Amnesty, the global human rights watchdog, said it was "dismayed" to learn that Nguyen Van Ly, who is in his early 60s, had been returned to prison on Friday.

The priest, convicted by the state in 2007 for spreading propaganda, had been in Hanoi's Ministry of Public Security Hospital since November 14 due to high blood pressure that led to a stroke, his sister Nguyen Thi Hieu told AFP.

"He was transferred back to prison yesterday," she said. "His situation is a bit better now, but his life is not normal yet. We don't know why they decided to transfer him back to prison, as he still needs help."

Ly's sister said he is half-paralysed on the right side, leaving him unable to hold a spoon to eat. He can only move a few steps with a walking stick, she added.

Amnesty called on Vietnam to release the priest to his family "so that they can ensure he receives the proper medical care, including hospitalisation, that he needs."

"The Vietnamese authorities returned Father Ly to prison on the same day that the president of Vietnam, Nguyen Minh Triet, met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Holy See," Amnesty said, urging the Vatican to raise Ly's case and call for his release.

It was not clear whether Ly's situation was discussed at the talks.

The Vatican called Friday's meeting between Triet and the Pontiff a "significant stage in the progress of bilateral relations" and expressed its pleasure at the visit.

In a communique, it added the Vatican hoped "outstanding questions may be resolved as soon as possible."

Among these is the question of Catholic land confiscated since the end of French colonial rule in 1954. Catholic demonstrations over the issue from December 2007 onwards led to occasional clashes with the police.

State media in Vietnam reported Saturday that Triet vowed to boost relations with the Vatican. The two sides do not have diplomatic relations but in recent years have begun a reconciliation.

"Vietnam is ready to boost relations with the Vatican on the basis of respecting fundamental principles of international law, thus making an active contribution to peace, cooperation and development the world over," Triet was quoted as saying by Vietnam News Agency.

Ly's conviction and eight-year sentence in 2007 drew condemnation from diplomats, Vietnam watchers and human rights groups.

Prosecutors said Ly was a founding member of the banned "Bloc 8406" pro-democracy coalition, and that he was also a driving force behind the outlawed Vietnam Progression Party (VPP).

In early July this year a bipartisan group of 37 United States senators sent a letter to Triet calling for Ly's release.

On December 4 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying Ly had been treated for high blood pressure and was recovering well. It said his family and religious colleagues were allowed to visit him in hospital.

Vietnam has Southeast Asia's largest Roman Catholic community after the Philippines -- about six million in a population of 86 million.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made a historic visit to the Vatican in 2007, marking a major thaw in relations following a series of trips to Vietnam by Vatican delegations from 1969.

Religious activity remains under state control in Vietnam but the government says it always respects the freedom of belief and religion.

By Ian Timberlake - Agence France Presse - December 12, 2009

Pope, Vietnamese president try for closer ties

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican called a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and the president of Vietnam on Friday "a significant stage" in efforts for closer ties between the communist country and the Holy See.

President Nguyen Minh Triet met with Benedict for 40 minutes — twice as long as was scheduled and the first time that the head of state of Vietnam has met with the pope since the communists took power in 1954.

On the eve of the trip, Triet had told an Italian newspaper that his government is working to open diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Vietnam's 6 million Roman Catholics is one of the largest Catholic communities in Asia.

"The Holy See expressed its pleasure at the visit, a significant stage in the progress of bilateral relations, and expressed the hope that outstanding questions may be resolved as soon as possible," the Vatican statement said.

There have been tensions between Catholics and the Hanoi government over church property seized by the Communists. The government also closely monitors religious groups and insists on approving most church appointments.

The Vatican said "the cordial discussions provided an opportunity to touch upon certain themes concerning cooperation between church and state," but the statement did not elaborate.

When the meeting was opened to reporters, both men seemed pleased with the discussions.

In his interview published Tuesday in Corriere della Sera, Triet described himself as an atheist but said he goes to churches and pagodas because "I recognize the cultural value" of religious feasts.

Church officials have spoken about the possibility of a papal visit to Vietnam, but the Vatican statement did not mention such a trip.

The Associated Press - December 11, 2009