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Missed Opportunities - Catholicism in Vietnam

Don't talk about religion or politics.

Well, I've done plenty on politics so it's religion's turn. I guess I'll have to save the easy one, death, for another post.

First of all, my disclosure that I am a Christian, is important as I tried to portray the church's role in Vietnam fairly and without positive or negative bias.

There is plenty to render on both sides of the equation. It is however, important to recognize that the many failures of Catholicism and the church leaders in Vietnam should reflect badly on the organization, but not the principles of their belief.

Had they been better Christians, Communism would have had a much tougher time gaining a foothold in the country. (Which is not to say Christians in non-Communist countries make a better go of it.)

Uprooted features several priests. Some worked for the good of the people; some for their own benefit. I feel it is typical of our nature to focus on the bad rather than the good, which can color our perception of the whole.

But can it be said that there were there missed opportunities for the church to remain a powerful anti-Communist influence in North Vietnam, as it remained in Poland or South America?

Catholicism had been brought to Vietnam by missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some took their role beyond simply proselytizing their faith, to getting involved in political and military conflicts.

It was a Catholic missionary who first rendered the Vietnamese language into the roman alphabet. Until that point, Chinese characters were exclusively used. The empowering effect can be seen in evidence today.

My visit to Vietnam and brief stopover in Japan taught me that lesson very quickly. It is much easier for a westerner to navigate in Vietnam as it is easy to recognize and remember Vietnamese words on a street sign. In Japan I looked at the characters on the monolingual signs at the train station in mute ignorance. I could not even find a way to pronounce what I was seeing.

Vietnam became one of the first epicenters of the west's “backpacker” explosion of the 80's and 90's, the alphabet must have had a great deal to do with that.

By the 20th century, northern Vietnam was around 15 percent Catholic. Priests were able to successfully challenge French authority. They could offer the peasants advocacy against a corrupt mandarin, famine relief, medicine and arbitration. Foreign missionaries were even banned for a time as the French sought to limit the church's influence.

As a result of their social, ideological and organizational power, the Communists regarded the church as a threat. Ho Chi Minh famously attended mass during Christmas 1945. This was at a time when his government was trying to gain as broad a base of support as possible; even though Catholics remained a minority, and would forever be associated with the French.

In Tung's hamlet, which was mostly Catholic, the Viet Minh cadre's described themselves as Christian fighters.

However, in Tung's village context, there were few distinctions between belief systems. Children grew up learning Confucianism's five cardinal pieties of benevolence, duty, propriety, conscience, faithfulness. Every family celebrated death anniversaries, a Taoist influence. And even Tung's devoutly Catholic parents kept a table decorated with fruit offerings, candles and a saffron yellow cloth – the Buddhist color representing earth.

Today statues of Buddha and the Virgin Mary sit and stand (respectively), plinth to plinth in thousands of stalls and showrooms throughout the country. Religion remains big business, even under atheistic, anti-Capitalist, Communist rule.

Another problem for the Communist Viet Minh was that predominantly Catholic villages had well organized militias, making them much more difficult to infiltrate.

One of the reasons General Giap's third campaign against the French in 1951 failed, was because he was attacking in a Catholic region of the Red River Delta.

The Viet Minh depended on local peasants to act as porters, informants and look-outs. In other areas they could demand shelter and food from the locals. Without what came to be described as the army's “logistics-nose” - in which supplies were accessed at the front rather than delivered from the rear - Giap's forces became much more vulnerable.

Almost a million Catholics emigrated south when Vietnam was partitioned into North and South in 1954.

Had they remained, there is no doubt they would have suffered a great deal of persecution. But they would also have provided the Communist government with a large, potentially untamable population, capable of sowing dissension and contradicting its propaganda that mobilized the country so effectively.

Their departure left large areas of land available for distribution after 1954, to political allies and peasants struggling with the over-population of the delta region.

In 1956, Catholics in Nghe An who had been prevented from emigrating rose up against repression. Although Ho Chi Minh had called for an end to the land reform campaign a few months earlier, grievances remained and were extinguished with brutal ferocity. Historian Bernard Fall estimates that 6000 farmers were executed or deported.

Had the 900,000 Catholics stayed in the North, many would have died or been sent to labor camps. But they could have been the basis for an insurgent force north of the border that the South Vietnamese never had.

When the CIA's Edward Lansdale sent espionage teams to Hanoi in 1954, they were quickly identified after the exodus. A few Hardy Boys-esque stunts like pouring sugar into the gas tanks of buses and paying famous astrologers to make dire predictions for Communist rule spurred the movement of people south. But the teams were soon rooted out or deserted once there was no local population willing to support them.

Much has been written about the Diem regime and it's preferential treatment of Catholics, who became his core support in the years following Vietnam's 1954 division.

In Tung's experience the Catholics were by-and-large welcomed by southerners. Swamps were drained and new towns created, but once Diem's political favoritism became entrenched, friction with the Buddhist's was inevitable.

The migration was a short term gain for the fledging government in the South, and it would probably not have survived without them. But the insular and antagonistic nature of Diem's rule made the possibility of a broad coalition of support impossible.

As corruption took over the church, its core message was lost in the internecine domestic fight for political and social power.

The church that could have been a unifying force, even in a multi-faith country, represented another mob on the streets, and another split in a splintered society.

Sadly, the most memorable priests are the ones who incited violence, preyed on their parishioners for donations and haunted Nga's footsteps. More easily forgotten are those who preached against the Communists, took care of the orphans and did the essential but unsung work of establishing Tung's family in the United States.

Next week I will talk about what happened in Mai Dong, Tung's home village, after his family fled in 1954; and the effects of the Communist's collectivization campaign, which caused economic havoc well into the 1980's.

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