HANOI, Vietnam, Feb. 9 (AP) - Vietnam has bestowed official approval on the country's southern Protestant churches by allowing them to convene a two-day meeting to elect a board and adopt a new charter, the official media said Friday.

The Federation of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam concluded its gathering in Ho Chi Minh City on Friday, the group's first such conference since the Vietnam War.

The group, which represents several hundred churches, has been striving for official recognition for years, because religious groups that aren't officially recognized remain the target of severe restrictions in Vietnam.

The government currently recognizes six religions, including the smaller Protestant Evangelical Church group in the north, and has grown more tolerant of religious worship in recent years.

However, followers of Protestant ``house churches,'' along with other independent religious groups, have been harassed and even imprisoned, according to the latest U.S. State Department report on human rights.

The meeting of some 700 church representatives is seen as the first step toward establishing official authorization.

Le Quang Vinh, the director of the Government Commission for Religious Affairs, and officials from the Fatherland Front, the state-sponsored organization that oversees religious groups, also attended the meeting, the Vietnam News Agency reported.
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