Hanoi (AsiaNews/EdA) - A meeting on Tuesday between Nguyên Phu Trong, secretary general the Communist Party of Vietnam and head of its Central Committee, and Benedict XVI has sparked contrasting reactions among Vietnamese Catholics, whilst the official press in the Asian country has censured the event. In a rare move, the pope received Mr Nguyen on a day when he does not normally receive guests. For many observers, the general secretary is the real power broker in the Communist state,
For foreign analysts and Vatican experts, the meeting is an important step towards the normalisation of relations. However, critics see the event as an attempt by Vietnamese leaders to take advantage of the pope's prestige to appease international public opinion. In the country itself, Vietnamese Catholics have their doubts about it.
The meeting between the pontiff and a key member of Vietnam's leadership comes at a tense moment in the relationship between the local Church and the country's political authorities following the heavy prison sentences inflicted on13 Catholics and the destruction of the Carmelite convent in Hanoi.
Recent events have left Catholics in a gloomy spirit, as shown by commentaries posted on Vietcatholics News and VRN, the website of Vietnam's Redemptorists. Some commentators and readers accused Communist leaders of "using the good will and prestige of the Holy See" to sweep under the rug "the country's shortcomings in human rights and religious freedom".
They note past examples of this behaviour. The visit to the Holy See by then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on 25 January 2007 was followed by the arrest of Fr Nguyen Van Ly, and the visit by President Nguyen Minh Triet on 11 December 2009 was followed a month later by the demolition of the cross of Dong Chiem parish.
By contrast, Vietnam's official newspapers did not mention the meeting between the pope and Nguyên Phu Trong, even though they gave wide coverage to the visit by the secretary general and other high Communist leaders to Italy.
For many Catholics, the goal of establishing diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Vietnam cannot hide the fact that the Church and Catholics are harassed in Vietnam, as evinced by the recent adoption of a new law that increases controls on religions. In fact, the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City refused to take part in an official ceremony marking the publication of the new decree.
Last month, the Religious Affairs Bureau had invited representatives of the archdiocese to the ceremony held on 24 December, but Card Pham Minh Man turned down the invitation, saying that he had too many services to attend to on Christmas Eve. In addition, he said that the presence of clergymen to "this kind of ceremony" organised by the government was "unnecessary".