.- Pope Benedict XVI met with the President of Vietnam, Nguyen Minh Triet, this morning at the Apostolic Palace in a much awaited encounter. Although it appears that the two countries have not yet decided to establish full diplomatic relations, the Vatican called it "a significant stage in the progress of bilateral relations with Vietnam."
President Triet and a group of at least 12 other delegates from his administration were in attendance for the morning audience. The occasion took place in what was described as a ‘friendly’ atmosphere and lasted for around 40 minutes, incidentally the same amount of time the Pope dedicated to the U.S. President on his visit earlier this year.
Members of the press who witnessed the audience described the atmosphere in particular as “striking” and “almost festive” and said the Pope talked to the delegation “right up to the door” on their way out.
The meeting of the two world leaders was especially meaningful because it showed another solid step towards renewing what were at one time mostly stable relations. Relations with the Holy See were ruptured in 1975 following the unification of North and South Vietnam, at which time there were acts of aggression against the Church, including the expulsion of the Pope's respresentative.
The warm reception on both sides could be considered another reason to celebrate for Vietnamese Catholics, who have just celebrated 350 years of evangelization in their country and the 50th anniversary of the episcopal conference.
There was hope from Catholics in the communist country that this visit had been arranged to announce even stronger formal diplomatic ties, thus producing greater religious freedom in the country and even possibly paving the way for a papal visit at some point in their jubilee year.
Nevertheless, prior to the visit, Catholics throughout Vietnam continued to face persecution for demanding the return of church properties that were seized during the 1975 Communist Revolution.
Monsignor Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon, Bishop of Dalat, and president of the Vietnamese bishops' conference explained to Fides news agency on Wednesday, "For us, this encounter is a sign of reciprocal respect, that will allow for a very useful exchange. The communication serves for a mutual understanding that will open up new promises and hopes for Vietnam and for the Catholic Church."