Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam is scheduled to meet Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Thursday.  The visit marks the first time a leader of the Communist nation has met the spiritual leader of the world's Catholics. It also marks a step forward in the Vietnamese government's complex relationship with its Catholic citizens. In Hanoi, Matt Steinglass has more.

At St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi, worshippers on Wednesday evening were preparing for a welcome event. The meeting Thursday between Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Pope Benedict is a signal that the long-running hostility between Vietnam's Communists and its Catholics may be drawing to a close.

At the seminary next door, 74-year-old Father Joseph Nguyen Thien An hailed the meeting in the French he learned more than 50 years ago, when Vietnam was still a colony of France.

"C'est un bon signe, quoi?"

He calls it a good sign.

Archbishop Nguyen Nhu The of the central Vietnamese city of Hue calls the trip a historic move.

The says the news has gladdened everyone, and that they are pinning their hopes on the trip. We look forward, he says, to establishing diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Vatican.

There are more than six million Vietnamese Catholics, comprising about eight percent of the population. Catholicism arrived here with Jesuit missionaries in the 1600's, and grew after France colonized the country in 1862.

In the 1940's, the Catholic clergy opposed Ho Chi Minh's Communists, who fought for Vietnam's independence. The Bishop of Phat Diem at the time had his own army, which fought savage battles against Communist troops.

Father An says that after the Communist Party won independence for Vietnam in 1954, it treated Catholics with suspicion.

An says Communist North Vietnam closed all the seminaries. He says the church had to ordain priests in secret. When the North defeated South Vietnam in 1975 and reunified the country, it closed the seminaries there as well.

The seminaries were allowed to reopen in 1983, and religious freedom has grown gradually ever since. Last October, the United States declared that Vietnam was no longer a "country of particular concern" over the issue of religious freedom.

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, in a statement Wednesday confirming the meeting, declined to comment on the issue of diplomatic relations, or to say what the two leaders planned to discuss.

Archbishop The said a number of issues of tension remain between the government and the church.

He says the church's selection of new bishops is not entirely free, and the government limits the number of seminary students.

The Bishop of Phat Diem, Nguyen Hong Phuc, said government limits on the recruiting of seminary students leave many churches empty.

Phuc says there are 69 parishes in Phat Diem, but only 50 priests.

The U.S. State Department's report on religious freedom in Vietnam says the government can veto candidates for bishop and archbishop. But Nguyen Thi Bach Tuyet of the government's Committee on Religion said that is not quite true.

It is not a matter of asking for approval, she says, it is a consultation. The government does not decide it.

Father An says the government has nothing to fear from Catholics.

He says for 30 years, the Church has not opposed the government, but only asked for religious freedom. He says while Catholics today are free inside church grounds, their freedom outside is not yet complete.

Vietnam's Catholics are hoping their prime minister's meeting with Pope Benedict indicates that freedom to practice their religion will continue to grow.