Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Marriage: A Dinner Menu in Reverse

Fiftieth wedding anniversary of Gillian + Uwe Siemon-Netto
  with Father Bruno Fèvre and Pastor Matthias Pankau
Renewal of Vows at altar of the 11th century  Parish Church
of Gurat, France, on December 1, 2012


Grace, peace and mercy to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dear Gillian and Uwe, dear friends,

Germans sometimes use a culinary metaphor for marriage, describing it as a dinner menu in reverse.
The menu starts out as sweet as dessert. Then follows an enticing cheesy part occasionally culminating in the seven-year itch; add a fresh green salad for digestibility. Next you have the long and substantial, but hopefully delicious, main course, the very body of any good dinner as of the marital union. The subsequent fish course should be lighter, but can be fraught with the danger of lethal bones. If all goes well, though, this bill of fare will culminate in the cheerfulness of subtle hors d’oeuvres, when after mastering decades of temptation and strife, the couple is rewarded with the facility to go to bed at night with a loving smile, and to wake up in the morning still holding hands.

From what you have told me, dear Gillian and Uwe, this last menu item is the delight of your life together today. But as for the preceding dishes – boy, did the chef foul up! Or so it seems!

The sweetness of dessert was spoiled when the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 forced you to cancel your wedding in London. Unwed, you rushed to Uwe’s new posting in New York, where you were joined in holy matrimony exactly 50 years ago today in Immanuel Lutheran Church by a drunken pastor who almost missed this appointment.

There was no chance of the cheesy part of the seven-year itch to evolve because Uwe’s assignment to the Vietnam War separated the two of you for up to eight months per year and included the tragedy of the loss of your child due to a tubular pregnancy.

The pièce de résistance, the main course, consisted of more separation caused by tumultuous upheavals resulting from Uwe’s work as a roving international reporter.

The fish course should have been more digestible, but it included deadly bones that could have killed off the strongest marriage: I am referring to the loss of all your wealth, including your château next to this lovely old church, in a Lloyd’s of London scam.

Moreover, dear Gillian, finding yourself in the role of a lowly seminarian’s wife and suffering five years of hardship until Uwe completed his doctorate in theology at the age of 55 surely could not have corresponded to the life of glamour you were promised when you married this dashing foreign correspondent half a century ago.

And yet, here you are, still together, a loving couple, blended inseparably like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in a mellow Bordeaux wine and surrounded by faithful friends from all over the world. The outsider marvels: how is this possible after all the two of you have been through?

Dear Uwe: I have often heard you describe yourself as a radical sinner in radical need of the radical Gospel of Christ. You told me of your and Gillian’s deep conviction that He never left your side even in times of tribulations of a magnitude that made many others take their own lives.

What we are celebrating here today in awe is none other than a clearly discernible act of divine grace, the grace to which you owe Gillian’s enduring love and forgiveness. It was by grace, you keep saying, that you received this gift, not your own doing, and it is out of gratitude for this unfathomable gift of grace that you and Gillian have invited us to celebrate with you today.

Dear Gillian: I know how much you reciprocate Uwe’s conviction. We love you for that most of all. In the last 50 years you have confirmed the Apostle Paul’s words about Christian love in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude… Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things… Love never ends.”

This is your enormously powerful message to an increasingly darkening world where enduring love and faith are no longer the norm. I pray that the two of you will have many years together in this light-hearted hors d’oeuvres phase of your marriage to encourage the rest of us with your heart-warming example. Thank you, dear Gillian and Uwe! And thanks be to God!

And may our almighty and merciful God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, bless you and keep you. Amen!

Rev. Matthias Pankau is an editor of IDEA, a Protestant publishing house in Germany, and an ordained, unpaid pastor of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Saxony



Father Bruno Fèvre (r) is the Catholic pastor  of Montmoreau, France.
His huge parish includes Gurat and 71 other towns and villages. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Trivializing Evil is a GOP Mistake


It is disconcerting that probably the most compelling statement made in this year’s disagreeable U.S. election campaign has received virtually no public attention.

Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois warned Catholic voters of planks in the Democratic Party Platform “that explicitly endorse intrinsic evils.” He meant abortion and same-sex marriage.

Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois

Bishop Paprocki went on, “[A] vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your soul in serious jeopardy.”

This reference to the intrinsic and thus genuine nature of these evils should be a terrifying warning to every Christian and all people affirming the universal moral code called natural law. It should give pause to Republican strategists and conservative pundits who decided that in this year’s race economic issues trump everything, including the paramount concern over the sanctity of life.

It should pipe down the brash Anne Coulter who in a Fox talk show called Rep. Todd Aikin a “swine” because of his refusal to resign his candidacy for the Senate after breaking a 2012 GOP taboo with a clumsy statement; the taboo was abortion, a topic not to be mentioned lest even the last single woman vote for Barack Obama on Nov. 6.

The moral flaw of the stereotypical dictum that the economy supersedes the destruction of 55 million unborn babies since Roe v. Wade in 1973 becomes even clearer when I use an analogy which I know will get me into trouble: the reasoning of these GOP strategists reminds me of Germans who said after World War II: “Well, it was of course wrong of Hitler to kill all those Jews, gypsies and handicapped, but he did do good things, too, didn’t he? He was good for the German economy. He built autobahns and created jobs.”

To be clear: I am not questioning the importance of the state of the economy in this campaign, but to deem it more important than the mindless daily slaughter of the innocent is tantamount to making light of an ongoing genocide.

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines the adjective, “intrinsic,” as “belonging to the real nature of a thing, not dependent on external circumstances.” Something intrinsically evil will not go away when you attempt to camouflage it with verbal dishonesty. The otherwise laudable Wall Street Journal, the commentators on Fox News, and assorted GOP spokesmen with the notable exception of the brave Sen. Rick Santorum and New Gingrich are consistently trivializing abortion as a “social issue.”

In my old-fashioned understanding, social issues, are the conundrums of whether you wear a dinner jacket or tails to a ball, or whether a worker is given two, three or four weeks of annual vacation. Abortion is something wholly other. In his book, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian martyred by the Nazis and admired by many American liberals, wrote this about abortion:
“Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”

I am not a U.S. citizen and must therefore refrain from opining publicly on political issues of another nation, except when it involves intrinsic evils because these transcend national borders; they must be by definition everybody’s concern, as were the intrinsic evils of the Nazi and Communist regimes. That said, even common sense should tell us how unwise it is to sideline, for the sake of short-lived electoral gain, the annual slaughter of 1.2 million unborn or to elevate deviate sexual behavior to the level of matrimony.

If I read this year’s polls correctly, the Republicans are having problems with Latino voters, even though this predominantly Catholic or evangelical segment of the population holds moral values identical to those of white conservatives. Whether these conservatives have treated Hispanic immigrants wisely and well should be the topic of another story. But to tell a family-oriented people that the nation’s paramount ethical issue is of secondary importance amounts to inviting these voters to join the other side: What qualitative difference is there between affirming the culture of death and remaining indifferent to it? The Republican campaign  appears to confront the immorality inherent in the Democratic Platform with an amoral strategy; I fail to see any blessing in this.

Then there is the matter of the unwed women against whom the GOP is alleged to conduct a “war.” If the GOP had any guts it would challenge the ditsy mindset that seems to be prevalent among these females. I would ask them: “Do you really wish to define yourselves as women by your ‘right’ to kill your children? Don’t you recognize the frightening light the ‘war on women’ rhetoric sheds on all of you? Are you sure you want to take part in a war on babies?”

Punchy questions like these might not persuade the most stubborn devotees of the culture of death but perhaps shock enough unmarried women into enough sense of ethical reality to give Mitt Romney the percentage points he needs to be elected. However, this would presuppose of Republican candidates and strategists that they possess a quality Dietrich Bonhoeffer called civil courage.

Frankly, I don’t see it, and hence I fear that, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, a “great masquerade of evil” will go on playing “havoc with all our ethical concepts.” Let nobody later say he didn’t know. The Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield has just warned us in the starkest possible terms when he spoke of intrinsic evils.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 55 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Capistrano Beach, California.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Đức, Đức & Đức

Prospective cover of a new book expected to be published in the winter of 2012


Đc was a spindly leader of a gang of homeless kids roaming the sidewalks of “my” block of Tu Do Street in Saigon. We met in 1965 when Tu Do, the former Rue Catinat, still displayed traces of its former French colonial charm; it was still shaded by bushy and bright green tamarind trees, which would later fall victim to the exhaust fumes of tens of thousands of mopeds with two-stroke engines and prehistoric cars such my grey 1938 Citroen 15 CV Traction Avant, the “gangster car” of French film classics. This car was nearly my age, a metric ton of elegance on wheels -- and very thirsty; eight miles were all she gave me for a gallon of gasoline, provided her fuel tank had not sprung a leak, which my mechanic managed to seal swiftly every time with moist Wrigley gum harvested from inside his cheeks.
As you will presently see, my friendship with Đc and my love for this car were entwined. In truth, it wasn’t really my car. I had leased it from Josyane, a comely French Hertz concessionaire who, as I later found out, was also the agent of assorted Western European intelligence agencies, including the BND, Germany’s equivalent of the CIA. I had often wondered why Josyane rummaged furtively through the manuscripts on my desk when she joined my friends and me for “sundowners” in Suite 214 of the Continental Palace. I fantasized that she was attracted by my youthful and slender Teutonic looks and my stiff dry martinis. She never let on that she read German; why would she want to stare at my texts if they were incomprehensible to her? Well, now I know: She was a spook, according to the Dutch station chief, possibly one of her lovers. But that’s alright! I loved her car and she loved my martinis, which she handed around with amazing grace, and she was welcome to my stories anytime; after all, they were written for the public at large.
But my mind is wandering. Let us return to Đc. He was a droll twelve-year old with a mischievous grin reminding me of myself when I was his age, a rascal in a large wartime city.  True, I wasn’t homeless like Đc, although the British Lancaster bombers and the American Flying Fortresses pummeling Leipzig night and day during the final years of World War II tried their best to render me that way. Like Đc, I was an impish big-town boy successfully bossing other kids on my block around. Đc was different. He was an urchin with a high sense of responsibility. He protectively watched over a gang of much younger orphans living on Tu Do between Le Loi Boulevard and Le Than Ton Street, reporting to a middle-aged Mamasan headquartered on the sidewalk outside La Pagode, a café famed for its French pastries, and the renowned rendezvous point of pre-Communist Saigon’s jeunesse dorée. Mamasan was the motherly press tycoon of that part of the capital. She squatted there outside La Pagode surrounded by stacks of newspapers: papers in Vietnamese and English, French and Chinese; the Vietnamese were avid readers. She handed them out to Đc and his wards and several other bands of children assigned to neighboring blocks.
From what I could observe, Đc was Mamasan’s most important lieutenant, the head paperboy at the busiest end of his block.  His turf was the sidewalk between Givral, a restaurant renowned for its Chinese noodle soup as well as the most authentic French onion soup in all of Southeast Asia, and the entrance to the shopping passage in the Eden Building, which housed the consular section of the West German embassy at that time and the offices of the Associated Press. I fancy that I was one of Đc’s favorite clients because I bought the Saigon Daily News and the Vietnam Guardian from him every day, and the Saigon Post and the Journal d’Extrème Orient. Sometimes I allowed him to cajole me into paying for a couple of Vietnamese-language papers; not that I could read them, but I was intrigued by their frequent empty spaces, the handiwork of government censors.
One late afternoon at the onset of the monsoon season, Đc and I became business partners. The massive clouds in the tropical sky were about to burst. Sheets of water threatened to descend on me with the force of a guillotine blade transforming Saigon’s principal thoroughfare into a gushing stream. I hastily squeezed my Traction into a tight parking space outside Givral’s, a muscle-building exercise given that this front wheel-driven machine lacked power steering and was propelled by a heavy six-cylinder motor made of cast iron. Exhausted, I switched off the engine by which time I was lusting for a bottle of Bière Larue on the Continental Palace’s open-air terrace when Đc stopped me.
The old Traction’s front doors opened forward, thus in the opposite direction of the doors of all modern cars. As I tried to dash out, Đc stood in my way pointing at the windscreen sticker I had been issued that morning by my embassy. It bore the German national colors, black, red and gold, and identified me as “Báo Chí Đc,” a German journalist. This was meant to protect me in case I ran into a Viet Cong roadblock on my occasional weekend jaunts to Cap Saint-Jacques, now called Vũng Tàu, a seaside resort once known as the St. Tropez of the Far East. It actually did shield me in those days. Whenever I ran into a patrol of black-clad Communist militiamen, they would charge me a toll and let me go, but not before issuing me a stamped receipt.
“You Đc!” he shouted delightedly. “My name Đc. We both Đc. We like brothers!”
We shook hands. Now I had a younger brother in Saigon; later I learned that his remark meant even more: it was wordplay.  Đc is also the Vietnamese word for virtuous.
Having established our bond, he wouldn’t let me go, though. “Okay, okay,” he said. “Rain coming, Đc, rain Number Ten.” I knew Saigon street jargon well enough to realize that my new brother wasn’t talking of the tenth rainfall. No, “number ten” meant the worst, the pits, something definitely to avoid.
“Okay, okay,” Đc continued. “You Đc, you Number One (the best). You and I do business, okay?”
          Then he outlined our deal: I was to allow him and his wards to seek shelter in my Traction. It would become their bedroom, which they promised to keep immaculately clean. If I wanted to leave any valuables in the car, they would be safe. Its lock no longer worked; this much Đc had already ascertained.
“Okay, okay, Đc?” he pleaded impatiently.
I nodded. He whistled, and at once eight toddlers rushed out of several doorways and piled into my Traction. Three curled up on the back seats, two on the jump seats, one each in the legroom separating them, one girl took the right front seat, another squatted on the generous floor space under her feet, and Đc naturally took his place behind the steering wheel.
Bonne nuit, Đc, you number one!” he said, slamming the door and winding up the window. At this moment a torrent of rain poured down on the Traction and on me. The kids were safe. I was drenched to the bones within seconds. I ran into the Continental, needing more than a Larue. First I had a shower in my room, then a whisky on the terrace. As night fell I kept staring across Tu Do Street at my large Citroen with steamed up windows outside Givral’s. This sight pleased me. These children were warm and dry. In all my years in Vietnam I rarely felt as happy as on that evening, an uncommon sensation in a reporter’s life.
I am dedicating this book to Đc because in my mind he personifies qualities that formed my affection and admiration for the people of South Vietnam, and my compassion for them after their abandonment by their protectors and their betrayal by some, though not all, members of my profession. Like Đc, they are feisty and resilient; they don’t whine, but pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and they care for each other. When they are down, they rise again and accomplish astonishing things. I am in awe of the achievements of the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese living and working close to my home in southern California. I am full of admiration for those former boat people and survivors of Communist reeducation camps, those former warriors suffering in silence from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other severe ailments caused by torture and head injuries received in combat.
I hope that Đc’s adolescence and adulthood turned out to be a success story as well, but I don’t know. We lost contact a couple of years after our first encounter. Was he drafted into the South Vietnamese army and eventually killed in combat? Did he join the Vietcong and perhaps die in their service? Was he among the thousands of civilians butchered by the Vietcong during the Têt Offensive of 1968? Or did this crafty kid manage to flee his homeland after the Communist victory of 1975? Perhaps he is alive at the time of this writing is a successful 58-year old businessman or professional in Westminster, California, just up the road from me; perhaps he is reading this book.
I thought of Đc when two wonderful Vietnamese friends invited me to address a convention of former military medical officers of the South Vietnamese Army. They had been urging me for some time to write my wartime reminiscences. “Do it for us,” they said, “do it for our children’s generation. They want to know what it was like. You have special credibility because as a German you had no dog in this fight.” Then, after listening to my anecdotes such as the one about my encounter with Đc, several of those retired physicians, dentists and pharmacists in my audience said the same thing, and some bounced my speech around the Internet.
I do not presume to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War or even give a comprehensive account of the nearly five years I spent in Indochina as a correspondent first of the Axel Springer group of German newspapers and subsequently as a visiting reporter of Stern, an influential Hamburg-based magazine. I beg my readers not to expect me to take sides in the domestic squabbles between South Vietnamese factions, quarrels that are being perpetuated in the huge communities of Vietnamese exiles today. When I mention former Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, for example, this does not mean that I favor him over former President Nguyen van Thieu, or vice versa; I am just here to tell stories, including some about Ky and some about Thieu, without wishing to pass judgment on either. Theirs was an unenviable lot, and they deserve my respect for having taken up an appalling burden.
But there is something I wish to make clear: I did not welcome the victory of the Communists in 1975. I did not believe they deserved this triumph. I have been a witness to heinous atrocities they committed as a matter of policy, a witness to mass murder and carnage beside which transgressions against the rules of war perpetrated on the American and South Vietnamese side  –- clearly not as a matter of policy or strategy – appear pale in comparison. I know that many in the American and international mass media and academe have unjustly, gratuitously and arrogantly maligned the South Vietnamese and are still doing so; I almost exploded in anger when even I heard Bill O’Reilly, by no means a card-carrying liberal, refer to the Saigon leadership on Fox television as, “those corrupt clowns.” I was disgusted by the way returning GIs were treated by their fellow countrymen and am shocked by the fact that the continued suffering of South Vietnamese veterans is not deemed worthy of consideration by U.S. journalists.
This book is a collection of personal sketches of what I saw, observed, lived through and reported in my Vietnam years. It is a series of alternating narratives about experiences ranging from the horrific to the absurd, from glamorous to frivolous pursuits, from despair to hope. But to remind my readers and myself that this is ultimately a book about a tragic war that ended in defeat for the victims of aggression, I will insert a brief reflection underscoring that effect every few chapters, beginning with a description of a mass murder the Communists committed during the 1968 Têt Offensive.
I owe gratitude to many people: the absent Đc, my Vietnamese family in Orange County, Quy and QuynhChau, better known as Jo, and her sister Tran and Tran’s husband Di Ton That, as well as the countless Vietnamese, American, French, British and German friends I made in Vietnam. I also wish to thank the Vietnam veterans whom I served as a chaplain intern at the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and the psychologists and ministers with whom I worked in order to provide those former soldiers with pastoral care. There is my friend and editor Peggy Strong, and there is, first and foremost, Gillian, my wife of 50 years who has stood by me and endured our long periods of separation caused by my assignment to an enchanting war-torn country I have come to love.

                                                                                            Uwe Siemon-Netto
Laguna Woods, Calif., October 2012.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Other Iranian Revolution

  Lutheran pastor Gottfried Martens 
baptizing a Persian convert on Easter Night in Berlin

In ‘godless’ eastern Germany,
Iranian refugees surprise pastors
by their interest in Christianity.

From Christianity Today, July-August 2012

Deaconess Rosemarie Götz
baptizing a Persian woman in Berlin 

“God must have been laughing up his sleeve,” muses Jobst Schöne, applying a German paraphrase of Psalm 2:4 to the baptism of seven former Muslims from Iran. Early Easter morning, the seven were baptized in the Berlin parish where the retired bishop of the Independent Lutheran Church in Germany, serves as associate pastor. But the baptisms were emblematic of something bigger—a nationwide surge of such conversions in several denominations and a spate of reports of Muslims seeing Jesus in their dreams. These converts might have dreamt of Jesus, but the Martin Luther’s Bible translation, now nearly 500 years old, also played an important role in their story.

The group baptism happened at an unsettling time for European Christians. During Lent, radical Muslims were handing out large numbers of Qurans on street corners; they announced plans to distribute 25 million German-language copies of their holy book in order to win Germans over to their faith. But in the night before Easter, some 150 worshipers filed silently into St. Mary’s Church in the Zehlendorf district of Berlin to witness conversions in the opposite direction.

Until midnight, the sanctuary was dark.  Then Rev. Gottfried Martens, the senior pastor, chanted from the altar: “Glory to God in the highest.” All at once the lights went on, the organ roared, and the faithful broke jubilantly into song: “We praise you, we bless you, we worship you.” Like Christians everywhere, they celebrated their Lord’s resurrection.

For the six young men and one woman in the front pew this moment had additional significance: They placed their lives in danger in exchange for salvation. Under Islamic law, apostasy is a capital crime, a fact brought home to the German public by press reports about Iranian pastor Yusuf Nadarkhani, an ex-Muslim, who was sentenced to death in Tehran. Some of the converts at St. Mary’s were themselves persecuted before fleeing to Germany, where the largest Iranian community in Western Europe lives numbering 150,000.

“These refugees are taking unimaginable risks to live their Christian faith,” says Martens who ministers to one of Germany’s most dynamic parishes, which has grown from 200 to over 900 members in 20 years. He views the conversion of a growing number of Iranians in Germany as evidence of God’s sense of irony. “Imagine! Of all places, God chooses eastern Germany, one of the world’s most godless regions, as the stage for a spiritual awakening among Persians!” Martens exclaims. According to a recent University of Chicago study, only 13 percent of all residents of this formerly Communist part of Germany still believe in God.

The Vision Thing
The christening in Berlin is a small piece in an amazing mosaic of faith covering all of Germany, leaping denominational barriers and extending into Iran itself. Some German clerics speak of a divinely scripted drama that includes countless reports by Muslims of having had visions of Jesus. According to Martens and others interviewed for this article, most of these appearances follow a pattern reported by converts throughout the Islamic the world: These Muslims see a figure of light, sometimes bearing the features of Christ, sometimes not. But they instantly know who he is. He always makes it clear that he is the Jesus of the Bible, not the “Isa” of the Quran, and he directs them to specific pastors, priests, congregations, or house churches where they will hear the Gospel.

Thomas Schirrmacher, chair of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance comments on this pattern:   “God sticks to the Reformation doctrine that faith comes by receiving the Word through Scripture and preaching. In these dreams, Jesus never engages in hocus-pocus, but sends these people to where the Word is faithfully proclaimed.” This is why Gottfried Martens says he cannot dismiss such narratives: “As a confessional Lutheran, I am not given to Schwärmerei,” he declares, using Luther’s derogatory term for religious enthusiasm. “But these reports of visions sound very convincing.”

Martens’ experience with Muslim converts goes back to when his catechism classes for Persian immigrants began five years ago and quickly expanded. On Easter Sunday 2011, Martens baptized 10 converts, and there will be 10 more next Easter, and another 10 in the following year, plus some more in between.

As news of the Easter baptisms at St. Mary’s spread, churches  all over Germany reported similar experiences: Across Berlin in Neukölln, a district with a nearly 20 percent Middle Eastern immigrant population, Deaconess Rosemarie Götz baptized 16 Persians on Easter Day, in her modest house of prayer called Haus Gotteshilfe (God’s Help). This doubled her tiny congregation, which is part of the Landeskirchliche Gemeinschaft, a pietistic group within the otherwise more liberal Protestant church of the Berlin-Brandenburg region. 

“The new members brought along 50 others whom we are now instructing in the faith, and 8 or 10 of them will be baptized in August,” says Sister Rosemarie, whose involvement with the Iranians started 19 years ago when a social worker introduced her to Nadereh Majdpour. Majdpour had fled from Iran after suffering torture for declaring that she loved Jesus more than Mohammed. “She lost all her hair from being beaten savagely on her head in jail,” recounts the deaconess. Majdpour brought the other Persians to Sister Rosemarie and acts as their interpreter.

Two weeks after Easter, four more Iranians were baptized in the Baptist Friedenskirche (Church of Peace) in the fashionable Charlottenburg district. Meanwhile, not far from Sister Rosemarie’s chapel, Sadegh Sepehri, an Iranian-born minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was preparing substantial groups of former Muslims for baptism in the Bethlehemkirche, a German Reformed Church hosting a congregation of 150 native Iranians. “I have already baptized more than 500 Persians in my 20 years here in Berlin,” Sepehri reported before pointing to an American pastor who has done four times as well numerically in the southern city of Nuremberg.

Mark A. Bachman, founder of Nuremberg’s independent Word of God Baptist church, returned to the United States two years ago. Speaking by telephone from Hyles-Anderson College in Indiana, where he is now training missionaries for Islamic lands, Bachman estimates that he baptized some 2,000 former Muslims during his 23-year ministry in Nuremberg; most were Persians.

In yet another part of Germany, Baptist pastor Helmut Venske, baptized 13 Iranians on Easter Sunday. Rev. Venske serves a congregation in Mülheim in the industrial Ruhr District in northwestern Germany. “This is happening in many parts of the country, wherever there are Persian communities,” he says.

Pastor Helmut Venzke baptizing a
Persian in Mülheim (Ruhr District)

In a rural Lutheran church in Bavaria, for example, several dark-skinned strangers surprised the communion assistant during Lent when they showed up at the altar. “Who were they?” he later asked his pastor. “Oh, they are just another family of Persian converts,” the minister answered.

Missing Data
“Something significant is taking place here,” says Max Klingberg, an official of the International Society or Human Rights in Frankfurt. But when questioned about a radio report that in Germany alone at least 500 Persians become Christians every year, he cautions, “As a trained scientist, I prefer to be very careful with numbers.” However, Schirrmacher suggests, “The real figure could well be one thousand, perhaps thousands.”

Actual numbers are hard to determine because of the theologically liberal leadership of the regional Protestant bodies linked to the state. Their leaders tend to steer clear of mission, says Schirrmacher: “They worry that it might interfere with their interfaith dialogues.” Sister Rosemarie agrees: “I suspect that this is why the parish pastor around here, a woman, has never visited our congregation.”

Therefore, says Schirrmacher, only “free churches,” such as the Baptists or independent Lutherans, and semi-autonomous congregations like Sister Rosemarie’s, joyfully report conversions. “We know that faithful ministers of the state-related churches also baptize ex-Muslims, but we are left in the dark about the numbers.” Albrecht Hauser, a former missionary and retired dean of the Lutheran Church of Württemberg, adds, “We are aware of faithful Catholic priests doing likewise.” But, observes Schirrmacher with sadness, “The Catholics are just as hesitant to release statistics …. They don’t want to jeopardize interfaith dialogues.”

However, the number of baptisms of Persians andto a lesser degreeother Muslims in Germany outweighs the switch of Christians to Islam: “According to a report by the central archive of Germany’s Islamic organizations in Soest, approximately 500 Germans became Muslims in 2010,” says Schirrmacher. “Yet those were either German girls marrying Muslim immigrants or nominal ex-Christians hoping for good business opportunities in other Islamic countries. The conversion of Persians is of a totally different quality, usually following long instruction in the Christian faith.”

In Gottfried Martens’ congregation, for instance, the catechumens from the Middle East spend four or more months studying the Bible, the creeds of the church, Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, the significance of the liturgy, and the hymns. “They are very attracted by the liturgy, which was absent in their previous faith,” Martens explains. Wilfried Kahla, an ex-missionary from Germany’s state-related Lutheran church, and a veteran in evangelizing Muslims, told the Protestant news magazine ideaSpektrum that he made his candidates study a 62-page brochure on Christian doctrine and administered a written exam to them. Then, at the baptismal font, he makes them abjure Islam.

Pastors Martens and Venske, and Sister Rosemarie, follow similar curricula; like Kahla, they carefully explain to converts the difference between the Allah of Islam and the God of Christianity. “Islam is like a rope ladder on which people try to reach God,” Kahla likes to say. “They manage to climb a few rungs but with each sin fall off the ladder and must start all over again. Christians, by contrast, need no ladder because Jesus comes down to earth for them. Christians have salvation. Muslims don’t.”

An Educated People Group
Why is it that, of the 4 million Muslims living in Germany, Iranians are the most likely to turn to Christianity? The ministers interviewed attribute this in part to their high level of education. They say that most of the Iranian refugees are business people, or physicians, scientists, engineers, lawyers, economists, teachers, and other professionals or students. In coming to Germany, they followed a centuries-old pattern of cultured Persians in a country where German-Persian professional organizations have existed since the 19th century.

“Iran is suffering from a big brain drain as a result of its fanatical religious policies,” observes Schirrmacher. Hans-Jürgen Kutzner, who ministers to 1,000 Persians on behalf of the state-related United Evangelical-Lutheran Churches in Germany, agrees: “As far as the university-educated elite in Iran is concerned, Islam has lost all moral integrity; especially among the young.”

Citing a report by the nationwide Deutschlandradio network, Martens wrote to his parish that perhaps half of all young, educated Persian urbanites sympathize with Christianity these days, while Mr. Klingberg of the ISHR cautions that such estimates might be exaggerated.

U.S. Pastor Mark A. Bachman baptizes
Persians in Nuremberg

Still, Bachman ascribes the rise of underground Christianity in Iran partly to the fact that every day 17 million of its 79 million people listen to programs via Christian satellite radio and television from abroad. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.S. Lutheran pastor involved in clandestine missionary work in this theocratic nation speaks with awe of the intensity of exchanges between the expanding Christian communities in exile and in Persia itself.

Why Do They Do It?
Clergy interviewed for this story reject the suspicion held by some German government officials that many refugees from Iran convert solely to be awarded refugee status. They point out that many converts had to exchange a comfortable life for an impoverished existence. “You don’t do this simply for material reasons,” says Sister Rosemarie. “Neither would you study so hard for your baptism, and attend services so faithfully.”

Martens admits that he gets angry when testifying before immigration tribunals on behalf of Persian congregants. “Can you imagine?” he growls, “here we have judges whose knowledge of Christianity is at best on the superficial level of cultural Protestantism, and they presume to judge the sincerity of someone else’s Christian faith!” Like his German colleagues, Bachman says, “I have always made it clear to ex-Muslims asking me to instruct them in the Christian faith that baptism would not automatically save them from being returned to Iran by the German authorities.”

Perhaps the most convincing argument supporting Bishop Schöne’s image of a laughing God at work in Germany might be found in the genesis of the Persian awakening at St. Mary’s. It began in Saxony, birthplace of the Reformation, where Christians have become an endangered species. Twelve years ago, Trinity parish in Leipzig, a tiny congregation of the Independent Lutheran Church, began teaching German as a second language to asylum seekers awaiting government approval of their refugee status.

Trinity used Luther’s Bible translation as a textbook. Linguists credit that translation with having created the modern German language. Intrigued by what they read, several exiles soon asked to be baptized. They brought along friends who then also wished to learn the basics of the Christian faith. “Today, one third of our 150 members are Persians,” says Markus Fischer, Trinity’s pastor.

They include 28-year old “Amin” and his young family. “Amin” says he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He was a successful corporate executive in Tehran until an Armenian friend introduced him to the Christian faith. “Amin” and his pregnant wife then fled to Europe. Their story is much like that of “Hamid.” The former owner of a Tehran shopping center, “Hamid” was arrested and tortured after a raid by Iran’s religious police on the house church he attended.

“In this congregation I heard for the first time that God is a loving father who desires a personal relationship with every human being. This was news to me because Islam had taught me the image of God as a distant, punishing deity,” says “Hamid.” He was one of the ex-Muslims baptized this Easter in Berlin where he had moved after the German authorities granted him refugee status.

So did other Persian converts from Leipzig. Others still moved on to Hamburg, Dresden, and Düsseldorf, where they joined the local congregations of the Independent Lutheran Church, according to Hugo Gevers, the denomination’s special representative to migrants. Wherever they went, they started evangelizing fellow refugees, which helps to account for the current surge in conversions.

Meanwhile in Leipzig, the fame of Trinity’s success among immigrants has caught the attention of German-born seekers. The congregation is outgrowing its minute makeshift building in a park and negotiating a permanent lease of a large but little-used sanctuary of the state-related Lutheran Church, a shrinking denomination.

Rev. Schirrmacher finds stories like this engrossing. Remembering the late leader of Iran’s lethal Islamic revolution of 1979, Schirrmacher says, “Isn’t it odd that the Ayatollah Khomeini has turned out to be one of modern Christianity’s greatest missionaries?”

Rev. Matthias Pankau is a Lutheran pastor and an editor of Idea, a Protestant wire service and magazine in Germany. Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto, a journalist, directs the Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Capistrano Beach, California.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

WORLD MATTERS: U.S. conservatives poorly served by the Fox News media culture


A nauseating remark by Donald Trump on Fox News about Germany this week made me wonder if today’s American and European conservatives are living on the same planet – assuming for the sake of an argument that this network is the authentic voice of conservatives in the U.S.A. Discussing the Euro crisis on Greta van Susteren’s “On the Record” show, Trump said: “Germany is trying to take over the world economically; they weren’t able to do it militarily.” This was preceded by a breathtakingly boorish divination of dire prospects for French President Nicolas’ marriage once he and his wife Carla Bruni have left the Elysée Palace in Paris. 

Now, before I let off steam about this claptrap, let me disclose this much about myself: I am a firm conservative of the European stripe. If I were a U.S. citizen, I could never vote for “pro choice” candidates or politicians favoring same-sex marriage. Like American conservatives, I want governments to be small and taxes low. I oppose the nanny state and entitlements. I support free enterprise, hard work and responsible lifestyles. I am a conservative because I want to “conserve,” in the original sense of the Latin verb, conservare, the Christian civilization we inherited including its religious, educational and cultural treasures, its civility, good manners, its emphasis of historical knowledge and critical thinking.

There are differences of course: I do not consider myself depraved because I like fast trains, speak foreign languages and never felt a desire to own a gun, and I see no merit in ethnic or national bigotry; I have learned in my childhood in Germany the hard way where this kind of rhetoric can lead. Still, irrespective of these Old World peculiarities, I have always held it self-evident that conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic are bound by shared values and presume this still to be the case.

Yet I feel politically homeless in contemporary America, a country I love; I despise the mindlessness reflected in Mr. Trump’s glib statement, which is emblematic of the discourse in the type of electronic media where he is seen and heard. Is this conservative? Not in my book. It is unintelligent and inelegant, two adjectives I do find incompatible with the grace of real conservative thought. It troubles me that Americans seem unaware of the catastrophic impression this makes on those Europeans who should be their natural friends and allies. They watch Fox News’ lowbrow talk shows on the Internet with dismay and see them, in the absence of alternatives, as true mirrors of American traditionalism. When I telephoned friends in France and Germany after the Socialist victory in the French elections, they emitted identical sighs: “If only American conservatives would give us any reason for hope!”

Back to Trump: He seems clueless about the distasteful company he is keeping by trumpeting out his ugly clichés before millions of Fox News spectators: the company of Greek anarchists, neo-Nazis and Communists burning German flags in the street of Athens and caricaturing Chancellor Angela Merkel as a brown-shirted, swastika-toting fiend, or advocates of irresponsible inflationary policies of the very type Fox News pretends to be fighting in America. In his postmodern inability to think in proper analogies, it did not occur to Trump that Germans abhor this behavior just as much as Americans loathed morons burning their national flag and spelling the name of their country Ameri-kkk-a in the 1960s.

Oh, now I get it! Perhaps in Trump’s mind solidarity is a leftist term and not something conservatives do to each other, at least not from the perspective of the kind of conservatives we are discussing here, the “me”-conservatives unbound by codes of honor worth conserving, just as the rest of the “Me” culture. Again, I suspect that a majority of conservatives might not belong to the “Me” variety; but they have chosen not to invest in a voice that can be heard and seen around the globe, a shortsighted omission.

What exactly is it that Trump, in line with European leftists and extremists, dislikes about today’s Germans? I say today’s Germans, those 90-odd percent of us who were not even around when Hitler came to power. He admits that Germans have done “unbelievably well,” and he surely cannot claim that they have accomplished this by force of arms or knavish tricks. I posit that they reaped the fruits of doing what Germans always do best: hard work, precision engineering, making beautiful products of the highest quality that sell well around the world, maintaining sound labor relations, training their workers superbly, and exercising fiscal responsibility. I believe Germans have by now earned the right to grab Trump by the lapels and thunder: “How dare you liken our honorable behavior to the shameful deeds a criminal regime has committed before you were born!”

Or is it that in his mind only Americans are virtuous when they work hard and well and behave prudently, whereas Germans doing the very same thing are by definition Nazis light? What must Germans do to receive the approbation of Trump and similar hypocrites? Must they become sloppy? Must they go on strike all the time like French railway workers? Must they produce rubbish in order for others to get a larger share of the market? Should they have followed the American example, much bemoaned by Trump and his fellow Fox commentators, of destroying their own economy?

Trump’s insult to Western Europe’s most populous nation could be dismissed as crude drivel if it were not one exceedingly rare item of information about Germany, or for that matter any other Western European country except Britain, broadcast by America’s premier “conservative” cable network, which is too mean to base foreign correspondents in continental capitals and apparently too hick to cover the Continent instead of badmouthing it almost daily. I will never forget the thigh-slapping hilarity in a Fox talk show when a panelist proclaimed a few years ago: “The only trouble with Europe is that it has too many Europeans.” By God, this was unadulterated Nazi diction! I am proud to say that in Germany this kind of rhetoric would be treated as a hate crime.

As a journalist who has learned his craft with the Associated Press, I am disconsolate that for world coverage on the evening news I must go to the English-language Al Jazeera program, compliments of PBS, if I want to avoid networks whose liberal slant I find objectionable. Why don’t conservative billionaires like Donald Trump see a need to invest in a restoration of genuinely “fair and balanced” journalism in this country that used to be the international leader in high media standards? Why for that matter don’t other wealthy conservatives worried about the decrepit state of our craft? Why is it that responsible media people, and here I include myself, only meet uncomprehending stares when panhandling for funds to launch, not a mouthpiece for right wingers, but simply a responsible, cosmopolitan, professionally well-crafted mass publication, printed or electronic. For democracy to survive, we need an abundance of solid facts to reach the electorate, not more half-baked opinions posing as “conservative.”

Contrary to what Fox’s smug talk show hosts will have you believe, the frightening collapse of journalistic standards is by no means an exclusively left-wing phenomenon. The so-called conservative media outlets are no better. Take Germany. Fox’s listeners don’t know that Germany, the world’s second largest exporter, maintains the third-largest NATO contingent in Afghanistan, after the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and that German soldiers are also dying in the Hindu Kush. Never do the journalistic poseurs talking over their interview partners in prime time offer a detailed report of a compelling international saga that is as much a human interest as a political story: Whether you like Germans or not, the Herculean act of one middle-aged East German pastor’s daughter and scientist, Angela Merkel, carrying the rest of Europe is a stirring occurrence in the history of Western civilization, especially if you consider that Germany has just had to spend nearly €2 trillion ($2,7 trillion) to repair the disastrous damage 40 years of Communist have done to its eastern territories. But to understand this you have to know history.

When discussing health care, these pundits ridicule the British and Canadian systems but never mention Germany’s, which is the world’s oldest, having been started by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1883 in order to stave off socialist alternatives. It is really irrelevant whether this omission is due to prejudice or ignorance; the consequence is the same: these “journalists” keep their public ill informed at a time when international perils call for well-educated voters.

Donald Trump said, “Germany is trying to help Germany.” So? He complained that the euro was not created “for the betterment of the United States.” So? Isn’t it a little narcissistic to demand that only things serving the betterment of one country should be permitted elsewhere in the world? He also claimed that the whole European project was directed against U.S.

No! The European unification process resulted from the lessons wise and eminently decent men of the caliber of Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, Paul-Henri Spaak, Charles de Gaulle and others had drawn from the bloody fratricide of two World Wars. It was a human endeavor and therefore subject to human fallibility. Perhaps in hindsight Germany should never have agreed to a joint currency that included Greece, which was not ready for it. But that was one price she had to pay for France’s acquiescence to her reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Instead of ridiculing Germany or accusing her of ill intent, Mr. Trump should be thankful that he has never experienced the horror that prompted Europeans to act the way they did. I am ten years older than Trump; I have lived through it, which is why I don’t long for a repetition. European wars have never been good for Americans either. Mr. Trump should have thought of that, but he hasn’t.

Moreover, it seems illogical for a champion of free enterprise to view the competitive intentions of the European Union as detrimental to the United States, as Trump insinuated in his interview with Greta van Susteren. Have I missed a class at school? Is not competition what free enterprise is all about? Why should peaceful competition be fine on a national but not on an international level, as long as both sides subscribe to the same principles of freedom?

I would not have lowered myself to venting my anger here about the utterances of a billionaire buffoon had 55 years in international journalism not taught me to appraise most somberly the state of the world we are living in. From this I can only draw one conclusion: American and Continental conservatives need each other today more than ever; but I mean real conservatives determined to conserve our civilization, including hard work, fiscal discipline, entrepreneurship, a commitment to the sanctity of human life and, yes, international civility, which I found lacking in Donald Trump’s superfluous remarks.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 55 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A German Remembers Vietnam


I am flattered to have been asked to speak to you today almost half a century after I first arrived in Vietnam as a West German war correspondent. That was before the first American combat forces landed in Da Nang. It was then that I developed a passionate love for your country and its people who honor us Germans by calling us “Đc,” which also means virtuous.

One day, a member of a band of homeless newspaper boys living on Tu Do Street in Saigon, approached me and said, “You are Đc, my name is Đc, so we are both Đc, and I have a deal for you. If you allow my friends and me to sleep in your car, we’ll protect it and keep it clean for you.

I had rented on a semi-permanent basis a Citroen 15 CV, a “traction.” This was a huge and very thirsty French car built in the year I was born. Its door locks had gone. So it was just as well somebody watched over it. Sometimes seven or eight children slept in this machine, keeping it immaculately clean inside and outside.

I always parked it on Tu Do opposite the Continental Palace, next to the Café Givral, if you remember it. It became more than just my means of transportation; more importantly it became a vehicle of friendship between Đc, the newspaperman, and a bunch of wonderful kids led by Đc the itinerant vendor of the Saigon Daily News, the Saigon Post and many other papers.

This friendship lasted on and off until my traction became a casualty of the Têt Offensive in 1968 and the street kids disappeared from Tu Do for a while.

I wonder what has happened to Đc since then. Maybe he is now living in the United States, perhaps he is sitting right in this room. It would be wonderful to speak and laugh with him again; he was a great kid.

Not that I spent all that much time in Saigon; I often accompanied your troops into battle. And there I observed ARVN doctors and medics intrepidly trying to save the lives of wounded men. Perhaps some of you and I have met -- near Quang Tri, Hue, Pleiku or Plei My, Nha Trang, or in the Mekong Delta, or at the POW camp on Phú Quc Island.

This was in early 1965.

Later that year I compacted my spine when an American MedEvac chopper I traveled on was shot down west of An Khe, and so American doctors looked after me. But never mind the nationality of military doctors and medics: In my five years in Vietnam I greatly came to appreciate the sacrifice, courage and professional expertise of all of you, Americans, Vietnamese, Koreans and Australians.

So you and I might have met. I was hard to miss when I visited your units, for during those early stages of the war I was often the only West German correspondent in South Vietnam, and my badge identified me as a German.

For one brief moment I even became your comrade-in-arms by capturing a Vietcong.

This was actually quite amusing. Here is what happened:

In February of 1965 I attached myself to an American Special Forces A-Team and participated in a parachute exercise west of My Tho. I hit the ground. I rolled up my chute and noticed that the ground gave under my feet. I stepped back. The surface popped up again. I hopped with both feet forcefully on that small spot. The surface sank. I heard a groan. Again I stepped back, removed a layer of grass and discovered the camouflaged plastic helmet of a VC and the nozzle of his antique M-1 rifle.

First I lifted the gun out of the hole, then the VC. He was a slim little guy in black pajamas, and he was shivering. I told him: “Courage, camarade, pour toi la guerre est fini.“ I don’t know if he spoke French but he surely understood what I was saying: “Take courage, buddy, for you the war is over.” Now he smiled.

I turned the VC and his rifle over to the Americans but kept his plastic helmet as a trophy. For the next 46 years it lived in my library until my friend Dr. Quy van Ly and his wife Chau came to my house in France last October. So I gave the helmet to them as a souvenir. Not that I had performed a great heroic deed.

Still, I was glad to help out. So here it is – the helmet. This was my trophy. Now it’s yours. It will be in your war museum here in Little Saigon.

Now, this was a benign incident whose memory I cherish. A few weeks later, I had a distressing experience west of Nha Trang. But it was significant for my understanding of my assignment. For it showed me the true face of the Vietnam War. The reason why I will now elaborate on this event is that it illustrates why so many Americans have never quite grasped what this conflict was all about.

President Richard M. Nixon later cited my report about this incident in his book, The Real War. So pardon my vanity if I quote a United States President quoting me: Nixon wrote: “…German journalist Uwe Siemon-Netto provided a vivid illustration of how communist guerilla groups use terrorism to effect their purpose. Siemon-Netto, who accompanied a South Vietnamese battalion to a large village the Vietcong had raided in 1965, reported: "Dangling from the trees and poles in the village square were the village chief, his wife, and their twelve children, the males, including a baby…"

The Vietcong had ordered everyone in the village to witness this family first being tortured, and then hanged. "They started with the baby and then slowly worked their way up to the elder children, to the wife, and finally to the chief himself. ... It was all done very coolly, as much an act of war as firing an anti-aircraft gun…"

All these were Nixon’s excerpts from a story of mine.Nixon explained that this is how the Communists won the hearts and minds of the rural population. They did not win hearts and minds by acts of compassion but by the most merciless forms of intimidation. The villagers told me that the Vietcong cadre had entered the village several times before and warned the chief that if he did not stop cooperating with the South Vietnamese government there would be severe consequences.

But he remained loyal, so they returned in the middle of the night and woke everybody in the village to witness the massacre during which a propaganda officer told the people: “This is what will happen to you if you don’t join us; remember that!” I am ashamed to admit that I can no longer recall the name of that village. But that doesn’t really matter because this sort of thing went on all over South Vietnam every night back then.

Yet the American public was largely unaware of this because their media did not tell them. In the daily press briefing in Saigon—the infamous five o’clock follies – episodes like this were reduced a mere statistic. The briefers would routinely inform correspondents of the huge number of “incidents” that occurred in the previous 24 hours.

This sounded like a sales report: “I Corps, 184 enemy incidents; II Corps, 360 incidents; III Corps, 225; IV Corps, 480.” That was that. No details were given. That would have been impossible anyway, given the large number of this kind of incidents in 24 hours.

We journalists had no way of researching all these particulars, unless we stumbled into such an event as I did when I accompanied a battalion of the 22rd ARVN division. Yet what I saw there near Nha Trang was actually enormously significant because it represented the essence of this particular stage of the Vietnam conflict.

Acts of terrorism to cow the civilian population were characteristic of the second phase of the guerilla warfare strategy developed by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the defense minister of North Vietnam.

I seriously doubt that so many Americans would have turned against the Vietnam War, had their media continuously described of these acts of inhumanity that occurred everywhere in South Vietnam. They didn’t, partly because journalists did not have the means to do so, partly also because many reporters and their editors simply had another agenda. I said: many –not all.

Three years later, during the Têt Offensive in Hué, I stood with my colleague Peter Braestrup of the Washington Post at the rim of a mass grave and overheard him ask an American television cameraman: “Why don’t you film this scene?” The camerman answered: “We are not here to spread anti-Communist propaganda.” This showed a shameful mindset of many of my colleagues, a mindset that I believe was instrumental in shaping the desire of the American public to end this war almost at any cost.

Gen. Giap knew that this was going to happen. He knew that American voters would tire of this war. For he knew the weaknesses of a free society very well, notably its short attention span. Sixty years ago, he wrote: “The enemy” – meaning in reality all Western democracies – “does not possess the psychological and political means to fight a long drawn-out war.”

He prophesied the war fatigue, the peace moment, the hypocritical inclination of ideologues to overlook the hideous nature of a totalitarian revolutionary movement; the inclination to accentuate the shortcomings of one’s own side; the allegedly corrupt nature of the “allies” democratic societies are sacrificing their young men for; and eventually the desire to “seek an honorably way out,” and “peace with honor,” and an equitably negotiated settlement.

What was so remarkable about the media’s role in Vietnam was that some American correspondents, who later became strong antiwar advocates, were well aware of this danger. On January 13, 1965, the celebrated American columnist and historian Stanley Karnow quoted Giap’s statement about the inability of free countries to fight protracted wars and warned his readers about the consequences of this dire flaw in the fiber of any democratic system.

And yet before long, Karnow led the pack of writers agitating for a so-called “peace with honor,” knowing all too well that a truly honorable settlement was unobtainable.

Today we hear echoes of this with respect to Afghanistan. Again we hear calls for a negotiated settlement. We hear about secret talks between the United States and the Taliban. No thought is given to what compromise this totalitarian movement could be expected to stick to.

What would such a compromised entail: That instead of being forbidden to learn how to read and write, women will be allowed to learn half the alphabet? That for the first five years after a Taliban takeover only half as many alleged adulteresses will be stoned to death as used to be the norm before the Taliban were chased from power? That women will receive only half as many lashes as they used to when their ankles to be seen under their chadors?

A dozen years ago, the leading American feminist group, the National Organization of Women, published dramatic accounts of he Taliban’s ghastly human rights abuses against women on its website. Today it wastes no thought on the high probability that these abuses will be repeated once NATO has withdrawn its forces because these abuses are as much inherent in the ideology of radical Islamists, as gulags were inherent in Communist ideology. Those of you who experienced Vietcong internment know what I am talking about.

I believe that all of us have mission to be witnesses to history – you, the veterans of this war, and we who covered it. We must keep the memory of historical truth alive for the benefit of those who follow us. We must keep reminding the media in our host countries of their pivotal role in the preservation of freedom. We must warn those who come after us of the dreadful consequences of bad journalism, academic hypocrisy and a bored electorate’s lack of resolve. You are in the best position to do this. You have seen and often suffered so much.

Let me add something here: I am a Christian, and an amateur historian. As a Christian I know who is the ultimate Lord of history. And as an amateur historian I know that history is always open to the future. Putting these two factors together gives us hope – hope for Vietnam, hope for Afghanistan, hope for mankind. We are not the masters of the future. But we have a calling to help make this a better future.

Therefore we have not seen great evil deeds in vain, nor have we suffered gratuitously. There is a reason for all this, and the reason is that we are able to tell future generations what really happened, regardless of the many lies that are being told about Vietnam over and over again.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 55 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology & Public Life in Capistrano Beach, Calif.