By Charles Igwe
In a significant step towards improved relations, the Vatican and the government of Vietnam jointly announced an agreement allowing the Vatican to have a permanent resident papal representative in Vietnam. The momentous announcement was made during the visit of Vietnam’s President Vo Van Thuong to the Vatican, where he engaged in talks with Pope Francis and Holy See Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
The agreement marks a notable milestone in diplomatic relations, serving as an intermediary step below an apostolic nuncio. Despite not having full diplomatic relations, the Holy See and Vietnam have been engaging in formal bilateral discussions since 2009. Since 2011, the Holy See had a nonpermanent, nonresident pontifical representative to Vietnam, and in 2018, Vatican and Vietnamese delegations decided to upgrade this status to a permanent resident. Subsequent discussions were held at the Vatican in August 2019 to solidify the agreement.
Both sides expressed their appreciation for the progress in relations between Vietnam and the Holy See and acknowledged the positive contributions made by the Catholic community in Vietnam. The resident papal representative is expected to support the efforts of the Vietnamese Catholic community in a manner that aligns with the law, promoting the development of the country and fostering harmonious relations between Vietnam and the Holy See.
Vietnam’s population of 97 million includes approximately 7.5% Catholics, with most practicing folk religions, followed by Buddhism. While the Vietnamese constitution guarantees individual freedom of belief and religious freedom, the government retains significant control over religious practice, and religious freedom may be restricted in the interest of national security and social unity.
Catholic communities in Vietnam have faced certain limitations since the communist regime took power in 1976. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Vietnam be designated a “country of particular concern” in their 2023 report, citing worsening religious freedom conditions. The report highlighted government persecution of religious groups, especially unregistered independent communities, and harassment of Catholic communities, including disruptions of Mass and land disputes with local authorities.
Despite these challenges, the agreement on a permanent papal representative represents a positive step towards strengthening ties and fostering dialogue between the Holy See and Vietnam.