A diplomatic delegation from the Vatican began talks in Hanoi Tuesday with Vietnam's communist government to explore establishing diplomatic relations. The one-party state cut ties with the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in 1975, and has controlled religious and political expression since. The current talks are being shadowed by concern for Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest in government detention. In Hanoi, Matt Steinglass has more.

Monsignor Pietro Parolin, a Vatican undersecretary of state, began talks with Nguyen The Doanh of the Government Committee for Religion on a hopeful note.

Parolin, who is in effect the deputy foreign minister for the Roman Catholic Church, repeated the Pope's wish for the happiness and prosperity of East Asia's people.

Reporters asked Parolin if he would raise the case of Father Nguyen Van Ly, whom police have reportedly confined in a church outside the central Vietnamese city of Hue.

Parolin said they would certainly talk about it.

Activists say Father Ly has been on a hunger strike for two weeks, since police detained him for questioning. Ly is a central figure in Vietnam's dissident network, and had tried to set up an alternative political party, the Progression Party, which he hoped to unite with a party run by Vietnamese in the United States.

Dissident sources reported that Ly's colleagues had asked him to give up the hunger strike. They said Ly's health was deteriorating sharply, and his tuberculosis had recurred. The government maintains Ly is in normal health.

The European Union said it had raised Father Ly's case with the Vietnamese government last week.

Meanwhile, in Hanoi, two other dissidents were reported arrested Tuesday, although Vietnamese authorities reached in Hanoi declined to comment on the cases.

Vu Minh Khanh, wife of dissident lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, said that about 15 police officers and local officials arrested her husband.

Khanh said the authorities plan to prosecute her husband under Article 88 of Vietnam's penal code, which outlaws propaganda against the state.

Dissident sources said Dai's fellow lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan was also arrested Tuesday.

The detentions highlight concerns in Western capitals about the human rights record of the Vietnamese government.

The Vatican delegation is in the country until March 12 and it is not yet clear if the spate of detentions will affect the recent rapid progress toward closer ties.