Vietnam TV announced that Prime Minister Dung's Vatican stop-over is part of a visit to Italy at the invitation of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, according to a UCA News report.
The TV network also reported that the Pope had congratulated the country on its recent entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
"This is the first official visit by a Vietnamese prime minister to the Vatican," Franciscan Fr Guy Marie Nguyen Hong Giao, 70, former Franciscan provincial superior in Vietnam, told UCA News.
Fr Giao noted that then-Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan and Ngo Yen Thi, head of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs, were the highest-ranking officials to lead previous delegations to the Vatican in 2002 and 2005.
The priest called those visits "early preparations," through which the two sides could express their willingness to set up diplomatic relations.
Dung's visit now takes place under conditions for both parties to benefit from formal relations, the priest noted, recalling that Vietnam became the WTO's 150th member on 7 November and then hosted the annual series of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings. The US State Department removed the country from its list of "countries of particular concerns" on religious freedom last November, he added.
"Vietnam has proven fully its ability to integrate into the international community," something that the government has pursued since it started its "doi moi" (renovation) policy in the late 1980s, Fr Giao said.
Diplomatic ties with the Vatican "will not directly bring economic or political benefits to Vietnam," he pointed out, "but will help raise Vietnam's status in the world."
Meanwhile, AsiaNews quoted Ho Chi Minh City Cardinal Pham Minh Man as saying that diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Vietnam "should not face obstacles anymore".
"In November, I and some bishops met with the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Nguyen Minh Triet," the Cardinal said. "We discussed and exchanged points of view about religious freedom, property rights, the Church's responsibilities towards the country's development, especially in the areas of education and health care. The president promised that the government would gradually meet the right expectations."
"I think that through meetings and dialogue, the Vatican and the Vietnamese government will understand each better and their relations will improve," he said.
The Cardinal said he thinks that the time is right for official relations.
Diplomatic relations should not face obstacles anymore, says Card Pham Minh Man (AsiaNews, 24/1/07)
Catholics Hope Prime Minister's Vatican Visit Will Pave Way For Diplomatic Ties (UCA News, 23/1/07)
LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Nguyen Tan Dung (BBC)
Cardinal Pham Minh Man (Cardinal Rating)
Catholic Church in Vietnam (Catholic-Hierarchy)
France no longer Catholic, survey reveals (CathNews, 12/1/07)
Cardinals meet in Vietnam "turning point" (CathNews, 6/12/06)
Mother Teresa's order invited to Vietnam (CathNews, 15/11/06)
24 Jan 2007