 2006.

In January, Christian Marchant, an American diplomat, claimed to have been beaten by Vietnamese authorities in Hue for speaking to Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly, a well-known dissident who founded the pro-democracy movement Bloc 8406. Vietnam's state-controlled media accused Marchant of creating a public disturbance; foreign reports indicate the envoy was roughed up by Vietnamese police for merely attempting to visit a prominent dissident. The US filed a strong protest over the incident.

Despite the recent breakthrough, there are concerns that on-the-ground conflicts could worsen. The government puts a high priority on maintaining social stability and promoting fast economic growth. At the same time, the Catholic community has become more assertive with growing numbers.

The Catholic community in Vietnam is the second largest in Southeast Asia, trailing only the Philippines. Although government statistics indicate there are 6.28 million Catholics, other estimates place the number closer to 8 million. Vietnam's total population is approaching 90 million, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency's fact book.

Catholics are located throughout the country, with the largest concentrations in the provinces around Ho Chi Minh City and southeast of Hanoi, as well as in parts of the Central Highlands region. There are three archbishops, 44 bishops, and nearly 4,000 priests in a total of 26 dioceses across the country.

There are more than 10,000 places of worship including six seminaries and two clergy training centers. According to the Vatican, the number of seminarians preparing for the priesthood has grown by more than 50% over the past five years and now totals 1,500. With growing numbers, the Catholic community is gaining lobbying power on a variety of issues, especially at the provincial level.

The church is committed to extending its foundations and teachings around the world and Asia represents an open frontier. The earliest missionaries started their work in Vietnam during the 16th century, consolidating their position during French colonization. Those foundations were shaken after the communist takeover in 1975.

If the Holy See is able to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam "the country could set a precedent in the relationships with other Asian countries, such as China," said Alessandra Chiricosta, a religious historian who specializes in Vietnamese culture.

"On the one hand the Holy See cannot permit any secular institution to interfere in the management of its religious authority," said Chiricosta. "On the other hand, the Vietnamese government cannot legitimize any authority which does not emanate from the Communist Party."

That explains why Girelli's recent appointment was as a "non-resident" papal representative and why there is still a long way to go before relations can be normalized, she said.


Roberto Tofani is a journalist, analyst and photographer covering Southeast Asia. He has reported for various Italian news services. He is also the editor of