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.