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Vietnam May Welcome Pope Visit

March 4, 1999

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) _ For the first time, Vietnam appeared today to leave the door open for a visit by Pope John Paul II, while making clear that several requirements would have to be met.

First would be establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and communist Vietnam, a subject believed to be on the agenda when the Vatican’s deputy foreign minister, Monsignor Celestino Migliore, visits later this month.

``The pope is the head of state for the Vatican and a very important person,″ Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh said. ``Inviting and receiving the pope is no simple matter.″

Vietnam’s Roman Catholic bishops have formally invited the pontiff to visit, and Vatican officials have said an Asian trip later this year appears certain. There has been speculation that stops would include Vietnam, the Philippines and Hong Kong.

When asked in the past about whether Vietnam would allow him to come, the standard response has been that no invitation has been issued and none was envisioned.

Thanh said Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Manh Cam relayed a message Jan. 20 to the national bishops council from Prime Minister Phan Van Khai that there was ``no clear road map yet″ on establishing relations or planning a pope trip.

``The opinion of the prime minister is this has yet to be realized now,″ she said. ``Until now, the Vatican has yet to define such a road map.″

Relations between the Vatican and Vietnam, traditionally icy over government controls over church operations and appointments, appeared to warm somewhat last year.

Vietnam’s primary religion is Buddhism, but about 8 million of its 78 million people are Catholics. Any religion not officially sanctioned by the government is considered superstition that must be eliminated.

While human-rights groups claim a number of people are in jail for their religious beliefs, Vietnam says it has no political or religious prisoners, only people who have broken the law.

The U.S. Congress has included Vietnam on a list of countries that practice religious suppression.

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