Meeting comes as restrictions on Catholics in some parts of Vietnam are being eased

Diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Vietnam were strengthened yesterday when Pope Benedict XVI met Nguyen Phu Trong. It is the first time a pope has met the general secretary of the nation’s Communist Party.

Mr Trong, who has been general secretary of the party’s central committee party since 2011, was accompanied by an 11-person delegation of other high-level party and government officials. The Vatican was one of a number of stops the delegation had planned in Europe.

The Pope and Mr Trong held closed-door talks for half an hour. The party official was treated with all the pomp and circumstance of a typical head-of-state visit, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told journalists after the meeting.

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The two also exchanged gifts. Mr Trong presented the Pope an engraved tray with mother of pearl inlay, and the Pope gave him a picture of the Casina Pio IV villa in the Vatican Gardens.

The general secretary and his delegation then met Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Vatican secretary for relations with states, and other officials from the Secretariat of State.

Discussions were “cordial”, “very serene and very constructive,” Fr Lombardi said.

The Church and religious activity face strict controls in Vietnam, though some parts of the country have seen a gradual easing of restrictions on Catholic practices.

The two sides expressed hopes that “some pending situations could be resolved soon” and that the “current fruitful collaboration” may be strengthened, the Vatican said in a written statement.

The Holy See and Vietnam have launched a process aimed at full diplomatic relations; there is a non-resident papal representative to the country, and the two sides are engaged in ongoing talks.

The Vatican and Vietnam established a formal committee to discuss diplomatic relations after Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met Pope Benedict in 2007. That meeting marked the first time a prime minister from Vietnam’s communist government met a pope and top officials from the Vatican Secretariat of State.

Another major step in the process was Pope Benedict’s meeting with Vietnamese president Nguyen Minh Triet in 2009.

Soon after that meeting, the two sides agreed to the appointment of a papal representative who – for the time being – would not be residing in Vietnam, but the move was still seen as a first step toward diplomatic relations. That representative, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, was named in January 2011.

For years, top Vatican diplomats made annual trips to Vietnam to work out details of the Church’s life in the country and for decades Church leaders, particularly from the US and France, have visited at the invitation of Vietnamese bishops.

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