VATICAN CITY, JAN. 15, 2002 ( The Church in Vietnam has grown by 14% over the past five years, despite restrictions imposed by the Communist government.

So say Vietnamese bishops who are in Rome for their quinquennial "ad limina" to the Pope and Curia. The visit started Monday and runs until Jan. 24.

The 28 visiting bishops include Cardinal Paul Joseph Pham Dinh Tung, archbishop of Hanoi. The only one absent is Bishop Paul Nguyen Binh Tinh of Da Nang. This time no government restrictions were imposed; all the bishops were allowed to travel to Rome. In 1985 and 1995, permission was denied to some if not all.

In recent years the Hanoi government has explicitly recognized the contribution made by religions, including the Catholic Church, in social and moral areas.

The fall of Russian Communism and the ensuing crisis plunged Vietnam into dire poverty. Economic and legal reforms are hampered by widespread corruption. Half the population lives below the poverty line.

The Church has tried to alleviate this situation, but religious freedom is limited. There is still strict control on various aspects of Church life, including the appointment of bishops (two dioceses, Hai Phong and Hung Hoa, are vacant); selection of candidates to the priesthood; and the opening of novitiates for religious orders.

Yet, since the 1996 "ad limina" visit, the Church in Vietnam has grown by 14.39% (population growth was 5.33%). The diocese with the highest percentage of growth (100% in five years) is Bui Chu, in the north. The number of religious has increased: men by 77.74%, and women by 51.44%.

Currently there are 2,133 diocesan priests, 1,861 men religious, and 9,654 women religious in Vietnam. Out of a population of 79 million, official sources put the number of Catholics at 5.3 million, or 6.78% of the population.