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South Vietnam was predominantly a Buddhist country, but less than half of those who regarded themselves as Buddhists actually practiced the faith. There were substantial minorities of Roman Catholics, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao. The montagnard8 subscribed to various animistic beliefs, although some hwve been converted to Christianity. The Chinese were mainly Confucianists or Taoists and, like the Vietnamese, were ancestor worshipers. Regardless of their adherence to a particular religious faith or belief, astrology, necromancy and superstitions in one form or another had a significant influence on many South Vietnamese and played an important role in governing their activities.

The majority of South Vietnam's 17 million inhahitants identified themselves as adherents of Buddhism, one of the world's great religions. Buddhism, founded about 500 B.C., emerged in northern India as an offshoot of the prevailing Hindu faith. In succeeding centuries, two principal forms or branches arose within Buddhism: Thera.vada. (sometimes called Hinayana.) and Mahayana. The predominant majority of South Vietna.m's estimated 11.3 million to 12.8 million Buddhists were Mahayana Buddhists. The Theravada minority, numbering about 2 million, was made up largely of ethnic Cambodians living in the Mekong Delta region. In all, some 16 Buddhist sects were represented.

Two religious movements indigenous to the Mekong Delta, both founded in the 20th century, enjoyed important followings. The Cao Dai, the older of the two, is represented in the rural sectors of the southern Delta region. A self-styled reformed Buddhist sect, Cao Dai is in fact a synthesis of different beliefs drawing on a wide range of ethical teachings and writings, including those of Confucius, Jesus and Victor Hugo. It had 1 million to 2 million adherents, distributed among the main body of believers and numerous dissident splinter groupe. The Hoa Hoa, like the Cao Dai, also identifies itself as a reformed Buddhist sect but unlike it has in fact preserved a distinctive Buddhist coloration. Concentrated especially in the area. betwern the Mekong River and the Song Hua Giang, the Hoa Hoa had an estimated membership of about 1 million.

Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam by European missionaries in the sixteenth century and since the late nineteenth century had played an iniportant role in the country's politicru life. Catholic-sponsored educational institutions had a large part in transmitting Western culture to the country. In early 1966, Catholics numbered 1.5 million persons, or 10 percent of the population, but their religious influence was not commensurate, partly because Catholicism precluded venemtion of ancestors, a cornerstone of Vietnamese cultural tradition. In some cases, economic or political factors played a role in conversions.

In general, devout and strongly traditionalist Buddhists were found in greater numbers in the five northern provinces (formerly Central Vietnam) than in the south. Hue, in the northern province of Thua Thien, was for centuries the imperial capital and it seat of classical Chinese culture and learning. The Buddhist revival movement of the mid-twentieth century was an effort to purify the faith by ridding it of adulterating elementa borrowed from other beliefs and to strengthen it through systematic organization, had been most successfnl in this area. Monks from the northern provinces played a significant leadership role in the revival movement.

In the southern portion of the country, advocates of traditional culture and Confucian ethics were fewer and less vocal. The area, by contrast to the northern provinces, was long a frontier region, receiving the overflow of people from Central and North Vietnam. After the imposition of French colonial rule it accommodated relatively easily to the foreign presence, and, as a local elite developed, its members tended to emnlate the French way of life. Many of them adopted, superficially at least, the Roman Catholic religious faith of their rulers.

The Catholic population of the country was made up of native Catholics and refugees from North Vietnam, in approximately equal numbers. Native Catholics in both the northern provinces and the delta region were settled mainly in or around urban areas and in the countryside of the coastal area where the first Catholic missionaries landed. As a result of efforts hy Catholic educational missionaries in the highland regions some momtagnards, too, accepted the faith. Refugees from North Vietnam, of whom about 700,000 entered the country at the time of the signing of the Geneva Agreement in 1954 were estahlished in various parts of the country, including some resettlement in the highlands~

For over four centuries the Catholic Church in Vietnam found itself alternatively opposed and supported by the government. During the precolonial period Vietnamese rulers in all three historic divisions of the country (North, Central and South) frequently banned the faith and persecuted its missionaries. The colonial administrators, however, reversed the fortunes of the missionary community, which under French rule enjoyed privileged status. Catholic priests collaborated closely with the colonial authorities, and Catholic churches, schools, convents and higher educational institutions in Vietnam flourished.

Under former President Ngo Dinh Diem, himself a Catholic, the position of the Church and its adherents was further enhanced. With the rise of important Catholics to top positions in government and the influx of refugees from the North in 1954 which suddenly doubled the Catholic population, Buddhist monks began, despite the essential passivity of the religion, to organize for greater strength. Buddhist organizations, under the supervision of a central authority, were systematically expanded throughout the country, and in the absence of political organization at the village level, the religious bodies took on the functions ofa political party.

Other organized religions represented in the country in tiny minorities include Christianity in its Protestant form, Hinduism, Islam and the Bahai faith, a religion which emerged out of one of the main bmnches of Islam in the mid-nineteenth century. Islam had its body of faithful a.mong the remnants of the Cham population who numbered some 35,000 and were found in the central coastal region. Protestantism, introduced in the early twentieth century, had made little headway, having won fewer than 10,000 converts.

Beyond the realm of organized religion lay an equally important influence on Vietnamese life and thought, that of Confucianism, the ethical system originating in China in the teachings of the moral philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC) and his followers. Confucianism was present, in human, economic and social terms, throughout Vietnamese society, among all persons of Vietnamese ancestry no matter what their professed religion. Until the late nineteenth century, Confucian values, lea.rned in the home and from exposure to the Chinese classics, were universally held, supporting the traditional family structure and ideals of government. In the modern period changes in traditional attitudes and values were brought about as a result of Westernization and the pressing conditions of life; nevertheless nearly everyone, including young persons educated abroad, continued, in one degree or another, to feel the impact of the country's Confucian heritage.

Similarily, but on another level, the animist beliefs in good and evil spirits, both animate and inanimate, which antedate the organized faiths, also permeated the society. The existeuce of such beliefs since ancient times is revealed in centuries-old legends, in which the underlying assumption is that all phenomena and forces in the universe - heaven and earth, rain and wind, mountains and rivers - are controlled by spirits upon whose good will man depends. Ear1y Vietnamese peoples apparently also believed that the souls of the dead reappeared in a new incarnation. These souls, if propitiated, would provide humms with protection; if ignored, they would send sickness and death. Such indigenous concepts later came under the intfluence of Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist ideas introduced from China, to form with them the complex melange of beliefs md ceremonies which characterized Vietnamese religion at the popular level.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:37:32 ZULU