VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has moved a Vietnamese cardinal imprisoned for more than 13 years by the communists a step closer to sainthood.

Francis on Thursday signed a decree saying Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan lived a life of heroic virtue. It’s the first major hurdle before Thuan can be beatified.

Thuan’s account of being imprisoned by Vietnam’s communist leaders made him an inspirational figure to many Vietnamese Catholics. He died in 2002 of cancer in Rome, where he had been forced to live in exile for the final years of his life.

Thuan was detained for more than 13 years, nine of them in solitary confinement, starting in 1975.

The Vatican must certify a miracle attributed to Thuan’s intercession for him to be beatified, the first step toward canonization.

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