Vatican foreign minister makes unprecedented visit to Vietnam

HANOI (Reuters) – The Vatican's foreign minister, Paul Richard Gallagher, began an unprecedented six-day visit to communist-ruled Vietnam on Tuesday as the two sides deepened ties.

Gallagher's trip to Vietnam, the first for a Vatican foreign minister, follows other high-profile visits, including by Pope Francis, and the Vatican has said it plans to travel to Indonesia.

While no timeline has been announced for that trip, diplomats expect Francis' health to allow it to connect with other countries in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam. Gallagher said the pope is interested in visiting Vietnam in January.

Vietnam's foreign ministry said Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh will meet with Son on Tuesday afternoon.

Vietnam News Agency reported that Gallagher will also meet with Prime Minister Pham Minh Sinh and hold mass at cathedrals in the capital Hanoi, Hue in the center of the country and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's southern commercial hub.

About 7 million Catholics live in the country of 100 million, government estimates show, making it one of the largest communities in East Asia.

The Vatican severed ties with Vietnam in 1975 after the Communist Party took over the reunified country at the end of the Vietnam War. At the time, officials felt that the Catholic Church in Vietnam was too close to former colonial power France.

According to UCA, an independent Catholic news agency specializing in Asia, Vietnam's government imposes some restrictions on Catholic activities, such as the number of parishes.

In July, when Vietnam's then-president Vo Van Tuong met with Pope Francis, the pair agreed to make Archbishop Marek Zalewski resident papal representative in Hanoi, another unprecedented step years in the making.

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(Reporting by Francesco Curacio and Kan Woo; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

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