Vatican ordains first priests in Vietnam

.- 57 priests were ordained today in Viet Nam, in a move towards more religious freedom, in strongly secularized and officialy atheist country. 

The ceremony was presided over by Cardinal Crescienzio Sepe, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, urging the newly ordained priests to "convert more people in the southeast."

"They will be like Jesus here," Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, head of the Vatican's missionary arm, told a cheering crowd of several thousand at a ceremony in Hanoi Cathedral, a Gothic edifice built by Vietnam's French colonial rulers in the heart of the capital.

"Those who have not heard about Jesus should listen to these priests," he said. "Of the 80 million Vietnamese, only 6 million are Catholics."

Sepe was the first ranking Vatican official to be allowed to ordain priests in Vietnam, a reflection of the steadily improving ties between Hanoi's communist government and the Roman Catholic Church.

Leaders of Vietnam's Catholic Church, which dates back to French colonial days, were given blanket approval to travel to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II. They also received messages of sympathy from top Communist party leaders.

Before the ceremony, Sepe went on a procession through the narrow streets of Hanoi, packed with thousands of well-wishers, some of whom had traveled from 150 km away to witness the ordination.

Sepe met government leaders on Monday to express the Vatican's wish to improve ties with Vietnam and request for permission to build Catholic schools and publish Catholic magazines.

While the status of Catholics has steadily improved since the 1975 communist unification of the country at the end of the Vietnam War, lingering suspicion remains about the activities of Catholics and other religious leaders.

Amid concerns raised both by the US Government and the Europeans about  religious freedom in Viet Nam, Hanoi says it respects freedom of religion, and there are now no restrictions on individual worship. Churches are filled on Sunday and other Christian holy days.

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