VATICAN CITY, Holy See -- The Vatican and the government of Vietnam took a step forward Thursday in improving strained ties, agreeing to a "Resident Papal Representative" in the Communist nation. A joint announcement of an agreement finalising the status and office of the resident envoy came following an official meeting Thursday between President Vo Van Thuong and Pope Francis. Thuong, named president in March by Vietnam's National Assembly, also held talks with the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. The Vatican and Vietnam have not had regular diplomatic relations since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975 when the Communist government expelled the apostolic delegate. But a joint working group has been meeting since 2009 to pave the way to normalise bilateral ties. The group met for the tenth time at the Vatican in March this year. "The two sides expressed high appreciation for the noteworthy progress in the relations between Vietnam and the Holy See, and the positive contributions by the Catholic community of Vietnam so far," read the joint statement published by the Vatican. The new resident representative "will be a bridge to advance relations between Vietnam and the Holy See," it said. The Vatican currently has a non-resident papal representative for Vietnam, Archbishop Marek Zalewski. The Polish prelate, who is the apostolic nuncio to Singapore, makes "frequent pastoral visits" to Vietnam, the Vatican has said. Vietnam has about 6 million Catholics, representing about 6 percent of the population, but making up 45 percent of religious adherents. In December, the United States said it had placed Vietnam on a special watch list "for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom," citing examples against Catholics, Protestants and other churches, including unregistered ones. Freedom of religion is allowed under Vietnam's constitution.

Source: Manila Bulletin (