Thursday, June 6, 2013


***Ever wonder what it's like for Christians living in a communist country? Read on below***

Good Friday procession during Easter week in Hanoi
It’s Good Friday, and Christians around the world are marking one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar. Standing in a crowd of Catholic faithful outside an old gothic cathedral, I’m watching a live depiction of the stations of the cross. The somber procession depicts the passion of the last days of Jesus Christ, as it gradually makes its way around the exterior of the sanctuary.

The elaborate procession includes costumed actors. A young man portraying Jesus wears a realistic looking beard, and bears a large wooden cross. Young Roman soldiers that accompany him, are dressed complete with Roman armor, and carry plastic tipped spears.

This isn’t an Easter week scene from the Vatican, or even from America. It’s in the ‘communist’ country of Vietnam, and this Christian procession is making its way around the dark stone walls of St. Joseph's Cathedral, in downtown Hanoi's old quarter.

Although the majority of Vietnamese are of the Buddhist religion, there are indeed Christians in Vietnam. The vast majority are Catholic, and in most cases they are given the freedom to celebrate their traditional sacraments. Unlike other French colonies in Southeast Asia, missionaries did have a greater degree of success in converting the Vietnamese here. When the French left in 1954 and the communists took over the north, many priests were imprisoned, and church property was confiscated. This led to a mass migration to South Vietnam by more than a million Vietnamese Catholics. As a result, these days there are more Catholics in Vietnam’s southern provinces, than there are here in the north.

St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi, built in the 1880's by the French
Whereas China’s Cultural Revolution closed churches and practically outlawed religion for years, the revolution in Vietnam treated religion quite differently. Here the conflict between church and state was mainly over control of the church itself. That struggle continues today, mostly behind the scenes as the communist party continues to demand that the church be subordinate to the state. This contradicts most Vietnamese Catholics, who continue to believe that the church should only answer to the Vatican.

There are now more than six million Catholics nationwide, and while their numbers only add up to around eight percent of the Vietnamese population, their numbers are growing. With a shortage of churches in many areas, Sunday morning services are often packed.

These days most Vietnamese Catholics celebrate their faith without government interference, and on the surface, most parishes seem to run smoothly. But problems still continue in some areas, out of the public eye. Although freedom of religion is supposed to be guaranteed in Vietnam’s current constitution, recent years have seen further incidents of government repression against certain groups of Christians.

The procession concludes with a depiction of Christ's crucifixion on the cathedral steps
In 2010, a dozen Catholic parishioners were injured by police in Hanoi. They were trying to stop the police from using explosives to blow up a five meter crucifix on a hilltop cemetery.

Earlier in 2007, a dissident Catholic priest was tried and sentenced to eight years in prison. In addition to these events, religious unrest still occurs sporadically in the southern highlands. There demonstrations by Christians usually end in arrests, and there have been injuries and fatalities at the hands of the police. The power struggle goes on today, as the communist party continues its attempts to assert authority over church affairs.

Although problems between church and state continue, there are no problems outside of Hanoi’s Cathedral today. Atop the steps of the venerable cathedral, the Good Friday performers complete their procession, and the ceremony comes to a close.

As the Catholic parishioners begin to depart the church grounds for Hanoi’s streets, I notice a crowd of Vietnamese gathering around an older priest near the entrance. His vestments are somewhat more elaborate than the others. As I approach, he smiles.

“Happy Easter,” I tell him, as he shakes my hand.

I believe that I just shook hands with the Archbishop of Hanoi. 

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