The Vatican and Vietnam are due to take a major step towards improving their long strained relations by finalising a deal in which Hanoi will allow the Holy See to have a resident representative in the communist-run country, sources say.
The deal will likely be announced during a visit to the Vatican later this month by Vietnamese President President Vo Van Thuong, according to a senior Vatican official and a Hanoi-based diplomat familiar with the matter.
"We are hoping that this will mark a turning point," the senior Vatican official told Reuters. The Vatican has been asking Hanoi to allow a resident papal representative for more than 10 years. An agreement in principle was reached last year.
Both sources said they expected the president to be received by Pope Francis. It would be the first meeting between the pope and a Vietnamese president since Tran Đại Quang visited in 2016.
There are nearly 7 million Catholics in Vietnam, about 6.6% of the population of 95 million.
Vietnam broke relations with the Vatican after the communists took over the reunited country at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. At the time, the authorities viewed the Catholic Church in Vietnam as having been too close historically to the former colonial power, France.
The current papal representative to Vietnam, Archbishop Marek Zalewski, is based in Singapore, where he is the Vatican nuncio (ambassador). He is allowed to make occasional working visits to Vietnam with government approval.
According to UCA, an independent Catholic news agency that specialises in Asia, the government places certain restrictions on Catholic activities, such as the number of parishes.
Vietnam's constitution allows for freedom of religion and government media have rejected criticisms from groups such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressional watchdog which has placed Vietnam on its list of "countries of particular concern".
The establishment of a resident pontifical representative in Vietnam could lead to full diplomatic relations. But that step could take many years, given that the joint working group that hammered out the latest agreement began its work in 2009.
The Vatican, a sovereign city-state surrounded by Rome, has diplomatic relations with about 180 countries.