.- The Vietnamese government has announced that President Nguyen Minh Triet will visit the Vatican and meet with Pope Benedict XVI next week to strengthen ties between his country and the Holy See.
The countries do not have diplomatic relations and Vietnamese Catholics continue to protest their treatment at the hands of the communist government. However, Vietnam and the Holy See have begun reconciliation in recent years, according to Agence France Presse.
President Triet will visit the Vatican on Dec. 11 as part of a European tour through Italy, Spain and Slovakia.
Vietnamâs Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said the president will meet with Pope Benedict during his trip to Italy. They will discuss "measures to reinforce relations between Vietnam and the Vatican," which she said have been progressing well.
The AFP reports that she did not give details of the agenda for the papal meeting and did not say whether the issue of confiscated Catholic land will be discussed.
The communist government has seized many Catholic properties, but in December 2007 Catholics began a series of demonstrations seeking their return.
The demonstrations have occasionally led to clashes with the police. Government-backed gangs have reportedly attacked protesters and ransacked churches.
In 2007 the Catholic priest Fr. Nguyen Van Ly was jailed for eight years on the charge of spreading propaganda against the state. His sister reports that his health is deteriorating, AFP says.
The priestâs case has drawn condemnation from diplomats and human rights groups. In early July 2009, a bipartisan group of 37 U.S. Senators sent a letter to the Vietnamese president calling for his release.
Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung made a historic visit to the Vatican in 2007. Earlier this year a senior Vatican official led a delegation to the country to hold the first formal meetings with government authorities to discuss establishing diplomatic ties.
Vietnam has the largest Catholic community in Southeast Asia after the Philippines. About six million of Vietnamâs 86 million people are Catholic.
According to the AFP, religious activity remains under state control in the country.