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Vietnam frees jailed dissident priest with ties to St. Pete ahead of Obama's visit

For more than a decade, the Rev. Viet Nguyen waited for the phone call from Vietnam.

The St. Petersburg priest knew President Barack Obama's visit to his native country was drawing near.

He knew the trip would bring a focus on the communist nation's human rights record.

On Thursday night, the phone rang:

His 70-year-old uncle, a famed political prisoner and Catholic priest, was being released from prison.

"It's truly happened," he said. "I'm overjoyed."

Nguyen's uncle, the Rev. Nguyen Van Ly, has been fighting for religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam for 40 years. Ly has been in and out of jail as a political prisoner nearly all of his adult life. The country's move to release him is widely seen as a goodwill gesture as Obama arrives for an official visit late Sunday night.

Nguyen, a priest at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, hopes the visit could move Vietnam onto the path his uncle has long prayed for.

"I hope the Vietnamese (people) can see the support and get more courage to stand up for their rights," Nguyen said.

The Vietnamese government's relations have always been strained with the Catholic Church, an influential power base independent of the ruling Communist Party.

Nguyen, 41, said he was not allowed to become a priest in Vietnam. "They hated my uncle," he said.

Nguyen was himself imprisoned for supporting his uncle's views. In 2001 his uncle was jailed for the third time after putting up a banner in front of his home that read "Religious Freedom or Death." A month later, Nguyen and two other family members were taken into custody.

Nguyen said authorities accused him of being a spy for the American government. "Your dream to be come a priest will never happen," he recalled being told.

Nguyen, his uncle and the other family members were released from prison in 2005 under international pressure. But while Nguyen and his sibling were able to move to America as refugees, their uncle remained under house arrest.

Ly was sent back to prison in 2007. He never stopped trying to spread writings and a message calling for expanded rights in Vietnam.

The Catholic archdiocese of the central city of Hue reported on its webpage that it welcomed Ly's return Friday.

Photos on its website showed a frail Ly, being helped off a minibus, kneeling to pay his respects to colleagues, then being led to a room prepared for him at the diocese.

Ly had a stroke during his imprisonment, his nephew said. Nguyen last saw Ly a year ago, in his first visit to Vietnam in a decade. He said he was shocked that the prison allowed him to see his uncle. But Ly was much weaker than he was when he was first jailed in 1977, just two years after the Communist takeover of all Vietnam.

His early release was for an eight-year prison term he had been serving since March 2007. He was released on medical parole in 2010 for 16 months. In 2011 he was sent back to prison to resume his sentence.

Vietnam's persecution of dissidents has been a barrier to warmer relations with the United States and the lifting of an arms embargo.

Washington and Hanoi share a strategic interest in challenging Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, some of which are in areas long claimed by Vietnam.

U.S. officials welcomed the priest's release.

"We consistently have called for the release of Father Ly and all other prisoners of conscience in Vietnam," State Department spokeswoman Gabrielle Price said. "We remain deeply concerned for all prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. We call on the government to release unconditionally all prisoners of conscience and allow all Vietnamese to express their political views peacefully without fear of retribution."

This will be Obama's 10th trip to Asian, but his first to Vietnam and Japan. Obama is expected to visit Vietnam's capital of Hanoi and urban center Ho Chi Minh City. He'll also visit Hiroshima while in Japan for two days.

Nguyen said he's noticed young people in Vietnam showing courage to stand up for their rights more than ever. He hopes his uncle's experience will be acknowledged.

"Dear friends, please pray for Father Ly," Nguyen wrote in a letter he gave to the Tampa Bay Times, "(so) his dream for freedom of (the) Vietnamese can come true."

This article includes reporting from the Associated Press. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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