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Q+A - Vietnam, Vatican talk about diplomatic relations
HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet will meet Pope Benedict this week during a trip to Italy to talk about improving ties. The Vatican and the Communist-run Southeast Asian country do not have diplomatic relations.
Vietnam's Council of Bishops has also invited the Pope to visit the country next year. Below are some questions and answers about the Vietnam-Vatican relationship.
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN VIETNAM?
Catholicism in Vietnam dates back centuries. Vietnam's population of 86 million people is mostly Buddhist, but roughly seven percent are Catholic, making it one of the biggest Catholic communities in Asia.
Unlike in China, where the state keeps its thumb on religion through a Communist Party-backed "patriotic" church, there is no direct state intervention in Vietnam and Catholics are loyal to the Vatican.
The Catholic Church is the largest organisation in Vietnam outside of the Communist Party, which keeps close tabs on religion and curtails the activities of adherents when they are deemed to cross into politics.
WHAT'S THE CONTEXT OF THIS VISIT?
Last year, Catholic clergy led mass prayer vigils and protests over parcels of land in Hanoi and elsewhere that the church said the government had seized improperly decades ago. At one point, eight people were arrested for their role in a protest but a court later handed them relatively light sentences.
More recently, Catholics in Tam Toa, to the south of Hanoi, tried to set up a makeshift place of worship at a church that was bombed by U.S. warplanes and had been designated a war relic. Police blocked them from doing so, arrested several people and Catholic news sources say some were injured in a scuffle.
Large protests ensued, marking an unprecedented challenge to the government and possibly putting pressure on the Communist Party to advance its dialogue with the Vatican -- or at least make a show of doing so. Some analysts have speculated that the government asked for the Vatican's help in quelling the demonstrations.
WHY DON'T HANOI AND THE HOLY SEE HAVE DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS?
Vietnam is among the handful of countries in the world with which the Vatican does not have relations. In Asia, the others are China, North Korea, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar.
When Vietnam's Communist forces overthrew the French and the country was split by the Geneva Convention in 1954, hundreds of thousands of Catholics fled to the south. Five years later, the Vatican uprooted its office in Hanoi and moved to Saigon where it kept an envoy to the U.S.-backed Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, until that government fell in 1975.
Hints of a thaw in relations with Hanoi began to appear in the late 1980s, but things have moved at a glacial pace because the Communist government is wary of organised opposition and, to a lesser extent, religion in general.
The Vatican and the Vietnamese government have had more than a dozen rounds of talks over the years and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met the Pope in early 2007.
WHAT DO DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS MEAN FOR BOTH SIDES?
By many accounts, the Vatican is more keen to establish relations than the Vietnamese government.
Nevertheless, given the protests and a vocal overseas Catholic Vietnamese community, senior Communist leaders may be weighing the costs and benefits of detente with the Vatican.
If the Vatican did, indeed, help calm the protests last year, the party may see enhanced relations as a useful way of keeping control over the Catholics in the country.
From the Vatican's perspective, establishing formal ties with Vietnam could prompt other countries to improve bilateral ties.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)
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