Some 30,000 people attend the Feast of Assumption on Dec. 8 at the Nui Cui Pilgrimage Center of Our Lady in Dong Nai province. (Photo: giaophanxuanloc.net)

By UCA News reporter

Jan 3 2024

Catholics in Vietnam are hoping for more religious freedom in the coming year after relations markedly improved between the government and the Vatican in 2023.

Father Anthony Duong Quynh, vicar general of Hue Archdiocese, said Catholics across the communist-ruled country were delighted to see the significant breakthrough in relations between the two sides.

The Vatican and the Vietnamese government reached a long-awaited agreement in July that would allow a papal representative to reside in the country and open an office there for the first time since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

Quynh said the two sides have moved closer to further official diplomatic relations after Vietnam President Vo Van Thuong, who met with Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin at the Vatican, officially invited the pope to visit the Southeast Asian country.

In March, the Vietnam–Holy See Joint Working Group met in Vatican City and had a “broad and deep exchange of views” on mutual relations, “including issues related to the Catholic Church in Vietnam,” according to a joint press statement after the meeting.

The statement said the two sides restated the freedom of the Church within the bounds of the law to carry out its mission for the good of the whole of society. They agreed that Catholics in Vietnam would continue to follow their vocation to be good Catholics and good citizens.

The authoritarian government also developed relations with religious groups in the United States so as to seek their support.

The Government Committee for Religious Affairs reported that in October a Vietnam delegation led by Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Vu Chien Thang visited and discussed issues related to human rights and religious freedom with US government officials and Christian organizations including the World Evangelical Alliance and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The delegation also met with Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.

Thang reportedly called on them to lobby the US State Department to remove Vietnam from the “special watch list.”

The committee, which controls activities of all religious groups in the country, said Vietnam allowed as many as 55 volunteers from the US-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to do charity activities in some places in the country in 2023.

The US-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association organized a historic religious event including public Bible talks and Gospel singing, attracting 14,000 people in Ho Chi Minh City in March.

Father Ignatius Nguyen Quang Anh from Loc Thuy sub-parish in Thua Thien Hue province said the government tried to get closer to the country’s seven million Catholics, who are praised for making great contributions to improving material and emotional life of people in need and ethnic groups in remote areas.

Anh said Thuong became the first president to visit the headquarters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam in August after he met with Pope Francis and Cardinal Parolin at the Vatican.

Thuong also visited Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Chi Linh of Hue and gave warm Christmas greetings to local Catholics on Dec 14.

The 76-year-old priest said that in recent years the government has eased its religious policies by allowing unlimited candidates into seminaries and religious orders, and construction of church facilities.

The local dioceses are given opportunities to hold big religious events. Some 20,000 youths from 10 northern dioceses attended their annual gathering at the compound of Ben Dong Church on Nov 19-20 in Hanoi City. Some 30,000 Marian devotees attend the Feast of Assumption on Dec. 8 at the Nui Cui Pilgrimage Center of Our Lady in Dong Nai province.

The Ho Chi Minh City Department of Natural Resources and Environment granted property ownership certificates to 48 religious organizations including Catholic parishes and congregations in 2023.

Anh said although the government still intervenes in the Vatican’s process of episcopal nominations for local dioceses, in 2023 it approved three new bishops — Peter Le Tan Loi, Peter Kieu Cong Tung, and Joseph Huynh Van Sy for the dioceses of Can Tho, Phat Diem, and Nha Trang respectively.

The Vatican also nominated Bishop Louis Nguyen Anh Tuan, who had served as apostolic administrator of Ha Tinh, to be resident bishop of the northern diocese, and Bishop Joseph Dang Duc Ngan of Da Nang to be Coadjutor Archbishop of Hue.

Among the country’s 27 dioceses, the dioceses of Ban Me Thuot and Da Nang remain vacant.

Some Catholics attribute the improved Vietnam-Holy See relations to Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Nang, head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam. The prelate in October for the first time officially invited Pope Francis to visit local Catholics, whose ancestors received the Catholic faith from foreign missionaries nearly 500 years ago.

The archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City hoped that the Vietnam-Vatican relationship will move to a higher level “so that we can have an opportunity to welcome the pope to visit us one day.”

He said local Catholics “earnestly desire to gather around the Vicar of Christ who inspires us to strengthen our communion, participation and mission of evangelization.” – UCA News