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Vatican takes Vietnam route to reach China

The Holy See banks on similarities in the neighboring Asian communist nations to foster ties

Catholics attend Mass at Hoi Dong church in Ha Nam province on Sept. 26

Catholics attend Mass at Hoi Dong church in Ha Nam province on Sept. 26. (Photo: tonggiaophanhanoi.org)

Published: October 02, 2023 06:59 AM GMT

Updated: October 02, 2023 11:10 AM GMT

In his first-ever letter to Catholics in Vietnam, Pope Francis has stressed bilateral ties with the communist Asian nation after making a similar call to Chinese Catholics last month.

The papal letter addressed to bishops, priests, consecrated persons, and the laity in Vietnam, called on all Catholics to work with the communist authorities to bear witness to Jesus' love and charity.

The pope wrote the letter after Vietnam and the Vatican reached a landmark pact that would allow a pontifical representative to reside in the Southeast nation and open an office for the first time since the last apostolic delegate was expelled from the country in 1975.

The historic pact was inked when Vietnam President Vo Van Thuong met the pope on July 27 at the Vatican.

The Vatican released the papal letter on Sept. 28, although it was dated Sept. 8.

The papal letter said it was issued on the “occasion of the adoption” of the agreement between Vietnam and the Vatican “concerning  the status of a resident pontifical representative in Viet Nam.”

The thaw in ties is traced to a joint working group, established in 2008.

Since 2011, a non-resident papal representative has been paying regular visits to Vietnam from neighboring Singapore.

“Both sides have been able to move forward together and further progress will be possible, recognizing convergences and respecting differences,” the pope wrote in the letter.

“Although each of them comes from different backgrounds and experiences of life, it does not prevent them from seeking together the best way forward for the good of the Vietnamese people and the Church.”

Vietnam's government tolerates no dissent and close to 200 activists are behind bars in a country where they face intimidation, harassment, and restricted movement.

The pope said Catholics “can foster dialogue and engender hope for the country whenever conditions favorable to the exercise of religious freedom are implemented.”

The Church in Vietnam comprises 7 million Catholics across 3,000 parishes, 7,700 institutions, and 11 seminaries, served by 8,000 priests and 41 active bishops, according to official government data.

Francis made a similar call to Catholics in China during his apostolic journey to Mongolia on Sept. 2.

In the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, the pope told more than 200 Catholics present there from the Communist nation: “I ask Chinese Catholics to be good Christians and good citizens.”

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, has called for a permanent form of dialogue based in Beijing, and the pope has sent a special envoy, Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, to explore the possibility of ending the Ukraine war by Russia.

Like Vietnam, China follows a one-party system, led by the Communist Party. It espouses communism along with the ideologies of the late Mao Te-Sung, which serve as the guiding principles for the party and the state.

The Vatican does not have a diplomatic office in China. Their special ties are traced to the secret pact in 2018.

The Vatican has officially but privately also asked China to allow a permanent papal representative in Beijing, Reuters reported in July quoting an unnamed senior Vatican official.

Vatican officials hope that Vietnam's acceptance could help to persuade Beijing to do the same, diplomats told Reuters.

Five years after the deal, interactions with the Church and China have increased significantly.

Pontifical news agency Fides reported that two Chinese bishops will be attending the Synod on Synodality this month.

According to Vatican watchers, the Holy See sees the evolution of ties with Vietnam as a model for dialogue with neighboring China.

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