Christianity was introduced to Vietnam in the 16th century
by missionaries from Europe’s main Catholic evangelist countries,
France, Spain and Portugal. One of the early arrivals was
Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit who greatly impressed
the Trinh lords who ruled the north at that time, thus easing
the way for permanent missions in Hanoi, Danang and Hoi
Expulsion from Vietnam
As the creator of the Romanised written form of the Vietnamese
language, Alexandre de Rhodes could justifiably be considered
as one of the founding fathers of modern Vietnam. However,
his reward was expulsion along with all the other Christians
when the Trinh lords decided that Christianity in the form
of Catholicism was subverting the beliefs that kept them
in power. Apart from its later use in the Catholic Church
in Vietnam, his script was ignored until the 20th century.
However, de Rhodes continued
to proselytise through the Societe des Mission Etrangeres,
a French evangelical organisation he helped to create, seeking
converts throughout Indochina. In the following years, Catholicism
was re-established in Vietnam and grew rapidly.
Oppression under Minh
By the beginning of the 19th century, there were many thousands
of Catholics in Vietnam. Catholicism’s relationship with
Vietnam’s rulers was uneasy: the kings were wary of its
doctrine of equality in the eyes of God, a belief that directly
challenged the feudal Confucian system that legitimated
their control. Under King Ming Manh, a strict Confucian,
suspicion turned to oppression. Churches were razed, and
Vietnamese and foreign devotees refusing to renounce their
faith were executed.
Enter the French
Minh Mang’s excesses, although much exaggerated, gave the
French the excuse they were looking for to invade, and Catholicism
was reinstated. The Catholic Church flourished under the
colonialists’ patronage, opening missions, schools and hospitals
all over the country, and becoming Vietnam’s largest landowner.
Vietnamese Catholics were favoured above their compatriots
and became an educated elite.
An exodus to the south
By the 1950s, with the communists governing in the north,
over half a million Catholics crossed the demilitarised
zone to settle in the south, then controlled by the Saigon
regime led by President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic. Those
that remained in the north were allowed to continue to practice
their faith, but under tight control.
The post-war years
After reunification, the communists placed restrictions
on the Catholic Church and imprisoned several of its leaders
who had actively opposed the new government. Since then,
controls have relaxed and relationships between Vietnam
and the Vatican have become cordial. However, a papal visit
to the second-largest Catholic population in Southeast Asia
is still some way off.
Protestantism was mainly introduced by the Americans in
the south in the form of militant evangelism, and now claims
approximately half a million adherents. Many of these are
in the ethnic groups of the Central Highlands. In recent
years, there has been considerable unrest in the area. American
‘Gospel’ organisations frequently issue ‘reports’ alleging
human rights abuse and denial of religious freedom. Putting
aside the issue of differing perceptions between the US
and Asia about what constitutes ‘human rights’, a trawl
of the Internet soon reveals that the aim of many such groups
are more political than religious.
From a visitor’s point of view, many Catholic churches are
well worth a visit. The Gothic edifices of Ho Chi Minh City,
Hanoi, Hue and Da Lat are replicas of European cathedrals,
and often built of imported materials. They have attractive
features, but the home-grown products are of greater interest
to the traveller.
The famous ‘Stone Church’
In particular, the ‘Stone Church’ of Phat Diem in the north,
the bell tower of which was immortalised by Graham Greene
in ‘The Quiet American’, is a highly satisfying blend of
Christianity and the orient. The lifetime achievement of
a Vietnamese cleric, Father Tran Luc, it is an architectural
gem combining what looks like a Vietnamese temple at first
sight with Christian symbolism and statuary. The interior
is stunning – a 75m roof supported by huge ironwood pillars
and a magnificent altarpiece.
Many of the churches in the Central Highlands also combine
Western and Eastern styles and some have highly unusual
features, reflecting the area’s strong animist tradition.