In reading through the storied past of the Vietnamese Bahá’í community, I’ve been particularly impressed by its interfaith work. It seems evident that no other community worked more tirelessly for interreligious understanding during the war years than did the Bahá’ís. One of the early contributions to this work was the organization of national and local commemorations of World Religion Day, an interfaith observance, initiated in America in 1950 and thereafter celebrated worldwide, on the third Sunday in January each year. Its purpose is now as it was then: to call attention to the essential harmony of the spiritual principles underlying the world’s religions, and to emphasize the role of religion as a unifying force for humanity. Observed for over a decade prior to the end of the Vietnam War, it became, according to observers, “by far the most important inter-faith event in Vietnam”.
The first observance of World Religion Day, or Ngày tôn giáo Hoàn cầu, in Vietnam took place on January 21st, 1962, at the Bahá’í Centre at 193/1C Cong Ly Street, Saigon. “For the first time in Viet Nam,” the papers announced, “representatives of seven of the world’s religions will meet to discuss ‘the fundamental oneness of religion’ on the 13th annual World Religion Day…” Representatives of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity (Baptist), Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and the Bahá’í Faith were in attendance, and addressed the crowd regarding the fundamental tenets and principles of each of their religions. “We are for a world where every one will see his neighbour as his own brother, and we are working toward the day when affection will make the boundaries between states useless,” the Bahá’í representative, Nguyen Ke Tong, declared. His words must have struck a chord with the listeners, as Vietnam itself was at the time bisected by one of these boundaries, one that had torn families apart and turned brothers, cousins and friends against each other, as they separated into North and South.
The observance of World Religion Day provided a much-needed forum for interreligious dialogue to address the enmity that had developed between the country’s Buddhist and Catholic communities as a result of the prejudicial policies of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm. Hoping to address this growing conflict, the Bahá’í speaker at World Religion Day in January 1963 publically appealed to the leaders of Vietnam’s faith communities to establish an Interfaith Council that would work towards unity, reconciliation, and the protection of the rights of all religious communities in Vietnam. The need for such an institution was undeniable, but the injustices perpetrated by Diệm’s government against the Buddhist community—forced conversions, looting, shelling and demolition of pagodas—had become too great to bear. When a rarely enforced law was invoked to prohibit Buddhists in the city of Huế from flying flags on Buddha’s birthday in May 1963, protests broke out, which were met with live fire from the police and army. The Buddhist Crisis broke out, which would end six months later in a military coup and Diệm’s assassination.
In January 1964, the Bahá’ís repeated their call to the leaders assembled at World Religion Day to establish a “Permanent Council of Inter-Religious Harmony”. The proposed council would comprise two representatives from each of the religions established in Vietnam, “to signify a sincere and genuine effort on the part of the two major Religions of their often proclaimed belief that they desire only equality and harmony among the faiths.” It was only after renewed religious strife later that year between Buddhists and Catholics that their leaders finally agreed to form an “Inter-Faith Liaison Committee” to bridge the gap between the two communities. “It has been extremely slow work,” wrote Bahá’í representative Do Nguyen Hanh in a letter the following year, “and unfortunately it seems that human beings act only in response to terrible crisis… and hence have to endure great suffering.”
World Religion Day was celebrated in Vietnam every year between 1962 and 1975 inclusive, year after year becoming an increasingly more important observance in the religious life of Vietnam. Each year’s presentations explored different topics related to the oneness of religions and the place of religion in society: “Mankind must, and are able to achieve religious unity”; “Only religion can bring justice to the world”; “Religion must be the cause for unity of mankind”; “The purpose of religion is to establish unity and harmony”; “The mission of religion before current events”; and so on. National celebrations were held in Saigon, but local observances quickly spread to other cities, such as Da Nang, Pleiku, Can Tho, Rach Gia, Phan Thiet, Phan Rang, and more. To give you an idea of how big these events were, the 1967 observance of World Religion Day in Saigon gathered an audience of 1,000 people. The annual event was given regular coverage and was widely reported in the English, French and Vietnamese media. In 1971, articles appeared in at least twenty different daily newspapers, including three front page top headlines; news was also carried by radio, television and newsreels.
Many Vietnamese notables expressed their appreciation for the efforts of the Bahá’ís throughout these years. Here are two quotes that stood out for me:
I believe that only religion, only the moral spirit, can build a better society. I am happy to see the various religions now having the opportunity to sit together in the spirit of solidarity. I wish that religions will have better opportunity for solidarity to build the country, and therefore I warmly praise the Organizing Committee of World Religion Day.
Phan Khắc Sửu, Head of State of South Vietnam from 1964–1965
I think that the Government should be aware of important endeavors like this one. It should declare World Religion Day a National Holiday in order that this event can be celebrated more solemnly; the speeches here should be propagated more widely for the people of North and South to see that we are making great efforts to build a truly beautiful society, where spiritual values are fully respected. I promise to bring this voice to the Assembly meeting for the people to be more informed.
Hoang Thế Phiệt, Senator
With files from Mr. Jamshed Fozdar, Mr. Nguyen Dinh Thoa, and Wikipedia. Photos courtesy of Mr. Le Loc.