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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The late Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, an iconic figure of inspiration for Vietnamese Catholics who was jailed under the communists, has moved a step closer to sainthood, the Vatican said on Thursday.

Van Thuan, who died in Rome in 2002 after several years as Vatican justice minister, spent 13 years in prison and under house arrest in his homeland when the communists took full control of the country in 1975 after the Vietnam War.

During his prison years, eight of which were spent in solitary confinement, Van Thuan wrote his thoughts on spirituality, survival and hope.

Van Thuan was eventually released but while he was visiting Rome in the early 1990s, the Vietnamese government declared him persona non grata and barred him from returning.

The Vatican said Pope Francis had approved a decree recognising that he lived a life of "heroic virtues". This means he can now move onto beatification, the last step before sainthood.

His sainthood process was begun in 2007. Beatification would require a miracle attributed to his intercession.

The Catholic Church posthumously confers beatification, and later sainthood, on people considered so holy during their lives that they are now believed to be with God and can intercede with him to perform miracles. Miracles are usually the medically unexplained healing of someone.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Toby Davis)

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