Vatican’s top diplomat visits Vietnam, looks to normalize relations

HANOI, Vietnam — The Vatican’s top diplomat began a six-day visit to Vietnam on Tuesday as a part of efforts to normalize relations with the communist nation. 

Richard Gallagher, the Holy See’s foreign minister, met his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son and expressed the Vatican’s “gratitude” for the progress that has been made to improve ties. The visit took place after Archbishop Marek Zalewski became the first Vatican representative to live and open an office in the Southeast Asian country. 

“The visit is of great importance,” said Son. 

Gallagher will also meet Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and visit a children’s hospital in the capital, Hanoi, state-run Vietnam News Agency reported. He will hold Mass in Hanoi, Hue in central Vietnam, and the financial hub of Ho Chi Minh City in the south. 

Gallagher is the Vatican’s No. 2 and his visit to Hanoi was an “important moment” that showed that the relationship was continuing while the sides wait for an upgrade to full diplomatic relations, said Giorgio Bernardelli, the head of AsiaNews, a Catholic Missionary news agency. 

Relations between the Vatican and Vietnam were severed in 1975, after the Communist Party established its rule over the entire country following the end of the Vietnam War. Relations have been strained ever since, although the sides have had regular talks since at least the late 1990s. 

The agreement to appoint the Vatican’s permanent representative in Vietnam was signed in July 2023, during former President Vo Van Thuong’s visit to the Holy See. Thuong also extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit Vietnam. But Thuong has since resigned, becoming the latest victim of an intense anti-corruption campaign. 

Bernardelli said that the pope’s potential visit was likely to be discussed, adding that it also depended on the political situation in Hanoi following the president’s resignation 

He said that an improvement in ties with Vietnam could also have implications for the Holy See’s ties with communist-ruled China. The relationship with Vietnam had always been a “point of reference, but with important differences,” since unlike China, Vietnam has been keen to improve relations with the Vatican and the West. 

Beijing severed diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951, after the communists rose to power and expelled foreign priests. 

Catholicism is officially the most practiced religion in Vietnam, with 5.9 million or 44.6% of the 13.2 million people who identified as religious in a 2019 census saying they were Catholic. That works out to more than 6% of the country’s population. 

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