By Simon Montlake
Phat Diem, northern Vietnam
Phat Diem's distinctive 19th-Century Catholic cathedral is a popular draw for local and foreign tourists.
Catholicism is blossoming again in Vietnam
Its architecture is a mix of East and West - carved stone pillars, wooden side-panels and Chinese pagoda-style roofs.
It is a symbol of Catholicism in northern Vietnam that has endured decades of turmoil and communist repression.
Vietnam has the second biggest Catholic community in South-East Asia, a legacy of French colonial rule. But the communists who took control of Vietnam in 1975 distrusted this foreign influence.
Now, however, restrictions on Catholicism in Vietnam are beginning to ease, in line with a general opening up of the country ever since the reforms of the 1990s.
After the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the ruling communist party imposed tight conditions on Catholicism and other faiths.
Church services were cancelled and seminaries emptied of trainees, leaving many parishes without priests to hold Mass.
Some church leaders who resisted were sent to labour camps.
But now seminaries are expanding, priests are free to travel and study overseas and more churches are being built.
Father Peter Phuc, the priest at Phat Diem, said the situation was much improved.
"In the 1980s, we had a shortage of priests. We felt isolated here. Now I see development; we're building up again," he said.
Last December, Father Phuc made his first-ever visit to Rome, together with nine other priests from his diocese.
In a sign of the delicate relationship that continues between Vietnam and Rome, however, he did not visit the Vatican, the ecclesiastical capital of Catholicism.
Like neighbouring communist China, Vietnam does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
The government refuses to recognise the Vatican's power to appoint clergy and insists on having the final say on appointments.
However, there are signs of improving ties between the two sides.
Last November, a senior Vatican emissary was invited to Vietnam. At a packed service at Hanoi's cathedral, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe led the ordination of 57 new priests, and he met Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan, a political heavyweight.
Some believe this visit could eventually pave the way for Pope Benedict XVI to visit, something his predecessor tried and failed to do.
"Until now, I hadn't dared to dream of this," said Rev Joseph Dang, secretary of the Vietnam Bishops' Council.
"But there are still many steps to take before any (papal) visit."
While conditions have improved for Catholics, other faiths continue to face discrimination in Vietnam, according to human rights groups.
The US government accuses Vietnam of systematically violating religious freedoms, particularly in ethnic-minority highland areas.
It says religious clergy are imprisoned for their beliefs, including leaders of minority-based Protestant churches. Elderly leaders of a banned Buddhist sect are also behind bars.
Vietnamese officials deny any discrimination and say laws have been updated to prevent coercion of religious followers.
CATHOLICISM IN VIETNAM
Spread by missionaries during French colonial rule
One of six religions recognised by state
5-7 million followers, mostly in south
"Vietnamese citizens have the freedom to choose their religion. All religions are equal under the law," said Nguyen Thi Bach Tuyet, a member of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.
Vietnam's Catholic faithful say their lives are normal - they worship freely and do not feel it is a barrier for getting ahead.
One young man working on a church refurbishment told me he wanted to become a priest when he grew up. "I don't think there's any discrimination from the government," he said.
Church leaders say the government recognises that religions can contribute to social development. "It's quite common that religious followers are also Party members," Ms Nguyen said.
As repression has eased, new churches have been built and more priests have begun serving the local communities.
The Rev Phuc said the growth rate was astonishing.
"In the past 10 years, almost every year a new church is built. I can't keep track."
At a church in a nearby village, worshippers recall how overworked priests used to bicycle between parishes to give services.
In 2004, the church finally got a full-time priest.
Nguin Thi Sau, 89, a retired farmer, spends most afternoons inside its cool stone walls.
"I come here and I read my bible. Then I go home," she said, fingering her prayer beads.
What is your reaction to increased religious freedoms in Vietnam? Are you part of a religious minority in an Asian country? How free are you to practise your faith? Send us your comments and experiences.
I am a Vietnamese-American born and raised in San Jose and generally keep up with the happenings in Viet Nam. I am also a Vietnamese Catholic. First off, to have anyone speak negatively of the current regime or state of Viet Nam in public is a deathwish for any person in Viet Nam. Therefore, everything said and documented by people in Viet Nam must be positive lest they wanted to risk their well-being. The only accounts I would even consider were those that were anonymous.
Andrew Anh Vu Nguyen, San Jose, CA USA
I'm so glad that there is increase in relgious freedom in Vietnam. I'm a Vietnamese American studying at a Seminary in Epworth, IA. and I'm really glad that my fellow brothers in Vietnam are getting the same opportunity to follow their heart to any calling they like. Here in America, we take our freedom of religion so lightly, but we should be grateful for it. I'm proud to be an American and at the same time joyous for other Vietnamese in Vietnam who are increasingly getting the same freedom as I do here.
Nathaniel Nguyen, Lincoln, NE, USA
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