Vietnam’s prime minister: Meeting with Pope is of “great importance”

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Vietnam’s Prime Minister, in this exclusive interview, speaks of his meeting with Pope Francis on October 18, and his country’s relations with the Holy See in recent years and in the future

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said his meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican on Saturday, October 18, “will present an opportunity for both sides to enhance mutual understanding, thus strengthening the relationship between Viet Nam and the Holy See.”

The meeting, he said in this exclusive interview, “manifests the great importance Vietnam is attaching to our relations with the Holy See and our consistent policy to respect and ensure the legitimate freedom to religion and belief, (and to) encourage Vietnam’s Catholic Church to engage itself actively in the cause of socio-economic development and national building process.”

The Vietnamese leader is coming to the Vatican after participating in the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting, held in Milan, and at the end of a European journey that saw him meet political leaders in Belgium, the European Union and Germany.

In his response to questions I sent to him by e-mail, the Prime Minister recalled that "Vietnam and the Holy See met for the first time in 1990 during the visit to Vietnam by Cardinal Etchegaray, Chairman of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace.”.

“You can see how the relationships between Vietnam and the Vatican have grown during the past years, particularly through the meetings with high-level leaders of Viet Nam and the Pope”, he added.

In actual fact, Prime Minister Tan Dung was the first top level Vietnamese leader to meet the Pope since Vietnam broke diplomatic relations with the Holy See on 30 April 1975 after the Communists came to power in the whole country. He visited Benedict XVI in January 2007 when he was Prime Minister, and two years later, in December 2009, the President of Vietnam, Nguyen Minh Triet, also visited the Pope.

Those high level meetings confirmed the desire and good will for cooperation by both sides and led to the important decision to establish a Vietnam-Holy See Joint Working Group. Last March, the Chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly, Nguyen Sinh Hung, met Pope in the Vatican, in the latest of such high level meetings.

In his response to my questions earlier this week, the Vietnamese Prime Minister recalled that in recent years “the two sides have organized 5 meetings of the Vietnam-Vatican Joint Working Group. The latest one - the 5th meeting, was held on 10-11 September, 2014, in Hanoi”. These meeting indicate “the desire to enhance bilateral cooperation”, he added.

Prime Minister Tan Dung also recalled that “at the 2nd meeting (of the Joint Working Group) in June, 2010, Vietnam agreed for (the) Vatican to appoint a non-resident special envoy to further enhance the relationships between Vietnam and the Holy See.”

That was the first time that the Holy See has been able to have a representative in the country since 1975, and it was seen as a historic step on the road to the normalization of relations between the two sides, with both sides agreeing that the establishment of full diplomatic relations was the final goal.

Since the Holy See is ready to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam, I asked the Prime Minister if his Government is now ready for this and, if not, could he identify what are the remaining obstacles to achieving this mutually stated objective?

The Prime Minister did not respond to that question but, looking to the future, said, that “in the coming time, based on our desire to further enhance Vietnam- Vatican relations, I am of the view that the two sides need to maintain dialogue and meeting and continue to facilitate the activities of the Vatican non-resident special envoy in Vietnam.”

He said that would “help the Vietnam Catholic Church to successfully implement the teaching words of the Pope: “Living the Gospel amidst the nation”, “A good Catholic must be a good citizen” for the Vietnam Catholic community to continue their contribution to shared mandates of the country".”

Catholicism, with more than 6 million members, is the second largest religion (after Buddhism) in this south-east Asian country of some 90 million people. The Catholic Church enjoys religious freedom in Vietnam, notwithstanding tensions in some places over property and some other problems.

The Holy See and Vietnam have found a mutually acceptable way regarding the nomination of bishops that works well, and believes that with patience and good will the other problems can be resolved also to the mutual satisfaction of both sides.

Today, the Church in Vietnam has 27 dioceses, a number of seminaries, and more than 10,000 places of worship, and also does charitable work by assisting internal migrants who find themselves in difficult situations, and helping AIDS victims.

In a landmark event, the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) held its 40th anniversary plenary assembly in Vietnam in December 2012, with full assistance and cooperation from the Government. That was a historic event not only for the Vietnamese Church but for the universal Church too. The Pope sent his personal delegate to that event.

In many Asian countries today, one of the Catholic Church’s main contributions to society is given through its schools and institutes of higher education but so far it has not been able to make such a contribution in Vietnam. I asked the Prime Minister if his Government intended to give permission to the Church to open schools there, but he did not answer this question.

I also asked the Prime Minister if the Government would invite the Pope to visit Vietnam, but he did not respond to that question either.

It will be interesting to see if the Vietnamese leader will discuss either of those two questions, or the issue of diplomatic relations, during his meeting with Pope Francis tomorrow, and his subsequent meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, who has been to Vietnam on a number of occasions in the first decade of this century.

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By Gerard O’Connell