Despite intimidation from state security and even reports of assault, hundreds of people attended a commemoration ceremony in southeast Vietnam for John Baptist Ngo Dinh Diem, the former South Vietnamese leader who was assassinated during a CIA-backed coup in 1963. More than 200 people attended a special Mass near Diem's tomb in the public cemetery of Lai Thieu in Binh Duong province on Nov. 1. The Mass marked the 54th death anniversary of Diem, a Catholic and a controversial politician during turbulent times. Church sources said police locked the cemetery's gates to try and keep people from the event. People had to creep under the iron fence to get inside, they said. Sources said plainclothes security officers watched, took photos and videoed participants at the ceremony and used loudspeakers to play music to disturb proceedings. Anna Nguyen Huyen Trang, a Catholic reporter who works for the Redemptorist-run Good News for the Poor
, said she was assaulted and injured. "After the Mass, a group of people badly beat me on my head and face," said Trang. "Some participants rescued me from the attack." Sources said unidentified individuals also threw stones at cars carrying people and priests from the event. Remembering Diem
Father Vincent Pham Trung Thanh, former Redemptorist provincial superior in Vietnam
, and five other priests, concelebrated Mass. Before the Mass, Redemptorist Father Anthony Le Ngoc Thanh called on people to "pray for President Diem, his brothers and all those who died in unjust and bloody wars in the country." The priest also called on participants to "appeal to God to heal the wounds and sufferings of those who remain and those who spread hatred towards one another." Some Redemptorist priests have celebrated Diem's death anniversary at his tomb for the past five years. Diem became prime minister in 1954 and was made president of South Vietnam the following year. He is remembered by Catholics for helping millions of people who escaped persecution in North Vietnam. After the communists came to power in the north in 1954, an estimated 750,000 Catholics migrated south, ballooning the population. Under Diem, Catholics held officer positions at double the rate of the rest of the population, according to historian Anthony James Joes. After the migration, as many as one in seven in Saigon were Catholic
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Diem's rule was also seen as controversial by many. He was accused of being a dictator, of practicing nepotism and for persecuting Buddhists, especially in the summer of 1963 just months before his assassination. Diem was viewed as having a tendency to promote Catholicism at the expense of Buddhism which many believed became his undoing. Diem and his brother Jacob Ngo Dinh Nhu, who served as an adviser, were assassinated in a CIA-backed military coup in Saigon on Nov. 2, 1963. After his death, South Vietnam was further thrown into political chaos and U.S. military involvement in the country increased. Diem was seen by the U.S. as an obstacle to its objectives in Southeast Asia. One of Diem's eight siblings was the late Archbishop Pierre Martin Ngo Dinh Thuc of Hue. His nephew was the late Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan
, who was kept in solitary confinement for 13 years by the communists.