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In Vietnam, Christianity gains quietly

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Despite a steady thawing in relations, the government continues to keep close tabs on the Catholic Church. It insists on vetting clergy appointments and priesthood candidates, and as recently as 2001 imprisoned a Catholic priest, since released, after he sent written testimony to the US Congress on religious freedom in Vietnam.

Leaders of other faiths remain behind bars, says the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan agency, which designates Vietnam a "country of particular concern." They include the elderly leaders of an outlawed Buddhist sect imprisoned in 2003 and accused of possessing "state secrets," a capital offense.

By contrast, Catholics are enjoying greater freedom in Vietnam. Some say the country's economic liberalization is helping by opening the country to a free flow of ideas and information that is part and parcel of a modernized society. "Integration into the world means opportunities for dialogue with each other, it brings us together," says the Rev. Joseph Dang, secretary of the Vietnam Bishops' Council at Hanoi's cathedral.

Vietnam has yet to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See, though both sides have exchanged visits and say dialogue is improving. Vietnam is among a handful of prominent countries with Catholic populations - such as Russia and China - that have broken ties to the Holy See.

In an unprecedented move, a senior Vatican emissary was invited to Vietnam in November. At a packed service at Hanoi's cathedral, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe led the ordination of 57 new priests and also met with Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan. Cardinal Sepe hailed the visit as historic, telling Italy's La Stampa newspaper that in Vietnam "there are many signs which instill confidence" for a Catholic revival.

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