Vatican City, Jan 22, 2013 / 01:03 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Benedict received in audience today the secretary general of Vietnam's Communist Party, discussing issues of interest to the Vatican city-state and Vietnam.
The pontiff spoke with Nguyên Phú Trong on Jan. 22, who then met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and the Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.
The Church leaders addressed with Trong their hopes of strengthening the existing fruitful cooperation between the two states.
Trong's audience with the Pope was unusual in that he is a political leader and not a head of state, with whom Pope Benedict would usually meet.
His visit with Pope Benedict is part of a wider European tour he is conducting with another nine members of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Trong met with Italian authorities on Jan. 21 and will end his European trip with a visit to London on Jan. 24.
A Vietnamese delegation from the office in charge of religious affairs visited the Vatican just two months ago.
The Holy See has not had full diplomatic ties with Vietnam since 1975, though in 2011 Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, apostolic nuncio to Singapore, was appointed the Vatican's “Official” to Vietnam.
“Most Vietnamese will say, 'Well, this is just another meeting,' but it’s the first time a secretary general, the most powerful member of the Communist Party, visits the Pope,” Father Cuong Pham, a priest of Vietnamese descent, told CNA Jan. 22.
“I think we should give them the benefit of the doubt that there is a sincere desire to improve relations and engage the Church with the Holy See,” he added.
But Fr. Pham, who works in Rome, said the situation for Catholics there remains difficult.“The situation has worsened because there is a big faction among members of the government that is hostile to religion as a whole and they feel like the Catholic Church is becoming too prominent,” Fr. Pham noted.
“By limiting the Church’s role, they want to show that the government is in charge because they don’t think that any religious group should have that type of influence,” he added.
And according to Fr. Pham, there are more tensions on a local level than on a government level.
“In several areas of the country there have been cases of abuse on high levels, which even violate Vietnamese law and the constitution,” said the priest.
He also observed that meeting with the Pope could perhaps change public opinion about Vietnam's human rights abuses.
“It makes the Vietnamese government look good and also that they are solicitous towards the Church and respecting freedom of religion, although that’s only on the surface and we don’t know if it will translate into action,” he said.
“The average Vietnamese would hope that the Holy Father has used the opportunity to speak for them, who are voiceless.”
Vietnamese Catholics, who constitute some seven percent of the nation's population, often face persecution from the atheist government.