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Monday, October 26, 1998 Published at 23:34 GMT

World: Europe

Pope hopes to go to Vietnam

Pope John Paul II: Keen to visit Vietnam

By Religious Affairs Reporter Jane Little

Pope John Paul II might soon visit Vietnam, a trip the Pontiff has for long wanted to make.

The Roman Catholic Bishops of Vietnam have made a formal request to the Communist government to allow the head of the Church to visit the country.

[ image: Pope John Paul II has visited 120 countries]
Pope John Paul II has visited 120 countries
It is the first time that the church has made a written request to the Communist government, which has no diplomatic ties with the Vatican and keeps religious activities under close state control.

According to Fides, the Vatican's missionary news agency, the Vietnamese Bishop's Conference would like the Pope to take part in a large Catholic festival on August 15 next year.

The approach appears to be a well-timed one, as a United Nations official is touring Vietnam to investigate religious freedom.

The UN Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Abdelfattah Amor, has travelled to Vietnam after three years of negotiations.

Fides has asked him to visit four Catholics in jail.

Catholic minority

Bernado Cervellera, the director of Fides, says the Pontiff is very hopeful that the Vietnam visit will go ahead.

"The Pope and the Vatican are very optimistic because we have a lot of hope and I think diplomatic ways can find some special paths," Mr Cervellera said,

He added that John Paul II could visit Vietnam as a spiritual chief, not as a head of state.

If the government gave its approval, the Pope would attend a large pilgrimage at a shrine in the central province of La Vang, where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared 200 years ago.

This year, more than 100,000 Catholics attended the three-day festival, which was widely taken as a sign that the authorities are opening up towards religion.

Roughly 10% of Vietnam's population is Roman Catholic, the vast majority being Buddhist.

Religion is kept under close scrutiny, and the Vatican has long been concerned about limits set on the numbers of trainee priests, which is causing a dramatic shortage.

The government also blocked the Vatican's appointment of the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City for several years.

But now the Church appears to be calculating that if the government really is serious about improving its image on religious freedom, it will accede to a papal visit.

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