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Vatican envoy allowed free access on visit

Freedom to roam signals improvement in relations

Vatican envoy allowed free access on visit
Catholics in Ha Giang province welcomed Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli on March 17 reporter, Hanoi

March 21, 2013

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The Vatican envoy to Vietnam this week made his first visit to parishes in the country’s northern provinces of Ha Giang and Tuyen Quang without restriction or interference from government officials, Church sources said.

The sources added that the visit by Archibishop Leopoldo Girelli suggested a warming of relations between the Vatican and Vietnam in the months since the country’s Communist Party chief, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI met in Rome in January.

Archbishop Girelli was named non-resident representative for Vietnam in 2011 but has had limited access to certain areas of the country.

Since 2009, a joint Vietnam-Vatican working group has held annual meetings to exchange information and study possible steps toward establishing official diplomatic relations.

Trong was quoted by the BBC at the time of his meeting with Benedict as saying that the Vatican and Vietnam “enjoy a better and better relationship. The two sides aim to work for the common good.”

During his visits to Ha Giang and Tuyen Quang, Archbishop Girelli met with provincial officials and encouraged them “to respect religious freedom and create more favorable conditions for local Catholics to practice their faith and to provide education and charity for local people,” according to a Church source.

“Catholics are good people who work for the common good, not bad ones as authorities propagandize.”

Plainclothes police videotaped and took pictures of Church officials and local Catholics at ceremonies but did not interfere.

The Church source said Archbishop Girelli wanted “to see what challenges Catholics face in remote areas where religious activities are restricted and Catholic communities are not recognized.”

The source added, “The Vatican envoy is studying how the government’s religious policies are enforced in particular areas, and how to work with the government to ease them.”

Joseph Pham Van Khai, a lay leader from Tan Quang parish in Ha Giang province, said that local Catholics had no resident priest or church, hid religious statues and had suffered religious persecution.

In 2007 Father Joachim Dinh Van Hop was assigned to serve the 1,000 local Catholics but was not recognized by local authorities until 2010, Khai said. 

Father Peter Pham Thanh Binh, who began pastoral activities for local Catholics in 2006, said some communities are allowed to gather at their houses for weekly prayers and he visits them two or three times a year.

He said local Catholics have petitioned the government to recognize them as religious communities since 2007, but the government has refused, saying political conditions do not permit it. 

Four of the 10 local mission stations and three chapels are recognized. Church sources said the northern provinces, home to dozens of ethnic minority groups, are seen as “no religion” areas by the government.

Archbishop Girelli has paid fewer than 10 visits a year to the country’s 26 dioceses since he was named papal envoy, but earlier this month, he paid pastoral visits to Catholic ethnic communities in Lai Chau province, which is home to 2,500 Catholics. 

The archbishop, who resides in Singapore and was in Vietnam from March 16 to 21, was accompanied by Bishop John Mary Vu Tat of Hung Hoa diocese.

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