Behind a thin veil of smoke rising from an incense pot, the portrait of a man in a turban and traditional silk Vietnamese tunic stared out at more than 1,000 Vietnamese attendants at St. Barbara's Roman Catholic Church on Saturday.
At 1 p.m., a procession came toward the altar from the back of the church--first three men in gray Western suits carrying a cross and two candles, then eight elderly men in black turbans and traditional green tunics over white trousers, and finally the six priests in white robes.
The procession began a service to honor all who had died while fighting for Vietnam and the man in the portrait, Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic who was South Vietnam's first president. Born in 1901, he was assassinated Nov. 2, 1963, by a group of his army generals who seized the South Vietnamese government.
"We give offerings to pray to those who have fallen, so they will . . . help us and our children in regaining our beautiful native land," Tuong Van Cao said in an opening speech. He is a member of the Nationalist Vietnamese Overseas Mutual Assn., a county-based group that organized the service.
"When we return to the motherland, Vietnam, we must build a memorial monument for all the heroes, among them the reputable Ngo Dinh Diem," Cao said from the sanctuary.
Next to the church's altar, a separate altar was set up for Diem, decorated with his portrait, red candles and flowers.
The ceremony has been observed ever since Diem's death. After 1975, when South Vietnam surrendered to Communist rule, Vietnamese emigres here continued the tradition.
This year, the ceremony drew such a large crowd that several dozen people stood in the aisles.
The service was especially inspirational to exiled Vietnamese now because Washington recently held out hope of normalizing relations with the Hanoi government, organizers said. Vietnamese in America hope normalization will bring freedom to relatives in their native land, while also raising its standard of living.
Speakers and priests retold events of Diem's life during the service and encouraged those attending to unite to continue his legacy.
Born in central Vietnam, Diem worked in the 1940s to free his country from the French and also opposed Communist control. In 1954, Communist-led rebels defeated French forces in Vietnam. The nation was divided into two parts, with the north controlled by Ho Chi Minh's Communist forces and the south by Emperor Bao Dai, who appointed Diem as his prime minister. A year later, South Vietnamese citizens elected Diem president, and he formed the Republic of Vietnam.
As Viet Cong attacks on the south increased during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the president and his family turned more and more to undemocratic policies to combat the Communists, which drew criticism. In 1962, Diem declared a national emergency, in which he established a curfew, censored the press and installed other restrictions.
Some say his restrictive rule led to his death. Others, such as Cao, say there was another reason.
"The powerful allied nation (America) wanted to deploy its massive army on Vietnam's land," he said in his speech. "President Ngo Dinh Diem did not want to turn the country into an occupied land, which would then lose its standing in the international community as well as among its citizens.
"But Vietnam was seen as a part of the card game in Asia, and President Ngo Dinh Diem as an obstacle (who) needed to be destroyed in the international powers' plan. Therefore, the president of the Republic of Vietnam and his younger brother were sacrificed."
To conclude the ceremony, the chairman of the organizing committee urged those present to help rebuild the nation when the time comes.
"The world is turning toward a new cycle," said Vy Xuan Cao, also a member of the mutual association. "The dawn of a new order is rising. The fate of our native land now lies in your hands, in our hands, the Vietnamese inside the homeland and those living overseas."
After the ceremony, which lasted more than an hour, the crowd gathered at a reception in the parish hall. Around tables loaded with roasted pig, sweet rice and other Vietnamese delicacies, many said this year's ceremony had a record-breaking attendance.
Some had come from San Diego, San Francisco and as far as Boston, Vy Xuan Cao said.