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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 November 2005, 07:55 GMT
Vatican ordains Vietnam priests
Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe (1st L) lays his hand on newly ordained priests, at Hanoi's cathedral 29 November 2005.
Cardinal Sepe (standing, left) said the timing was significant
Thousands of Vietnamese Roman Catholics have been celebrating the first ordination of priests in the country by a cardinal from the Vatican.

Fifty-seven priests were ordained in a ceremony outside Hanoi Cathedral.

Vietnam's Communist rulers insist on strict controls over how Catholics in the country worship.

But correspondents say ties are gradually improving between the government and the Roman Catholic church.

Crowds filled the streets of the Vietnamese capital, some perching on balconies or rooftops to watch the outdoor ceremony.

"I salute my hosts... It is of high significance that this ordination ceremony here is taking place in the beginning of the Christmas season," Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, head of the Vatican's missionary arm, told the cheering crowd.

'Mutual understanding'

"Those who have not heard about Jesus should listen to these priests," he said. "Of the 80 million Vietnamese, only 6 million are Catholics."

Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe  distributes holy communion to the faithful at the end of an ordination ceremony outside Hanoi's cathedral, 29 November 2005.
Thousands of Vietnamese attended

No Vietnamese government officials attended the ordination, but Cardinal Sepe met Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan on Monday, and his trip has been reported by state media.

Foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung said last week that the cardinal's visit "will contribute to further promoting mutual understanding between the Vatican and Vietnam".

Vietnam has the second highest recorded population of Catholics in Asia, after the Philippines.

The religion's hold in Vietnam dates back to French colonial times.

A BBC correspondent in Bangkok says the apparent improvement in relations between the Vatican and the Vietnamese government contrasts with the experience of Buddhist dissidents, many of whom are imprisoned after campaigning for improved human rights. The government also remains extremely suspicious of many Protestant churches, suspected of having links to the United States.

But the government says it respects religious freedom and points to the many Vietnamese who now attend churches on Sunday.

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