LA VANG, Vietnam — The Vatican envoy to Vietnam called on the Southeast Asian nation’s communist government to respect religious freedom.

Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, the nonresident representative of the Vatican to Vietnam, presided at the August 13 opening Mass of the Marian Congress, held at the national shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in central Vietnam’s Quang Tri province.

In his homily, Girelli spoke of the state of religious freedom in the country, reported

“In some provinces, civil authorities are anxious and complain about the Catholics and their deeds,” the archbishop said during Mass, where he was joined by Vietnamese bishops and some 200 priests.

Girelli advised the gathering on the wisdom of St. Peter’s words: “We must obey God rather than men” and of Jesus’ “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

“I would like to tell the Vietnamese Caesars to give to God what is God’s,” he said, to which the congregation responded with a large round of applause.

Earlier this year, the Vietnamese bishops criticized the new Law on Belief and Religion, which will take effect January 1. They said abstract phrases in the law “are easily abused to shift responsibility onto and condemn religious organizations when the government is dissatisfied.”

At the Mass, Girelli said the local Catholic Church must be seen as something positive, rather than as something problematic for the country.

He asked the congregation to spend time praying during the congress so that they can acquire God’s presence in their lives. “Only when we follow Jesus and stay in him, we are really happy,” he said.

The archbishop, who is based in Singapore, pays working visits to dioceses in Vietnam, with each visit lasting only one month. All his activities must be approved by the government, reported.

An estimated 100,000 pilgrims — including people of other faiths from Vietnam and abroad — attended the three-day congress to mark the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, celebrated Aug. 15.

During the event, pilgrims attended Masses, went to confession, prayed the rosary and watched cultural performances.

Mary is believed to have appeared in La Vang in 1798 to console persecuted Vietnamese Catholics. In 1961, the bishops of Vietnam declared the site a national Marian shrine.