HANOI -- When Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung meets with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican today , he will become the first leader of the communist country to visit the Holy See.
Vietnamese clerics hope the meeting will lay the groundwork for normalization of relations between Hanoi and the Vatican, which have lacked diplomatic ties since Vietnam won its independence from France in 1954.
It will also highlight the changes in the Vietnamese government's relationship with its roughly 6 million Catholic citizens.
Vietnam's Catholic community, the second largest in Asia after the Philippines , has had a fraught relationship with the Communist Party since the 1940s, when French-trained priests condemned the communist independence fighters known then as the Viet Minh.
For decades after their victory, Vietnam's communists restricted the church's activities and treated Catholics with suspicion.
But in the last decade and a half those tensions have finally eased, and Catholics here see the Vatican meeting as a major step forward.
"The prime minister's trip is a historic move," said Archbishop Nguyen Nhu The of the central Vietnamese city of Hue.
"People are pinning their expectations on the trip. We look forward to establishing diplomatic relations."
The Vietnamese government has been more circumspect. The Foreign Ministry declined to comment yesterday on what Prime Minister Dung and Pope Benedict would discuss, or to mention the prospect of normalizing relations.
Subjects of tension remain between the church and the Vietnamese government.
One point of friction is the government's insistence since the 1980s that it be allowed to veto candidates for bishop and archbishop. "The appointment of bishops by the Vatican is not entirely free," said Archbishop The.
As for other clergy, "it is easy to ordain priests in the country, but there are limitations in recruiting seminarians," The said. The church is only allowed to operate six seminaries in the country, and each archdiocese is limited to 10 new seminarians every two years.
As a result, Vietnam has a severe shortage of priests. "In Phat Diem, there are 69 parishes, but we have a total of 50 priests, of whom only 44 can work," said Bishop Nguyen Hong Phuc of Phat Diem, some 100 miles south of Hanoi.
Phuc says with the restrictions on seminaries, it will take five years to train enough priests for all his vacant churches.
Another source of tension is real estate. The Phat Diem diocese is involved in a dispute with the local government, which borrowed some of the church's property in the 1970s for use as a school and has refused to return it.
Government officials play down such issues. The international relations officer at the government's Committee on Religion, Nguyen Thi Bach Thuyet, denied that the government can reject candidates for bishop or archbishop.
"In fact, it is not a matter of asking for approval. It is a consultation," she said. "The government does not decide it."
The US State Department says that while the government maintains the technical right to veto appointments, in practice it has cooperated with the Vatican's choices in recent years.
Catholicism came to Vietnam in the early 1600s, brought by Portuguese and French missionaries. Over several centuries, Catholics had a profound effect on Vietnamese culture; one, the 17th-century Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes, designed the first Romanized Vietnamese alphabet.
In the mid-1800s, repression of Catholic missionaries by several Vietnamese emperors served as the pretext for France's imperial conquest of the country.
By the 1940s, some areas of northern Vietnam were so heavily Catholic that writers began comparing the landscape to northern France and Belgium, with their dikes, poplar-lined roads, and church towers dotting the flat horizon.
The bishop of Phat Diem even commanded his own small army, which did battle against the Viet Minh. (The battle scene in Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" takes place in Phat Diem.)
As Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party took power in North Vietnam in 1954, some 650,000 of its Catholics fled to the South, fearing a crackdown. There, they formed the nucleus of Ngo Dinh Diem's new South Vietnamese government. Catholic-Buddhist and Catholic-Communist clashes ensued, and in the north, the church was severely restricted.
"They closed all the seminaries in the north, starting in '54," said Father Joseph Nguyen Thien An, a 74-year-old priest teaching at the seminary in Hanoi. "So we had clandestine priests, clandestine organizations." When the north conquered the south in 1975, the ban was extended to cities including An's native Nha Trang. The seminaries were not reopened until 1983, as part of the country's nascent reform policies.
Today, Hanoi's seminary echoes with the shouts of 180 young seminarians, playing badminton after classes in the courtyard between the school's graceful yellow colonial buildings.
Next door, St. Joseph's Cathedral hosts four Masses per day; at various churches in Hanoi, Mass can be heard in English, French, and even Korean.
On holidays, St. Joseph's is full to overflowing with worshippers singing hymns in Vietnamese. But 33-year-old Tran Thu Hang, who works for the Catholic charity and development organization Maryknoll, says she doesn't think the faith is growing among the younger generation.
"I think it's pretty much just remaining stable, because nowadays a lot of people don't think very much about religion," she said. "They just think it's some kind of group to tell them what to do."
But Hang says being religious is far easier today than in the '80s, when young Catholics hid their religious identity for fear of being shut out of organizations like the Youth Union.
Father Tom O'Brien, who has worked for Maryknoll in Hanoi for more than a decade, said the Vietnamese government has been gradually building up trust toward Catholics and their organizations. He noted that the group did have to register as a humanitarian organization rather than a religious one, and had to assure the government that it would not proselytize in Vietnam.
But over the years, the government has become less anxious about religious organizations. And Father An says that for all the history of mutual animosity, Vietnam's communist government has nothing to worry about.
"For 30 years already, the church has not opposed the government as long as they allow us religious freedom," An said. But he said that freedom remains incomplete in Vietnam. "In the precinct of the church here, we have freedom. Outside, not entirely."