.- A Vatican diplomatic delegation began its sixteenth annual visit to Vietnam on Sunday following a year of Church-state clashes concerning the ownership of confiscated church properties. One Vietnamese priest said the delegation faces “enormous difficulties” in its planned talks with government officials.
Arriving at the Archbishopric of Hanoi, the delegation was welcomed by Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, Auxiliary Bishop Lawrence Chu Van Minh, priests, religious and thousands of students, Fr. J.B. An Dang tells CNA.
The delegation was composed of Archbishop Pietro Parolin, Undersecretary for Relations with States; Msgr. Francis Cao Minh Dung, head of the Bureau of Southeast Asian Affairs at the Secretariat of State; and Msgr. Barnabe Nguyen Van Phuong, bureau chief at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
After a welcoming ceremony described as “very energetic and enthusiastic,” the delegation met with the archbishop.
On Monday and Tuesday the delegation will have meetings with government authorities at the Foreign Ministry and the Central Committee on Religious Affairs concerning the diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Holy See.
On Feb. 12 the Vietnamese government announced that the meetings will “discuss the possibility of establishing 'diplomatic relations' with the Holy See.” Local Catholic sources believe that will not be the main topic, Fr. An Dang reports.
Since September 2008, the Vietnamese government has repeatedly asked for the removal of Archbishop Joseph Ngo. The Archbishop has suffered a long period of virtual house arrest, a public defamation campaign conducted by state-run media, and has endured public threats of violence and death aimed at him personally.
He attracted the government’s ire through his strong support for Catholic protests seeking the return of confiscated Church properties.
“The government raised the issue [of the archbishop’s transfer] with the Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops and was frankly rejected by the bishops,” said Fr. Joseph Nguyen from Hanoi. “But it will try again. The Vatican delegation will face enormous difficulties.”
Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, Chairman of the Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a Feb. 13 letter asked Catholics in Vietnam for “intensive prayers and sacrifices as a sign of solidarity and the love for the Church.”
Following the talks with government officers in Hanoi, the Vatican delegation will have meetings with the Executive Committee of the Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops and with Vietnamese archbishops.
The delegation will then visit the dioceses of Thai Binh and Bui Chu in North Vietnam.
“The situation of the Church in Vietnam has been somewhat improved due in good part to the persistent efforts of the Holy See to maintain an official dialogue with the authorities, including a more or less annual visit to Vietnam of a Vatican delegation,” Fr. An Dang tells CNA. “However, there can be no denying that religious freedom is still severely limited in today's Vietnam. Typically, the government still requires consultation on the appointment of bishops and the selection of candidates for the priesthood.”
He explained that church property is another source of conflict, saying:
“Many properties that once belonged to the Church have been administered by the State on the grounds that they were needed for social purposes. Even when their purposes are no longer met, the buildings are seldom returned to their owners.”