About 10,000 people participated in a ceremony for the creation of a new diocese, the first in more than 30 years in Vietnam, in yet another sign of thawing relations between the communist government and the Holy See, church officials said Monday. The ceremony to create Ba Ria Diocese was presided over by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, who heads the Vatican's evangelization office, priest Nguyen Duc Quynh of Chu Hai parish said. Monsignor Thomas Nguyen Van Tram was appointed the bishop of Ba Ria.
"The creation of this new diocese is a good thing for Vietnam's Catholic Church," Quynh said. "It also reflects the thawing relations between the Vatican and the government of Vietnam." Ba Ria Diocese will have more than 220,000 Catholics, he said. Phan Thiet Diocese in the southern coastal province of Binh Thuan was the last new diocese established in Vietnam in January 1975.
Last week, Sepe also presided over the ordination of 57 priests in Hanoi, the largest number of clergy added to the communist country in a single ceremony. During his visit, Sepe met with several government officials including Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan.
While predominantly Buddhist, Vietnam has an estimated 6 million Catholics, the second highest number in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.
Church officials said the large number was an indication of the gradual improvement of relations between Vietnam and the Holy See. The two still have no diplomatic ties, and their relations have been strained over Hanoi's insistence on having the final say in most of the church appointments, a policy the Vatican has rejected. However, relations have improved in recent years with visits by Vatican officials and the relatively smooth appointments of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man as cardinal in Ho Chi Minh City in 2003 and Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet as Archbishop of Hanoi in March, reports the AP. I.L.