After 50 years, a public memorial Mass for South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem allowed
For the first time, Catholics and others attended a memorial service for the president murdered on 2 November 1963 by his generals backed by Washington. A nationalist and patriot, he represented an alternative to Ho Chi Minh for many Vietnamese. So far, Hanoi has muddied (and tarnished) his memory.

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews/EDA) - For the first time in 50 years, Vietnam's Catholic community was able to celebrate a public Mass in memory of the President of the Republic of Vietnam Jean-Baptiste Ngo Dinh Diem, who was assassinated along with his brother in a coup on 2 November 1963.

On 1 November, dozens of people gathered for the service in Mac Dinh Chieu cemetery in Chi Lai, Binh Duong province, north of Ho Chi Minh City, where most of the family is laid to rest.

The Mass was held at the tomb of the former president, which rests next to that of his mother Luxia and his brother (and advisor) Ngo Dinh Nhu.

For years, Vietnam's Communist government, which has ruled North and South since reunification in 1975, sought to muddy (if not tarnish) Ngo Dinh Diem's memory, refusing even to have his name carved on the tombstone.

Diocesan priests, Redemptorist Fathers, Dominicans, and ordinary Catholics attended the Mass as did a small number of non-Catholics, from all over Vietnam.

Some of them know Jean -Baptiste Ngo Dinh Diem only from hearsay and stories passed down through the family.

Hanoi's official history has tended to downplay the Catholic leader's role in the country's past. Schoolbooks tell a "totally false" version of his life and deeds.

A young dissident, Phuong Uyen, who was recently put on trial, was present at the service and read some passages during the Mass.

Until last year, marking the death of the late president of South Vietnam was a very private if not underground affair.

For the first time since 1975, a quasi-official ceremony was held to express "respect and gratitude" towards "patriots who sacrificed their lives for their country."

In his sermon, Fr Le Thanh Ngoc described Diem as a "lover of truth, eager to bring his contribution to the country, ready to endure suffering, loneliness and ostracism from a high sense of duty."

Born in 1901 into a Catholic family of Mandarins serving the emperor in Hue, Vietnam's ancient imperial capital, Jean -Baptiste Ngo Dinh Diem had a distinguished political career.

A patriot and nationalist, he was for a long time - especially for Christians - an "alternative" figure to Ho Chi Minh and his comrades in the North, who were inspired by Communism.

Following the division of Vietnam under the Geneva Accords of 1954, Diem held a referendum in the south where he proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam with capital Saigon.

For the Americans, already engaged in the war against the Vietcong, he was a difficult ally, uncompromising and interested first of all in safeguarding the sovereignty of his country from external (i.e. American) interference.

These and other factors led the Americans to "encourage and inspire" a coup and his killing, endorsed by US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, as recent declassified White House documents indicate.

Ngo Dinh Diem was killed on 2 November 1963 after top South Vietnamese decided a day earlier to liquidate him.

On the morning of his death, the president and his brother Jacques Ngo Dinh Nhu left the presidential palace to attend Mass at a church in Cho Lon, in Saigon.

When they came out, they were seized by a group of military and thrown into an armoured car. They were found later, dead.