Save Bui Chu Cathedral, from an atheist with love

By Martin Rama   May 7, 2019 | 01:44 am PT
An ensemble of Catholic churches of northern Vietnam is truly unique heritage, on a global scale. 
Martin Rama, World Bank advisor

Martin Rama, World Bank advisor

Your Excellencies, Father Vu Dinh Hieu, Bishop of Bui Chu Diocese and Father Vu Van Thien, Archbishop of Hanoi:

I am taking the liberty of writing to you despite being neither Vietnamese nor Catholic. I am from Uruguay, a small country half the way around the globe. But for many years I lived in Hanoi and I truly love Vietnam and its people. Also, like many Uruguayans I am an atheist. But I sincerely believe that religious faith, of all sorts, has given us the strong values and the deep sensitivity that connect us all as human beings.

Today I am writing to you in the name of those strong values and deep sensitivity. And I am writing to you with a plea, as I believe that you are the only people who can avoid a sad outcome for Vietnam, for the Catholic Church, and for the entire world.

The magnificent Bui Chu Cathedral, under your jurisdiction, is scheduled to be torn down in barely two weeks. The destruction of such an extraordinary building comes after the demolition of Tra Co Church in the southern Dong Nai Province in March 2017, and the loss of Nam Dinh's Trung Lao Church to a big fire in August of the same year. Other churches under your jurisdiction, including the Saint Peter Parish Church, are also scheduled for demolition.

I very well understand the reasons to replace these old buildings. Renovating them would be very expensive. Given their old age and bad state of disrepair, there is a risk that beams or plaster could fall from the ceiling and hurt, even kill, innocent villagers attending mass. There is no available land nearby to erect new ones. Besides, few of these churches is in the Heritage List of Vietnam, and therefore the Catholic Church is legally entitled to get rid of them.

All of this is absolutely true, but I am afraid that history will not be kind with this decision. Vietnam is not a rich country yet, and understandably its people put convenience before heritage. Nobody can criticize them for that. But I have no doubt that Vietnam will prosper. New generations will travel abroad, enjoy European cities, be exposed to global ideas... And sooner or later they will look back, remember the beautiful country they grew up in, and ask who was responsible for the loss of its character. Invoking the same strong values and the deep sensitivity the Catholic Church incarnates, they may question the decisions of their forebearers, with sadness.

Inside Bui Chu Cathedral in Nam Dinh Province, northern Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Van Hoc

Inside Bui Chu Cathedral in Nam Dinh Province, northern Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Van Hoc

Even today, in the aftermath of the tragic fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the demolition of Bui Chu cathedral could be met with disbelief, even anger. For many hours, the entire world watched the French people agonize over the possible loss of a beloved monument, a witness of their country’s history and a magnificent piece of architecture. The fire at Notre Dame was a tragedy, but the popular reaction to it was deeply moving. And the emotion voiced around the world was reassuring about our collective attachment to cultural heritage, regardless of religious faith.

I am afraid that the demolition of Bui Chu Cathedral will also be watched by the world with anguish. Except that this time the loss will not be a tragic accident, but rather a deliberate act of destruction. The Vietnamese people still remember with anger the demolition of the One-pillar Pagoda by insensitive colonizers. It would be sad if the Catholic Church of Vietnam was remembered that way by future generations, in relation to the magnificent churches of the country’s north.

There is an alternative, however. A very good one. And through this letter I would like to respectfully ask you to consider it.

Maybe none of the Catholic Churches of northern Vietnam, on their own, qualify as world heritage. But together, they are an ensemble that is truly unique, on a global scale. These beautiful buildings combine French architecture from the Beaux Arts period with clearly Vietnamese touches, including wooden pillars and stucco decorations reminiscent of traditional pagodas. These churches could be part of a very successful tourist circuit, bringing jobs and income to the local populations, as well as the resources needed for their maintenance and renovation.

Even more important, Vietnam is successfully emerging from a long history of conflict. Invasion by a powerful neighbor, colonization by a foreign power, war on an unprecedent scale and, worst of all, tension between Vietnamese people with different beliefs... The Catholic Church can play an important role in healing these wounds. Christians are a minority in Vietnam, but they could be seen as leaders in protecting the cultural heritage of the country. In doing so, they would earn sympathy and support from people of all faiths.

Just 10 days ago the government of Vietnam made a very important gesture towards the Catholic Church. During the Holy Week the authorities of Ho Chi Minh City notified the Archbishop of Southern Vietnam that the Thu Thiem Church would be saved from demolition and preserved as a historical and cultural relic. There was applause in the church when the news was announced, at the end of the mass.

The Vietnamese government was enlightened in its decision, and we all feel grateful for it. My respectful question to you, dear Fathers, is whether the Catholic Church of Vietnam wants to be on the side of demolition after such an encouraging gesture from the authorities. Saving Bui Chu Cathedral would send a powerful encouragement to the custodians of Catholic buildings in other provinces.

I am not Vietnamese, I am not a Catholic, but I want to offer my full support to you if you decide to protect the magnificent heritage under your purview. I am determined to spend time in Vietnam and to devote my energy to sustainable urban development in Hanoi and its surroundings. If you agree, I will be delighted to work with you, with the priests and with the local populations, to make the old French churches of the north shine as a treasure of Vietnam.

Yours respectfully,

*Martin Rama is a senior advisor with the World Bank and a project director with the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences. He is the author of the award-winning book Hanoi Promenade. The views expressed are his own.

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